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Bio-fuel for who?

Author: Abhilash Babu
Posted on: Monday, 7th May 2012

“Bio fuel is this marvellous idea that we should make food not in order to eat it but to burn it” – Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved

“We don’t drive cars or tractors. Then why should we grow this useless plant? ” The anger in Sarmibai’s voice was palpable as she recalled the debate around planting Jatropha in her land to generate bio-diesel.

This fiery 38 year old woman, a sarpanch in her Panchayat, is one of the many who fought against the might of the state and private corporations trying to bring in bio-fuel policy into Rajasthan, a state that runs through the western borders of India.

I first met her when Richa, an ActionAid partner in Rajasthan, took us to a community centre about 20 kilometres away from the more popular Abu Road Railway station. Along the newly laid winding roads that lead out of Abu, I was driving an old run down Mahindra Marshal, when she suddenly asked me to pull over.  Making my displeasure clear for interrupting a wonderful encounter behind the wheels, I pulled the brakes.

 “Oh forget that”, Richa consoled me, “You need to meet this woman. We will pick her up from here and visit her home not too far away You are going to be floored, trust me”, she said.

Later on, as I sat across this frail tall woman draped in a blue and red saree, outside her mud hut, I couldn’t but accept that I was indeed floored. Anyone would be. Her husband is paralysed and bed-ridden after a near fatal accident in the hills many years ago. Like many other women in her community, she used to work in the fields and earn a living to sustain a family of six. 

“Most of the families here earn barely Rs. 3000 ($60) a month. That’s hardly anything”. She complained

 In 2007, when the issue of bio diesel came up, she was a ward member in her panchayat.  Later in 2010, she was elected as the Village Sarpanch.

“Sometimes I would work till late night, especially when there is dispute between villagers”.

 I was amused at how a common urban grouse of working till late hours had crept into the villages also.

There was tremendous pressure from the local authorities to start Jatropha plantation in her village. The sarpanch and the Block Development officer of the time had visited a village gathering and tabled the benefits of growing Jatropha. 

“They were promising us a steady income and most importantly rights to land for the women folk here.  They explained that companies would come and buy these seeds from us and our lives would change for good”, she recalled.

“Promise of employment is a regular excuse to grab our lands” an old woman by her side intervened to continue, “My man now walks 20 kilometres everyday to find work. This – after they took away our lands promising jobs”

Richa explained incidents in the past, where on the pretext of promoting business, agricultural lands and village commons were forcefully acquired from this tribal community. “They would call it the Special Economic Zone.”

I turned my attention to Sarmibai again.

“When this proposal came, we told them Jatropha is nothing new to us. We have been using this to cover our fences. It is of no use to anyone.

Children fall sick if they eat the seeds. The cattle can’t eat it, and all that you can make out of it is bio-diesel. But we don’t drive cars or tractors.

So we would rather plant something that’s useful – Corn, Wheat or Pearl Millets.”

She could not hide the irony of growing a plant that is often touted as India’s answer to a growing energy insecurity.

Come to think of it, whose insecurity are we talking about?

The world is again witnessing a renewed call for the production of bio-fuels.  The often touted argument is that this is an eco-friendly choice unlike the fossil fuels. Nobody is denying that. To a great extent that could be right. However, if one takes a step back to scrutinise the method of production of bio-fuels, one would see its direct impact on the rural population.

Here is how. Large tracts of land are cleared to plant Maize or Sugarcane to produce bio-ethanol. There are two sufferers in this process. When you make staple food the source of your fuel, the food prices are meant to grow up. This, in a world where food insecurity has already assumed monstrous proportions. What would that lead to? Food riots, I would say.

That’s not all. The amount of forest that you clear off to plant these staple foods is just another form of deforestation.

Therefore, while using bio-fuels can mean a greener choice, the method of processing the same poses serious questions on its ecological impact.

Now despite all this, the impending question is who are we producing this bio-fuel for? A growingly indifferent urban middle class that tends to ignore the sentiment of a rural fraternity whose lives revolve around agricultural land and grazing land where their livestock are fed? 

I am a part of that group too, though not as indifferent maybe. I too live in the city and fuel my car every day. I would love to have a cheaper and cleaner fuel in my car. But while my ambitions are one thing, it would be important to remember that this is a population we have already left in the lurch in our quest for progress. We have already shrunk their land holdings to a few thousand square meters and that’s the last stray of security these people are holding to. In the name of energy security when we invade them and grab whatever little that remains, it is posing very serious ethical questions to us.  

Let not our quest for convenience and longing for profits, lead us to a point of no return.