<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />India’s Jatropha Tussle<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

The Indian government has welcomed biofuels with open arms. Faced with a rapidly growing economy, the world’s second-largest population and an eye-watering fuel import bill, finding a renewable domestic power source has become a top priority.

The country’s recently-revised national biofuel policy, announced in September 2008, sets out the government’s intentions in black-and-white: to produce 20 per cent of the country’s diesel from crops by 2017, primarily from plantations of jatropha (Jatropha curcas). This means that the oilseed-bearing shrub, already introduced in some states, needs to be planted on an additional 14 million hectares of the country’s so-called ‘wasteland’. This has ignited fierce debate: supporters see the move as the solution to the fuel-versus-food conundrum, while critics are fearful that millions of peasants, who rely on these lands, will lose out.

For whose benefit?

India’s common lands have been under threat for at least the past half-century, with between 25-50 per cent already lost due to population pressure and increasing degradation. Little wonder the proposed jatropha plantations are contentious. “By pursuing the energy security of the few - the middle classes and the rich - we are compromising the livelihood security of the poor,” laments Subrata Singh of FES.

The government has tried to find a win-win solution. In an attempt to help the poor share the rewards of the country’s anticipated biofuel boom, the expansion of jatropha production is taking place through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). Under proposed plans, local communities will be paid to plant, tend and harvest the crop on common land. But critics argue that once jatropha is in the ground, livelihoods will become irrevocably tied to the productivity of the crop and the stability of its market price.

While jatropha supporters point to the crop’s near-magical ability to tolerate harsh, drought-like conditions, others have suggested that official estimates of its productivity on suboptimal land have been exaggerated. If the crop fails to live up to expectations the poor will have traded access to precious land in return for neither food, fodder, fuel, medicine - nor a source of income. “Eventually, planting these areas with biofuels might force people from the land,” continues Singh. “We are concerned they might become ecological refugees and migrate to urban areas for their livelihoods.”