Chhattisgarh has experimented with the idea of using jatropha seeds for biofuel production for years but the ambitious scheme failed due to various reasons including a shortage in seed supply. Putting that behind, the state, which is often considered as India’s rice bowl, is now planning to make biofuel from paddy.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel emphasised that even though jatropha was sown, production did not happen due to the lack of proper management and now paddy is being considered because it has several benefits.

“We procure paddy from farmers,” Baghel told Mongabay-India. “Wherever there are plants, farmers will supply paddy at those points directly. There will be no transportation cost involved. We have already got permission to make biofuel from maize and sugarcane. But the production of these crops is low. The state has decided to buy maize at an MSP so that farmers can be attracted and it can be used to make biofuel.”

Arun Prasad, who is the managing director of Chhattisgarh State Industrial Development Corporation, a nodal agency, for promoting industrial development in the state, said: “The state government has entered into a memorandum of understanding with nine private players and two public companies, the Indian Oil Corporation and the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited.”

“These companies are scouting for suitable lands around six rice hubs and trying to obtain environmental clearances in a few districts for setting up plants to produce biofuel,” Prasad said.

Prasad stressed that the companies are interested in investing in Chhattisgarh because of the assured availability and supply of rice in the state.

Biofuels are an important component of the Indian government’s clean energy plans. India is the world’s third-largest crude oil importer and depends highly on crude oil imports to meet its domestic energy requirements. The National Policy on Biofuels released in 2018 targets to achieve 20% blending of biofuels with fossil fuels by 2030. Currently, the blending of biofuels with fossil fuels stands at just 5% to 6%.

However, even as the Chhattisgarh government is thinking of using the excess paddy suitable for consumption to make biofuel, the question is whether it can impact food security in India where rice is the staple food for a huge population.

Biofuel can also be made from the agave plant, which grows in wastelands and many times is used as a live fence around plantations. Chhattisgarh’s state forest department is promoting agave in a big way in the Bastar region for making ropes and handicrafts from the fibre obtained from its leaves.

In 2020-’21, Chhattisgarh created a record of purchasing over 9.2 million metric tonnes of paddy. Photo credit: Manoj Shukla

Prasad explained that whenever there is excess paddy collection, it has to be lifted by the Food Corporation of India for the central pool but the food corporation has its limitations as well and cannot collect beyond a particular point.

“So, the state government is thinking how best to utilise paddy so that farmers are not impacted and continue getting the minimum support price,” he said. “There is a need to think about value addition from paddy. The Centre is also promoting biofuels to reduce the dependency on fossil fuels and crude oil.”

Baghel explained to Mongabay-India that “the Food Corporation of India does not take the entire amount and the state saves a lot of paddy. That is why there is a need to be permitted to make biofuel from paddy. But the Centre only wants FCI rice to be used for this purpose”.

According to Prasad, Chhattisgarh has added a bio-ethanol component to its common industrial policy. However, the state’s plan of using excess paddy for producing biofuel has to be approved by the federal government.

He said that the Bastar region is suitable for setting up rice-based biofuel plants, and even though biofuel can be made from any type of carbohydrate there should be a regular and assured supply of raw materials.

Problem of plenty

In 2020-’21, Chhattisgarh created a record of purchasing over 9.2 million metric tonnes of paddy.

Sumit Sarkar, the chief executive officer of Chhattisgarh Biofuel Development Authority, told Mongabay-India that the state government has taken a clue from the National Biofuel Policy 2018 which clearly says that surplus foodgrain can be taken up for ethanol production.

“Every year, there is surplus paddy in Chhattisgarh by over 600,000 to a million metric tonnes as the production is huge,” Sarkar informed. “There is still a surplus of one million metric tonnes lying with the state. So, the state government approached the Centre for approval to produce biofuel from surplus paddy. Several rounds of meetings have taken place in this regard.”

The Centre has allowed surplus rice from the Food Corporation of India which can be utilised for biofuel, said OP Banjare, general manager of the Chhattisgarh State Industrial Development Corporation. But Sarkar explained that the Chhattisgarh government has proposed the use of the state’s share of paddy as well. The issue has gained momentum. On June 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a roadmap for ethanol blending in India by 2025.

“In it, the need to expand the raw material feedstock for biofuel has been recognised and so Chhattisgarh’s proposal can be taken up for approval. But the Centre is yet to give a green signal for using the state pool along with the FCI rice,” Sarkar pointed out.

He explained that immediately after milling (no polishing is required), paddy can go in for biofuel production. The husk can be utilised as a cleaner fuel for the boiler for power generation. “There is a second-generation technology which can produce ethanol from any kind of biomass under which husk can also be utilised. But it is costly and not proven yet in India. In future, the husk can be used for biofuel too.”

Rice as biofuel

Seven private investors have signed memorandums of understanding with the state government to make 100 kilolitres per day as the production capacity of paddy. It is estimated that one metric tonne of paddy gives 45 litres of ethanol or biofuel.

Indian Oil Corporation is interested in setting up a rice-to-biofuel plant of 500 kilolitres per day capacity. Among state-based investors, SK Goel, the president of Shri Bajrang Chemical Distillery Limited, has a tie-up with the state government to establish a plant in the Bemetara district.

In the year 2020-’21, Chhattisgarh purchased a record over 9.2 million metric tonnes of paddy. Photo credit: Manoj Shukla

Ashok Mishra, a former government scientist and director of Raipur-based Aakash Laboratories, which is involved in fertilisers, said jatropha was not used as a crop to make biofuel. “It was a borderline crop grown in forests and that is why it failed as there was not enough biomass. However, jatropha can still be used to make ethanol,” he said while adding that the experiment with paddy will be successful as the state has excess produce.

“Paddy has carbohydrate content and anything which has carbohydrate can be used to make ethanol,” he said.

While food policy expert Devinder Sharma pointed out that the food security angle needs to be looked into behind this decision. According to him, the foremost concern should be on how to address food security. Sharma said that as policymakers are thinking of converting paddy into biofuel, it means that eradicating hunger is still low on the priority list.

“India still faces the problem of hunger,” he told Mongabay-India. “It has the largest number of hungry people in the world. Also, if we are using paddy for biofuel, then what kind of diversification are we talking about? It is definitely not something correct as per as policy is concerned.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.