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Farming the wasteland

Assam has drawn up an ambitious plan to cultivate jatropha to boost farmers’ income and produce bio-diesel

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati |
June 17, 2011 3:45:38 am

The Assam government has drafted an ambitious plan to introduce cultivation of jatropha (Jatropha curcas ) to help farmers boost their income,and also to produce bio-diesel.

The state agriculture department last week organised a day-long training workshop for farmers and NGOs working in rural areas to popularise the crop. A Rs 50 lakh scheme to propagate jatropha cultivation on an experimental basis in nine districts —Barpeta,Kokrajhar,Kamrup,Darrang,Sonitpur,Nagaon,Morigaon,Karimganj and Hailakandi — has also been drawn up.

“The government wants to bring about revolutionary changes in agriculture,” Minister for Agriculture,Nilamani Sen Deka,said about the plan to introduce the crop. “While output of rice and other traditional crops has to be increased at an urgent pace,we are also looking at some non-traditional crops to enhance farmers’ income. Jatropha project is a small but significant step towards this goal.”

The agriculture department has identified farmers in each of the nine districts who would cultivate jatropha — called ‘bhot era’ in Assamese — on about 137.4 hectares of land. The department has roped in the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants R&D Centre of the Northeastern Development Finance Corporation (NEDFi) to provide training to the farmers.

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NEDFi in turn has asked APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority,of the Union Ministry of Commerce) to identify prospective buyers for the bio-diesel that would be produced from the crop. “NEDFi has agreed to buy back jatropha seeds for production of bio-diesel at its R&D Centre near Guwahati,apart from providing the entire technical back-up to the farmers,” Deka said.

The farmers chosen for the project would get a grant of Rs 25,000 a hectare and,perhaps most important,buy-back assurance from NEDFi.

Farmers would have to buy seeds or saplings from NEDFi,which has promoted a private farm at Kaliabor in central Assam and also has a farm attached to the R&D Centre at Khetri.

“We are not asking farmers to replace existing crops with jatropha. Land that is lying unutilised,especially cultivable wasteland,which is preferably higher than the rice-growing land,is most suitable for jatropha,” Nripen Medhi,a state agriculture department official,who is coordinating the project,said.

According to estimates made by scientists at NEDFi’s R&D Centre,one jatropha plant yields about four kg of seeds. “With over 1,100 plants growing on a hectare,the farmer is likely to earn a good amount from his crop,” said Dr Moniruddin Ahmed,a scientist at the R&D Centre.

Ahmed added that the seed output per hectare would go up from 1,000 kg in the second year of planting to 2,000 in the third year,3500 kg in the fourth and about 5000 kg in the fifth year. This means the farmer’s income would go up from Rs 5,500 in the second year to Rs 11,000 in the third,Rs 19,000 in the fourth and Rs 27,000 in the fifth.

“Jatropha is fast-growing and requires little care. It grows in poor soil,including sandy soil with low rainfall. It is not a competitor to existing crops. And most important,due to mycorrhizal value of its roots,it helps get phosphate from soil,” Ahmed said.

No surprise then that NEDFi R&D Centre has called jatropha the “most potential species” for cultivable wastelands.

Deka said his ministry was making efforts to encourage the educated unemployed youth from rural areas to take up jatropha cultivation. “The educated rural youth do not want to remain content with traditional crops. Jatropha can be one such crop that can help them enhance their income.” Assam has several lakh educated unemployed youth,most of them from rural farm families.

Interestingly,a number of educated youth in some districts had begun jatropha cultivation some years ago on their own.

Prabhat Das of Puranigudam in Nagaon district started planting jatropha on a 40-hectare plot in 2009.

So did Karuna Bordoloi on a 52 hectare farm near Naharkatiya in Dibrugarh. “If NEDFi assures us of buying the seeds,we have more friends who would cultivate jatropha,” said Bordoloi.

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