The right blend

Given the huge gap in the availability and requirement of ethanol for blending with petrol, the need to step up its production is indisputable. But the same cannot be said about some of the measures mooted by the government to achieve this objective. The most debatable among these is the permission granted to ethanol manufacturers — mostly sugar mills that produce it from their byproduct molasses — to convert sugarcane juice directly into alcohol and also use surplus sugar and foodgrains, such as wheat, rice and corn, for this purpose. Going a step further, the government has chosen to incentivise the use of these questionable raw materials by fixing relatively higher prices for the ethanol produced from them. 

This move would, obviously, open the doors for the sugar factories to buy sugarcane — and for the farmers to grow it — just for producing biofuel rather than for making sugar from it. Considering that sugarcane, wheat and rice are water guzzlers, besides being input-intensive crops, their use for biofuel production is virtually an invitation to ecological disaster. The true value of the scarce water that goes into the cultivation of these crops cannot be measured in economic terms alone. The social cost of such water use may be far higher than the economic gains from ethanol doping of petrol. Moreover, a land-stressed country like India — where land is hard to find even for infrastructure, industries and other purposes — can ill-afford to use it exclusively for growing biofuel crops. 

Where foodgrains are concerned, though the present glut may give the impression that part of the surplus stocks can safely be diverted to biofuel production, given the rampant malnutrition and hidden hunger in the country, it may be difficult to justify it. In fact, many of the land-rich and industrialised countries, which have gone far ahead in admixing crops-based biofuels with gasoline, are also revising their policies. Studies have revealed that this has distorted the cropping patterns and spiked food prices in those countries. The advisability of clearing forests to grow biofuel crops, as has been happening in Brazil and some other land-surplus nations, has also begun to be challenged by environmentalists. 

Another fact that needs to be kept in view is that India has substantial potential to produce ethanol and other types of biofuels from non-sugarcane and non-food sources that are currently under-exploited, if not wholly untapped. The National Biofuel Policy of 2009, amended in 2018, lists rural and urban garbage, cellulosic and lingo-cellulosic biomass (agricultural dry matter), and crop residues like wheat and rice stubble amongst the suitable raw material for making ethanol. Though such second generation (2G) ethanol turns out to be slightly more expensive than the molasses-based alcohol, it recompenses the additional cost by mitigating the dreadful environmental pollution due to burning of urban wastes and farm residues, including crop stubble. Fortunately, oil marketing companies have reacted favourably to this idea and are already in the process of setting up a dozen 2G ethanol refineries in 11 states. This trend needs further impetus. Promising results have also emerged from the ongoing research and development work on producing ethanol from a non-food and fast-growing bio-source like algae. Such novel technologies hold the key to augmenting supplies of environment-friendly biofuels without any adverse effect on ecology or food security. 

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