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Alternative Fuel Dream Remains Elusive

By Author: Jill Clevenger
Total Articles: 29

Spiralling levels of pollution, emanating from the use of fossil fuels, have been a worrying problem across the world in general and India in particular. As our nation grapples with this problem and the aftermath in the form of deteriorating air quality index (AQI), alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and biofuel are yet to provide the clean substitute that one is looking forward to.

In spite of the Government pushing the case of biofuels, the sector has simply not been able to reach the scale that is required to offer a mainstream energy source. The lack of traction for biofuel can be understood by the fact that even after a decade of Government pushing, general public awareness and use is much less than the desired levels.

Last year, on the World Biofuel Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi fuelled a hope that India can save Rs 12,000 crore in foreign exchange in the next four years due to ethanol blending with petrol. This was in the backdrop of the country's crude import Bill that had touched eight lakh crore rupees. Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, too, has been pushing the case for alternative fuels. During a recent visit to Charoda in Chhattisgarh's Durg district, he observed the immense potential of the State for biofuel. This was in reference to India's first biofuel-powered flight from Dehradun to Delhi on August 27, 2018, that used oil from jatropha or Jatropha curcas seeds from Chhattisgarh.

But ground realities tell a different story. Touted amid much hype as 'green gold', Chhattisgarh was supposed to be the hub of biofuel, attaining self-sufficiency in its production and creating at least a million jobs by 2014. None of these came true. Expectations of the local people and environmentalists at large, who hoped for the country's alternate fuel dream to take off, were dashed to the ground to say the least. The Government's ineffective planning seems to be the root cause for the debacle. It had planted jatropha on 20 hectares of land that in turn affected paddy crops as the plantations cut off sunlight and did not let the rice grow.

Both the Centre and States had identified jatropha as the most suitable tree-borne oil seed for biodiesel in view of its ability to thrive under a variety of agro-climatic conditions, low gestation period and higher seed yield. However, this optimism was based on misunderstandings. As jatropha is a resilient crop, it was planted on unproductive soils. Though the plant can survive droughts and infertile soil, it can't produce many seeds under those conditions. To get a good harvest, it needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop. The lack of the same meant that sufficient harvest and scalability became a casualty.

Under the National Biodiesel Mission (NBM), launched in 2009, jatropha and pongamia (Millettia pinnata) were planned on 500,000 hectares of land over a period of five years with a cost of Rs 1,500 crore. Though petroleum companies signed memoranda of understandings with States to establish jatropha on Government-owned wastelands or through contract farming with small and medium farmers, the yield was low. Due to the lack of commercial viability, three oil-marketing companies Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation shut down the joint ventures they had started for jatropha cultivation to manufacture biodiesel.

Alternative fuel dream remains elusive - General public awareness and an image makeover of biofuels will help make it a reality. For more information, visit: https://www.dailypioneer.com/

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