Bad side of bio-fuel

The buzz around bio-fuels is all about maintaining our current lifestyles with a quick fix. But at who’s expense?

Nair: bio-fuel is theft
Like most something-for-nothing schemes, the arguments for bio-fuel turn out to be flawed on close examination.

Indian Academic K. P. Prabhakaran Nair says “local people will find it harder to satisfy their food and fuel needs” as a result of large-scale bio-crop exploitation. The rural poor will suffer most.

India is a rapidly developing economy whose energy needs are growing as fast as its population. Responding to the global thrust for bio-fuels, the Indian government has promised a bagful of initiatives to encourage large-scale planting of bio-fuel crops, particularly Jatropha.

Without waiting for government support to be spelt out, corporations are already moving in, taking over resources that have traditionally been used by rural communities.

As a result, local people will find it harder to satisfy their food and fuel needs. Once again, it is the rural poor who will bear the cost of the “bio-fuel revolution,” like the “Green Revolution,” while reaping benefits only marginally, at best.


Any talk of energy needs must be qualified by stating that not everyone in the country makes the same demand on the formal energy sector. The people’s needs are as diverse as their situations, and the energy use per person varies vastly. If one visits a rural community in India, two things are striking. One, people’s self-reliance and creativity in using available energy resources to meet their everyday needs. The second is the sheer number of those leading an “off-grid” life (not dependent on grid power. According to available statistics, for more than 86 per cent of Indian population, the basic energy requirements for cooking and lighting are not met by the state. The Government’s policy that encourages corporations to produce bio-fuels will only widen the disparities between the rich and the poor.

Who benefits?

The bulk of the fuel crops is intended to replace petrol, and it is not people in rural communities who are driving the large cars that need the “green fuel”.

In fact, the urban poor throughout India largely use non-motorised transport. These poor people simply do not figure in the current debate on alternative fuels, which is heavily geared towards the motor transport sector and industry.

So, the crucial question is: For whom are the governments in New Delhi and at the State level striving to produce massive crops for bio-energy? Will these fuels improve the standard of living of the very poor people? There is hardly any evidence that they will. Note the following developments.

Daimler-Chrysler, the manufacturer of the famous Mercedes Benz cars, encourages the production of bio-diesel for its prized automobiles. Indian Railways leases its land to Indian Oil Corporation for bio-fuel plantations. Leading cement manufacturer ACC sets up Jatropha and castor tree plantations for energy to run its industry.

The magnitude of these operations contrasts starkly with the smallness of what a local community would need to make its own fuel from bio-resources. As regards the sources for these fuels, the government’s attention is heavily focused on deriving ethanol from biomass, particularly sugar sources.

In 2003, a National Bio-diesel Mission was launched. That year’s report of the Planning Commission’s Committee on Development of Bio-fuels proposed that the proportion of bio-fuels to be mixed with petroleum should be increased from 5 per cent to 20 per cent by 2012.

In 2005, New Delhi actually announced a Bio-diesel Purchase Policy. Though only few are aware of it, this policy was later withdrawn owing to the high cost of ethanol and inadequate supply of raw material.

Several State governments have offered a variety of incentives to promote bio-fuel cultivation in their States, particularly for corporations. In the absence of a coherent Government policy, private initiative is going full steam ahead in such ventures.

That such a “free-for-all” attitude by New Delhi can exacerbate famine is clearly seen in the following instance. In the North-East, corporates are buying up tea estates, which have a ready-made plantation structure, to grow bio-fuels. Jhum lands, where traditional shifting cultivation is practised, have also been penetrated by Jatropha.

This has happened in Mizoram, where the State government signed an agreement with D1 Oils to establish 20,000 hectares of Jatropha. All this is happening in a State that was declared a “disaster area” because of famine in 2007. Traditional staples such as rice and wheat are being replaced by Jatropha. Most of the time, farmers do not have access to complete information about what is going on in their regions.

Disturbing scenario

Green fuel crops are now making their presence felt extensively at a time when small-scale farming is facing a crisis due to problems within the agricultural sector, compounded by the impact of industrialisation. In such a situation, for an already miserable farmer, crops such as Jatropha, which provide an assured return, become the only option rather than a preferred choice.

In reality, neither plantations of bio-fuel crops nor the energy that results from them will offer anything tangible to the small peasants, traditional pastoralists, indigenous people, tribal communities, forest dwellers and urban poor, except a short-term exit route.

Instead of New Delhi rushing headlong into an agro-fuel revolution, it should learn from the experience of such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia, and carry out a sound social audit before embarking on these projects without a second thought.

This is not to suggest that bio-fuel crops have no place in India. But with every wave of “development”, disparities will increase, impacting small and local communities most, not only within the country, but overseas as well.

It is worth remembering that for those private companies that grab land, “clean green energy” may only be a marketing banner. While they claim to be “saving the earth”, they are perhaps really seeking to extend their power and expand their profits. Such expansion is a threat to the survival of the planet and its many voiceless communities.

While bio-fuel makers claim to be “saving the earth”, they are actually extending their power and expanding profits. Such expansion is a threat to the survival of the planet and its many voiceless communities.

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