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99 Yatra
Will Gajesh reap jatropha he’s sown? Or will his son?
19 September 2006

Not just this Gujarat farmer, even states like Andhra are betting it’s the future

MUMBAI: “Maybe our grand children will enjoy the fruits of our hard work,” says Gajesh V Gada, a small-scale entrepreneur who has ventured to grow jatropha in the wastelands of Mandvi in Kutch.

Gajesh is taking a huge wager on the new wonder crop that holds great promise, but is fraught with huge risks. He has committed 500 acres of land for jatropha in Mandvi, which is perenially starved of water. The crop will start yielding commercially only after five years, and the 40-year-old knows what he is getting into.

It’s akin to the ‘gold rush’ of yore. Similar to what happened during the lawless times in the 19th century, when millions swarmed across the wild west to discover the yellow metal in the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Another stampede is happening, this time, in India.
The seeds of jatropha and pongamia plants, when crushed and processed, can be used as a fuel to run power generators, tractors and other diesel vehicles.
And closer home, scores of entrepreneurs, large and small, are setting up bio-diesel and ethanol plants. It promises to replace ‘black gold’ that forms a large portion of India’s import bill, as laws are framed that will require oil companies to mix bio-fuels with high-speed diesel and ethanol with petrol.

Gajesh’s life doesn’t depend on it. He’s an entreprenuer making automobile components, who would attend Ficci’s second global conference on “Greenfuel”-an eco-friendly, farm-grown next generation fuel.” Many others are planting seedlings or saplings of jatropha and karanj spread across hundreds of acres. The returns of their toil will, if they are lucky, come after five years, when the crop starts yielding and becomes commercially viable. For Gajesh, a kilo of jatropha seeds cost Rs 80, with one acre of land able to grow 1,500 jatropha plants. The plants, if protected and tended well, will last for 40-60 years, he says.

Corporates, too, are in the fray. Preparing for a large play in ‘biofuels’ are scores of large corporates such as Reliance Industries, oil PSUs, Tatas, M&M, and a desperate government trying to put a lid on the growing demand for imported fossil fuels.

There are foreign venture capitalists and foreign technology boutiques who are seen wooing the country. One of the early movers in this bio-fuel farms is the Andhra government. It has flagged off a unique movement, which, if pays off, will be a triumph, as it is will involve the tribals poor farmers with marginal land. The risks are also enormous.
The AP government plans to seed 6 lakh acres with ‘pongamia pinnata’ (Karanj), a better alternative to jatropha, a bio-diesel plant, in Mahbubnagar district.
It will be one of the 13 districts in the state to move to a large scale pongamia cultivation, spurred by government subsidies. “In a humble way, we have started this movement, which will, by 3-4 years, have 50 lakh acres under bio-diesel yielding crops”, says Raghuveera Reddy, minister of agriculture, Andhra Pradesh.

Irena Krasnicka, consul general of the Czech Republic, who’s here to represent Czech business interests, says it is a win-win situation for everyone. Many of these wastelands are prone to Naxalite movement, and by including the poor marginal farmers, the government will bring them closer to progress and national security can be addressed. The central government’s ambitions aren’t small either. Reddy says, Union minister Raghuvansh Prasad has proposed converting 5 crore acres of wasteland in India to grow bio-fuel plants.

Gajesh is clearly heartened by the response. He says there are entrepreneurs who have set plants to process bio-fuel, who are ahead of the times. They have built capacities before the crop can be harvested. The bio-fuel plants are starving now for want of the basic raw material, jatropha seeds, he says.

Renu Lakhsmi Agro Industries, a bio-fuel unit in Coimbatore, needs the feedstock and has already sounded him. Raghuveera Reddy is swamped by prospectors. They include foreign companies, a few consular corps and entrepreneurs, as they want a piece of the action.

There are companies such as Garware Chemicals and Mint Biofuels, which have already set up bio-diesel plants and plans to extend support to marginal farmers through easy loans. If Reddy is to be believed, scores of farmers in AP are switching to pongamia from traditional cash crops such as tobacco, turmeric and red chillies. 

Courtesy - Daily News & Analysis Mumbai, India kutchhis globally , from Mumbai

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