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Jatropha Cultivation in Bundelkhand

Jatropha curcas, a variety of plant native to South America, which grows as a shrub and matures as a tree after four to five years, has assumed the proportions of a miracle solution to economic problems of backward regions like Bundelkhand.

In many respects, Bundelkhand is indeed ideally suited for large-scale cultivation of the plant. Jatropha curcas grows almost anywhere, including gravelly, sandy and stony soils, and hence is suitable for development of wastelands. Seeds germinate in nine days and the plant's water requirement is low. It can stand long periods of drought and has high resistance to pests. Application of cowdung, available in plenty in Bundelkhand,  increases mortality of saplings and yield.

At the same time, the region's large livestock population poses little threat to the plant: cattle and goats do not much like to eat Jatropha leaves. Birds do not eat the tree's seeds, which can be easily collected after the monsoon.

Jatropha's known and potential benefits are many. Its seeds contain up to 40% oil. Pune-based Jatropha expert Satish Lele, who has an informative website on the subject, estimated that seeds obtained from 1666 trees grown on one hectare (ha) of poor soils would generate around 0.9 tonnes of oil. Seeds can be collected from the third year after plantation, for around 40 years. Oil can be obtained by crushing seeds in traditional expellers; modern expellers will give higher yield. After processing, the oil is used for manufacture of soap, lubricants and dyeing chemicals, and as 'biofuel'.

Blended with diesel (up to 20%), Jatropha biofuel, also called bio-diesel, can be used to run cars, trains, tractors and water pumps driven by diesel engines, with little or no engine modifications. Of relevance in regions like Bundelkhand that have very low electricity coverage, the biofuel can be used to light lamps.

Jatropha oil seed cake, obtained after extracting oil, has potential as an organic fertiliser as also organic pesticide. Various parts of the plant have some medicinal uses.

There is much employment potential. Planting in nurseries, replantation in fields, regular maintenance activities like pruning, and collection of seeds has to be done manually.  Lele estimated that including other activities like weeding and watering, the per hectare employment generation in a jatropha plantation is 263 person-days in the first year, and around 50 person-days in the second year. 

Hence, it is argued in government circles that
Bio-diesel development by itself could become a major poverty alleviation programme for the rural poor apart from providing energy security to the country in general and to the rural areas in particular and upgrading the rural non-farm sector.

Promotion of jatropha cultivation was launched with much enthusiasm in both UP and MP, as in some other states like Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.  In UP, a 'Jetropha Mission' was launched in June 2005, and in 2005-2006, around 5000 acres was brought under cultivation of the plant by farmers.

In a separate initiative, the state forest department planted jatropha in around 2500 acres, in Mirzapur and Mahoba districts, in association with the National Oilseeds & Vegetables Oil Development Board (NOVOD).  Plans for the future are ambitious, and UP Bundelkhand figures prominently in them.

The state government has submitted a proposal to the Planning Commission, for cultivation of jatropha in 2.50 lakh ha of wasteland in Bundelkhand districts, at an estimated cost of Rs 364.99 crore over a period of five years.

Apart from this plan, the state government hopes to encourage farmers to undertake cultivation of jatropha in around 1.23 lakh ha of wastelands in 30 districts of the state, including all UP Bundelkhand districts. District-wise plans have been made, with estimates of wasteland and targets. For 2006-07, the target for each Bundelkhand district was 5000 ha.

Three models of plantation have been proposed:  plantation on plot boundaries (180-200 plants per acre), inter-cropping (625-650 plants per acre) with ginger, turmeric, aloe vera and some other medicinal plans and dense plantation (1000 plants per acre) in dense cropping. Based on NOVOD Board standards, input costs have been calculated as between Rs 1890 to Rs 10,500 per acre, depending on the plantation model. Average income is estimated at Rs 20,000-24,000 per acre per year after the third year.

While cultivation on private land will be at the owner's risk and benefit, cultivation on public lands is proposed to be done through what is called a P4 model, involving people, panchayats, and the private sector in an income-sharing partnership arrangement.

The UP government has entered into a partnership agreement with two private players and the public sector oil giant Bharat Petroleum for production of 'bio-diesel'. AP-based Nandan Biomatrix has been allotted 100 acres of land in Kanpur district for setting up a nursery, a research and development unit and training centre.

Nandan Biomatrix is supposed to provide superior quality plants and other necessary inputs to farmers, through franchisees in 30 districts. The company assures buy-back, along with insurance coverage for input costs and outputs.

The second private sector player in the agreement, Shapoorji Pallonji, a construction company associated with the Tata group, is supposed to set up in Jhansi or Kanpur a unit for transesterification - the process by which jatropha oil is converted to bio-diesel.

