The glow from burning jatropha seed torches has often saved Maruti Chindu from treading on snakes, but now he carefully nurtures them for a use that he never imagined before -- running cars and trucks.
MALEGAON, India The glow from burning jatropha seed torches has often saved Maruti Chindu from treading on snakes, but now he carefully nurtures them for a use that he never imagined before -- running cars and trucks.
On the hilly grasslands of the western state of Maharashtra, near the village of Malegaon, Chindu and his tribe of some 40 men and women busily plant jatropha saplings.
The saplings are expected to bear seed in three to four years, one of dozens of new biodiesel projects being planned by private firms to feed India's galloping energy needs.
Once the trees start bearing seeds, they will continue the yields for the next 30 years without a break.
"When electricity came to our village eight, 10 years ago, everybody just forgot about the jatropha trees," said Chindu. "We could not believe our ears when people offered to pay us to cultivate jatropha trees on our lands."
In anticipation of the rapidly evolving biofuels market, dozens of private firms are contracting villagers to grow the hardy, oil-rich plant in their mostly barren plots of land.
In the past, the tribes -- who have suffered caste discrimination for years in India -- would randomly pluck the fat, green seeds of the jatropha and set them on bamboo spikes to make torches. But now they treat the plant almost reverentially.
When Kalunan Dhurse was fired from his job as a tiffin carrier -- delivering small packages of food to office workers -- in Mumbai three years ago and landed back in his village, he thought it was the end of the road.
"There was no money here at all, except from vegetables and crops grown in small patches," said Dhurse, as he carefully dug out earth around a jatropha sapling. "This has given me a livelihood. We really hope rich people use them in cars."
GLINT IN HORIZON
India plans to replace around five percent of its current 40 million tonnes of annual diesel consumption with jatropha biodiesel within about five years.
Nearly half a dozen states have set aside a total of 1.72 million hectares of land for jatropha cultivation and small quantities of the oil were already being sold to industry.
Although it might take around four years until jatropha fuel is sold at the pump, said a senior government official.
"The market for jatropha oil will be a huge one, whether in India or outside," said Sarju Singh, managing director of UK-based D1 Oils India office, which has contracted farmers in several states to cultivate jatropha.
Singh said the company was open to selling jatropha oil in the international or domestic market.
"We are really bullish about the future of jatropha in India as the climate is perfect and there is plenty of land," he said.
Some analysts say it was a bit too early to judge whether the plant would turn into a goldmine.
"In theory, it looks good because it can be planted on marginal soil and at the same time it can satisfy your needs. But there may be some over-optimism," said Thomas Mielke, a Germany-based edible oils analyst.
He said intensive testing on large plantations about yield and suitability needed to be carried out in test plantations on a nationwide basis before stepping on the accelerator.
India is planning to set up test plantations nationwide from this year, although such tests have been carried out individually by state governments, universities and institutions.
CUTTING BACK ON OIL IMPORTS
Industry officials said the lack of clarity from the government on taxation and pricing could prove to be a bigger stumbling block.
State-run oil firms have not bought much jatropha biodiesel from producers as the cost of production was higher than the government-fixed price of about 25 rupees, or 54 cents per litre.
Jatropha is seen as a good bet for India if it wants to cut back on oil imports that account for 70 percent of its needs.
"We really have taken a calculated risk, though we believe in the future of jatropha," said Avinash Rangnekar, head of Ace Agro, which is cultivating jatropha in Malegaon village.
"We are trying to cut down the risk by combining the cultivation with medicinal plants," said Rangnekar.
The plants yield oils which can be mixed in medicines for treatment of body aches, pains in joints and infections. Extracts of the medicinal plant would be ready for exports in six months, giving a cushion of funds for sustaining jatropha cultivation.
The uncertainty in the plant's biofuel potential is not dimming the buoyant mood among Malegaon's tribes, who for once have money to burn to celebrate an annual festival of their Hindu goddess Versobhai.
"We will pray to the god, have some fun and sit a little peacefully after a long time," said villager Zalendar Mormore.