Sohan Singh’s children have spent most of their lives hungry, dirty and hot — not out of the way for the family of a farmer in a desert land.
But it just so happens that when the hard little bean that Singh grows, guar, is in short supply around the world these days.
Guar is a modest bean so hard that it can crack teeth, but is an unlikely global player in the struggle of the rich West against its dependence on oil for energy.
When it is ground up, it becomes an essential ingredient for mining oil and natural gas in a process called hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
And since supply is short, guar prices are up — a gain for Singh and a rare victory for the littlest of the little guys in global trade. This part of Rajasthan is buzzing: tractor sales are soaring, land prices are up and weddings have grown more colorful.
“Now we have enough food, and we have a house made of stone,” Singh said proudly.
The fracking boom in the US has led to a surge in natural gas production, a decline in oil imports and a gradual transition away from coal-fired power plants. But “without guar, you cannot have fracturing fluids,” said Michael J Economides, a professor of engineering at the University of Houston who is a fracking expert. “And what everybody is worried about is that there is virtually no guar out there now.”
India produces about 85% of the world’s guar. As worries rose about the prospects for this year’s monsoon, guar speculation built to a frenzy. Trading in guar futures was even suspended, and will not resume till physical supplies are adequate.
Now, an international effort is under way to ensure that guar supplies come closer to meeting the soaring demand, and hundreds of thousands of small farmers here are smiling.
“Whatever they produce, we will buy,” said Sanjay Pareek, vice-president at Vikas WSP, an Indian company that produces guar powders.
Vikas has signed contracts with farmers guaranteeing a return of nearly $800 (R44,000) per acre if they planted guar, no matter what this year’s monsoon brought.
Efforts are on to reduce the dependence on India for guar. “We know there are efforts to grow guar in China, Australia, California and elsewhere, and it has us worried,” said SK Sharma, managing director of Lotus Gums and Chemicals in Jodhpur.
But for now, “There are no easy or cheap alternatives to guar,” as Economides put it.
And Singh and his brethren can get their daughters married in style — or plan foreign trips.
Anticipating a heavy crop, Vikas is more than doubling its processing capacity by building two new plants in Jodhpur. Smaller producers are taking similar steps.
Sohan Singh said he would plant his entire field with guar this year instead of spreading his risk among other crops. His sister Issa Rathore showed off a silver anklet and a toe ring, both bought with guar profits. But asked about this year’s crops, her smile quickly vanished. She glanced at the sky, and the children around her grew hushed. “Will the monsoon be enough this year?” she asked. “Who knows?”
New York Times