Bharat Petroleum will purchase and market the bio-diesel through its retail outlets. The outlets may also be used as centres for collecting seeds from farmers.

In MP, the government appears to be adopting a more cautious approach. The strategy note of the MP Bio Fuel Mission, which appears to be a direct and unacknowledged copy of a Planning Commission document, observed that ecological impacts of planting jatropha on large tracts were not known in India. Hence, 'venturing into any ambitious programme like this should be fraught with circumspection'.  Use of forest lands for jatropha cultivation would affect proposed expansion of forest coverage as jatropha has to be regularly pruned (shortened) for maintaining high yields. 

There was no case for vigorous promotion of jatropha on private lands either. Available data on seed yields and input needs of jatropha were highly varied. Similarly, there were diverse views on the need for irrigation and fertiliser use in Indian conditions. In these circumstances, cost-income projections for large-scale cultivation of jatropha could go haywire. In any case, at current prices, bio-diesel would become price-competitive with fossil-diesel only when exempted from various taxes was granted, the strategy note of MP Bio Fuel Mission observed.

Despite this note of caution, jatropha cultivation began in MP in 2006. As in UP, district-wise targets have been set. Targets for 2007-2008 were lower than in UP, but around 75% of targets were met across the state, and in Bundelkhand's three largest districts.

Jatropha plantation in MP Bundelkhand (2007-2008)

District Plantation target (ha) Actual plantation (ha)
Datia 3140 212
Chhatarpur 5304 3377
Tikamgarh 3370 0
Panna 3750 884
Damoh 3670 2042
Sagar 2000 1597
MP 147954 100987

Source: MP Bio Fuel Mission

At the central government level, jatropha appeared to have lost much support by mid-2008. The Economic Times (August 4, 2008) reported that a proposed national biodiesel mission was shelved even before it took off. The mission was supposed to bring around 4 million ha under biodiesel crops including jatropha and sweet sorghum. The chief reason the mission was abandoned was that there were fears that there would be 'land grab' by private players in the name of biodiesel; the controversy over huge land acquisitions by special economic zones must have weighed on the government's mind.

A more important reason for shelving the projects, which was reportedly voiced by then finance minister P Chidambaram, was that going by trends in other developing countries, promotion of biofuel would lead to reduction in land under foodgrain cultivation and food shortages.

However, business interest in jatropha remained high. According to newspaper reports, Indian Oil Corporation plans to invest Rs 500 crore in jatropha plantation in two years. The company hopes to get 30,000 ha of land for the purpose from the MP government. It had already been 'allocated' 2000 ha, apart from 30,000 ha in Chhattisgarh. Bharat Petroleum hopes to cover 1 million ha of land under jatropha. A multinational joint venture, D1-BP Fuel Crops, hopes to meet in India 30% of its target of 1 million ha under jatropha cultivation across the world in four years.

An upswing in fossil fuel prices would give impetus to these efforts and Bundelkhand's vast stretches of barren land and large number of desperate farmers would be eyed keenly by jatropha businesses.

In the immediate future, the danger is that poor farmers will be lured by exaggerated or bogus claims of profitability. Even a government body like the UP Jetropha Mission has assumed yield of 3.5 to 4 kg of seed per plant in its income calculations, whereas experts like Lele have estimated that in rainfed areas with poor soil, yield would not exceed 2 kg. Dr William D Dar, director general of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT),  has pointed out that despite the crop's potential, 'there is surprisingly little data on commercial yield levels per hectare' (view Dar's article here).

One reason for 'huge variations' in estimations of yield is that jatropha is a highly cross-pollinated crop; each plant is genetically different. There is also wide variation in the oil content of jatropha seed, ranging from 25 to 40%. This could be due to genetic variations or environmental conditions. In Lele's estimation only a density of 1666 plants/ha, with inter-cropping for the first three years, makes commercial sense on poor soils; growing jatropha plants around plot boundaries, as suggested by the UP mission, would be a waste of time and money.

From a long-term perspective, the big danger in regions like Bundelkhand that suffer from high food insecurity, is a large shift from cultivation of cereals and other food crops to jatropha.  As we have already seen, Bundelkhand is ideally suited for cultivation of the crop. One of the biggest development challenges in the region is not that enticing claims made about jatropha will be proven false, but that they will be proven true.

| Agriculture in Bundelkhand | Use of Fertilisers | Use of HYV Seeds | Major and Minor Crops | Production | Yields | Profitability | Survival Practices | Jatropha Cultivation | Suicides |

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