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After much hype, Jatropha bubble bursts
By Devinder Sharma

Projected as the crop of the future, Jatropha was pushed by the industry and the governments with equal force. However, much to the disappointment of the farmers and misery to the poor and hungry, the alternative fuel crop has failed to fulfil the expectations of the world.


Former President APJ Abdul Kalam had extolled its virtues as a bio-fuel crop. Planning Commission had made futuristic projections, and several agricultural universities had come out with package-of-practices for its production in wastelands. Some State governments had even set up separate bio-fuel commissions to promote the crop. It was considered to be a dream crop for farmers as well for replacing petrol.

The dream has however gone bust.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has in a special report categorically debunked the claims, and has warned against the hype and half-truths around jatropha, the oil seed plant touted as a major potential source of bio-fuels. “Although there have been increasing investments and policy decisions concerning the use of jatropha as an oil crop, they have been based on little evidence-based information,” the report said.

The dream was oiled on hype, and of course business interests. The Planning Commission triggered it, and like much of what it does, it actually relied on industrial projections without ascertaining whether bio-fuels could actually be produced on a scale to make any significant contribution to the country's ever growing fuel needs.

The FAO in a special report has warned against the hype and half-truths around jatropha, the oil seed plant touted as a major potential source of bio-fuels.

In April 2003, the Planning Commission had initiated a proposal calling for a major multi-dimensional programme seeking to replace 20 per cent of country's diesel requirement. In March 2004, the first instalment of Rs 800-crore for the National Programme on Jatropha was released to ‘support cultivation of jatropha in 200,000 hectares’. Under the programme, a total allocation of Rs 1500-crore to cover 400,000 hectares was envisaged for the next five years.

A total of 13 million hectares had to be brought under jatropha plantations by 2013.

European companies had meanwhile taken millions of acres of land out of food production in Africa, Central America and Asia to grow bio-fuels for transport. According to a report by Action Aid, the land diversion from food to fuel by EU companies alone could have been responsible for 100 million more hungry people, increased prices and landlessness. To meet the 10 per cent target envisaged by EU, the total land area directly required to grow industrial bio-fuels in developing countries could reach 17.5 m hectares, over half the size of Italy.

Interestingly, the entire hype was created on the basis of industrial claims. The industries were more interested in land grab, as is now becoming evident. In India, lakhs of acres of land has already been purchased by private companies at almost throwaway prices. Companies like D1 Oils, the London-listed bio-fuels company, which has planted about 257,000 hectares of jatropha, mainly in India, moved in early.

Newspaper reports say that farmers feel they have been cheated. This is what The Independent (Feb 15, 2010) wrote: “In India, forecasted annual yields of three to five tonnes of seeds per hectare have been scaled back to 1.8 to two tonnes. It quoted Raju Sona, a farmer in north-east India who gave up land that usually produces vegetables to grow jatropha. “No one will buy jatropha. People said if you have a plantation then surely you have a good market. But we didn't see such a market. I threw the seeds away.”

According to a report by Action Aid, the land diversion from food to fuel by EU companies alone could have been responsible for 100 million more hungry people, increased prices and landlessness.

The FAO punctures the argument that growing jatropha utilizes marginal lands effectively. The level of economic returns needed to secure private sector investment “may not be attainable on degraded land” considering better gross margins which can be gained on sugarcane and oil palm plantations. It was not as if this was not known. But governments all over, including India, were simply influenced by private companies and the consultancy firms.

To know about the potential of jatropha plants as bio-fuel, I had travelled sometimes back to the Directorate of Oilseeds Research in Hyderabad, a premier research centre of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. Talking to scientists, what I learnt was simply shocking. For many years, they did research on the potential of jatropha, but had abandoned the research project few years ago. The conclusion: it was not a plant suitable for India.

And yet, the Planning Commission launched a kind of a national mission on jatropha. Since the dream has failed, as is evident, shouldn't the Planning Commission be held accountable? After all, it is the tax-payers money that is being squandered, and someone should be held accountable. And what about large tracts of land that the State Governments had transferred to the private companies at a throwaway price? Isn't that another scandal? Shouldn’t that land be taken back?

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

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Feedback /Comments on this article
Hair brained scheme

There are many issues in promoting Jatropha, some which come to mind are its substitution for a food crops and second it being a monoculture and third the bad science and policy that promote it. What's wrong with fuel efficiency, public transportation for the moment and PV and Hydrogen cell for the future. While giving farmers better deals to ensure that they dont fall for such hair brained schemes.

Posted By: Samir
Dated: Thursday, August 05, 2010

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