October 17, 2007 (CommodityOnline) – NEW DELHI: India is all set to witness a bio-fuel revolution soon. As part of this, several states have chalked out plans to increase production of bio-fuel.
One major plant, which will decide the success of India’s bio-fuel plans, will be jatropha. Several states have already initiated steps to promote jatropha plantations in barren lands.
Former President Dr Abdul Kalam is a strong advocate of jatropha biodiesel. In a speech in 2006, he said out of the 60 million hectares of wasteland available in India, over 30 million ha are suitable for jatropha cultivation. Recently, the State Bank of India provided a further boost to the cultivation of jatropha by signing a memorandum of understanding with D1 Mohan to give loans totalling Rs 1.3 billion to local farmers in India, to be paid back with the money that D1 Mohan pays for the harvested jatropha seeds.
The Indian Railways have started to use jatropha oil blended with diesel to power its diesel engines with great success.
Many Indian states have already jumped onto the jatropha train, including Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.
Jatropha has been held up as a reliable source of income for India’s poor rural farmers, providing energy self-sufficiency, while reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Several states have distributed plants free of charge to small farmers, encouraging private investment in jatropha plantations and setting up biodiesel processing plants. The ministry of rural development, which is to coordinate the national mission on biofuel when it is approved, estimates that there are already between 500 000 to 600 000 ha of jatropha growing across India.
India is not alone. China claims to have 2 million ha of jatropha under cultivation, and announced plans to plant an additional 11 million across its southern states by 2010. Burma has plans to plant several million ha, and the Philippines, and several African countries have initiated large-scale plantations of their own. So far there are 200000 ha of jatropha in Malawi and 15 000 ha in Zambia, almost all under a formal lease or agreements with the UK-based company D1-Oils.
There are many uncertainties over the potential of jatropha as a biodiesel crop. The plant has never been domesticated. Its yield is not predictable, the conditions for optimum growth is not well defined, and the potential impacts of large-scale cultivation not known.
Chhattisgarh has the most well-developed jatropha biodiesel programme in the country. It has given away 380 million jatropha seedlings to farmers, enough to cover 150 000 ha, and also provided 80 oil presses to various village governing bodies with guarantees to buy back jatropha seeds at 6.5 rupees a kg. Several local micro-refinery businesses have sprung up across the state to provide biodiesel for tractors, irrigation pumps, jeeps and village power generators.
The widespread government support has attracted foreign investments. UK-based D1 Oils, the world’s largest commercial cultivator of jatropha, has around 80,000 hectares in Chhattisgarh and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, with plans for an additional 350000 ha over the next several years. The state government funds jatropha seeds and D1 Oils guarantees to buy the harvested seeds at the price prescribed by the state.
D1 Oils’ Indian operations is focusing on research on yield, and the company is testing a number of jatropha varieties to find which grows best in India’s varied climatic regions. But research remains fragmentary and uncoordinated.
Jatropha curcas is a poisonous scrub weed of the euphorbia family originating in Central America. Among its chief selling point as a bioenergy crop is that it grows in marginal, eroded land, and is resistant to drought. So it is not expected to compete for land that could grow food, nor would it require a lot of water, or fertilisers and pesticides.