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Beyond petroleum

While it is possible to extract biofuels from diverse crops such as sugar, corn, and maize, Indians need to focus on a biofuel programme that best suits our environment, writes Renuka Bisht.

business Updated: Jul 02, 2007 03:05 IST
Renuka Bisht

Cars seem to testify to the wealth of nations as much as of their individual owners. So it is that there are three cars to every four people in the US, while car ownership in India still hovers around just one per cent. We can however take heart from the fact that our automobile industry is now set for a quantum growth.

A caveat: this boom is also going to take a high toll on our health and wealth. Every extra barrel of oil will make it harder and harder to breathe in our cities. Every $1 rise in global oil prices will add at least $425 million to India’s import bill. So, strangely for a country that has lately been shedding its agricultural clothing, it is time for our crops to help out our motors.

Imagine that, moving all the goods and people in the country on indigenous oils, not without added benefits such as: generating jobs for millions of workers, creating capital on our farms, pumping up our treasury, retrenching our energy security, and setting up a brighter, greener future for our children.

While it is possible to extract biofuels from diverse crops such as sugar, corn, and maize, Indians need to focus on a biofuel programme that best suits our environment. Advancing this position, Dilip Chenoy of the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers points out that the size and maturity of our industry does not permit adoption of all alternative technologies simultaneously. Making a focussed selection is essential.

Seeds of hope

A hundred years ago, some sailors brought a strange and hardy weed called jatropha to the Indians, who used it to make soap and medicinal oil, and to ward off pests and cattle from their crops.

In recent years, researchers have shown that the seeds of this humble plant, which can overcome bad soils and drought conditions, can be easily converted into a biodegradable diesel (see graphic below). With half of India’s land suffering from degradation, and 63 million hectares actually classified as wasteland, jatropha plantations can help reverse soil deterioration. And with every hectare generating 110 man-days of work a year, such plantations ought to make the locals happy as well.

The good green scent of jatropha oil has also reached the boardrooms. Daimler-Chrysler India has already completed road trials for biodiesel cars, Mahindra & Mahindra is set to launch its own commercial version, Tata’s company buses have been running on it for a few years now, and Reliance has bought large tracts of land for jatropha cultivation. These investments are in tune with a global corporate turn to biofuels that is tellingly being led by the world’s biggest oil companies, including BP, ExonMobil and Shell. Better placed than most to evaluate exactly how fast the world is running out of fossil fuels, their increasing investments in biofuel R&D should be sending out a clarion call to national policymakers.

Why wait till D-day?

Back in the seventies, global shortages completely eviscerated Brazil’s oil and foreign exchange reserves. After launching an alternative fuel programme on an emergency basis, the first ethanol regime of the world is now subsidy free and rolling in green petrodollars. Brazilians are filling up their tanks at 30 per cent less cost than folks elsewhere and even ethanol’s waste is bringing them joy, delivering goodies ranging from fertilizer to power.

But it took three decades of painstakingly coordinating agriculture, industry and innovation for Brazil to finds its powerhouse footing. Can India afford the same luxury?

When he was still CEO of Halliburton, that granddaddy of oilmen, Dick Cheney said that the world will need 50 million additional barrels by 2010. Combine this with demand outstripping supply by 3 million barrels a day by next year itself, and oil shortages are just around the corner. Add on the second-fastest growing motor industry in the world, and it’s clear that India’s investment in biofuels needs to be stepped upto a war footing.

As the story below shows, this is precisely what the long-awaited National Biofuel Policy should do, comprehensively prepare for a new green revolution.