One evening in early 1999, Dr.Udipi Shrinivasa from the
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore was having tea with some locals
in Kagganahalli village. He had for some years been investigating
various strategies that would sustain continuous economic development of
this semi - arid area.
"Oh there is nothing much here," a villager
was saying. "No river, no wells, no electricity; just hundreds of
Honge trees and tonnes of seeds. Not much use now. Our grandparents used
the uneatable oil for lamps!"
Dr.Shrinivasa perked up! Useless? If it can burn in
lamps, it can surely run diesel engines. After all Rudolf Diesel used
peanut oil to run the first ever diesel engine.
The adventure begins:
Back in the Institute, he quickly extracted some oil,
poured it into an engine and started it. Of course it ran! And ran well
"It was a sobering moment," he says.
"Here we were,- all scientists- looking at technical solutions like
windmills, gasifiers, solar panels and methane generators for rural
India, and we had not made the obvious connection with the potential of
non-edible oils known from Vedic times as fuels."
As he excitedly researched this 'bio-diesel' or
'eco-fuel', astonishing facts and scenarios came tumbling out.
In the 1930s the British Institute of Standards,
Calcutta had examined, over a 10 year period, a series of eleven non
edible oils as potential 'diesels', among them the oil from Pongamia
Pinnata ['Honge' in Kannada]. In 1942, during those dark war years the
prestigious US journal, 'Oil and Power' had in an editorial euologised
Honge Oil as technically a fit candidate to generate industrial-strength
The Cinderalla oil:
What happened then?
War was over, oil fields were secure again, everyone
got lazy and the petroleum industry got smart: it pumped out and flooded
the world with fuels, at times cheaper than the cost of water. Honge oil
fell from favour and waited like Cinderalla, for its prince charming.
Even the rural Indian was moving away from remembered traditions:
Kerosene had arrived in Indian villages.
And yet a Honge oil economy did survive in India,
though once removed from direct contact with people. Dr.Shrinivasa
estimates that the size of trade in Honge oil['Karanji' in Hindi and 'Pungai'
in Tamil] controlled by the Bombay commodities market is 1 million
tonnes feeding mostly soap making and lubricants industries. In
Warrangal, Andhra Pradesh, the Azamshahi Textile Mills, set up by the
Nizam of Hyderabad in 1940, generated all the power needs of the factory
using non-edible oils until its recent closure; and it had surplus power
left over for the city's needs!
However the Honge is a much ignored tree now. It grows
on regardless, waiting for its virtues to be re-discovered. It is a
hardy tree that mines water for its needs from 10 metre depths without
competing with other crops. It grows all over the country, from the
coastline to the hill slopes. It needs very little care and cattle do
not browse it. It has a rich leathery evergreen foliage, that is a
wonderful manure. From year-3 it yields pods and production is a mature
average of 160kG per tree per year from year-10, through to its life of
100 years. Ten trees can yield 400 litres of oil, 1200 kg of fertiliser
grade oil cake and 2500kg of biomass as green manure per year.
Dr.Shrinivasa ran through some quick numbers. A litre of
Honge was equivalent in performance to a litre of diesel. If the farmer
collected the seeds free from his land, had it milled and sold the oil
cake at Rs.3 per kG, the cost of oil to him was Rs.4 per litre. [The
cost of diesel is Rs.18 a litre today.] If he bought the seeds at
Rs.3.50 per kilo, the cost was Rs.9 per litre and if he bought the ready
oil from the market it was Rs.20. The potential to drive the rural
economy, make it autonomous and put some cash in its pockets was
"We are mindlessly increasing food grain
production without caring to see how the poor would buy them. That it is
why food rots and people go hungry. If the power and fertiliser needs
are met by Honge, villages would have cash surpluses," says Dr.Shrinivasa.
In fact the opportunity is enormous for the country's
macro-economy too. "...30 million hectare equivalent [planted for
biodiesels] can completely replace the current use of fossil fuels, both
liquid and solid, renewably, at costs India can afford," says Dr. Shrinivasa. Our oil bill is $6 billion a year; we can put a third of that
cash in the hands of rural Indians, have our oil needs met and save the
two thirds. Do we have the land? Sure! Currently about 100 million
hectares are lying waste in India. Cost? About Rs.1000 crores per year
for 20 years and we should become self-sufficient forever in oil.
The idea had to move from paper to the ground.
Two breaks came his way.
The first was from the industry, always quick to spot an
opportunity. Dandeli Ferroalloys [Dandeli Town-581 325, Karnataka]
established in 1955,is a heavy consumer of electricity. Power forms 60%
of their variable costs. P.V.Jose of the company read an early press
release about Dr.Shrinivasa's findings on Honge oil and got in touch with
him. Coordinating with Dr.Shrinivasa, Dandeli converted all five of their
1 megaWatt diesel engines to run on biodiesel. [Jose reported in Feb.,
2001 that they had generated 760,000 kWH of energy entirely from Honge
oil. And they are continuing the usage.]
The second break came from Karnataka's Rural
Development and Panchayat Raj department. A sanctioned fund of Rs. 278
lakhs was allowed to run a Honge oil programme in seven villages around
Dr.Shrinivasa prepared a master plan and has been
executing it at Kagganahalli. The full weight of current scientific arts
was brought to bear on India's rural development. Rs.200,000 was spent
on sourcing satellite images to identify fracture lines and from them,
deep water sources were identified using electrical sensitivity
measurements. 20 bore wells of depths varying from 200' to 300' were
drilled in the project area spread over 40 sq.kM. Submersible pumps were
let into the wells and a project-level 440 volt grid was created to
power the pumps. At the power station two 63 kVA generators stood
waiting for Honge oil. A 20kM network of 3" pipelines was buried
underground with outlets at various farm-heads.
Honge seeds were collected from the project area, taken
to a miller at a nearby town. The only processing done on the oil was to
filter the detritus that could clog the fuel pump. Ramanna, a local
mechanic recruited for the project poured the oil into the engine and
pressed a button.
Energy flowed through the project grid, charged the
pumps and water sprayed out of a rain gun. For the first time ever in
history Kagganahalli witnessed a source of water other than rain.
Brought that too, by the produce of that very land!
Right from the start Dr.Shrinivasa was adamant that
water had to be paid for. "Pamper them and you ruin them," he
believes. Water was priced competitively at Rs2.50 per kLitre. And the
farmers, albeit with some theatrical moans, began to buy. In the last 18
months the fields of Kagganahalli have produced watermelons, mulberry
bushes, sugar cane and grains with a confidence that water was assured.
So far 40,000 kLitres of water has been sold. Not a single litre of
diesel was bought!
Dr.Shrinivasa has his visions fixed wide and far.
For Kagganahalli, he asked himself how the growing
demand for water was going to be met. Thus began the scheme to manage
the watershed. Already a stream has become perennial, charged by
check-dams. Afforestation of the Huliyurdurga hill nearby has seen small
game arrive. Tree plantation programme grows apace. Cash incomes from
seed collection and wage work opportunities are beginning to increase.
An information centre will soon be ready at
Huliyurdurga to impart training to groups from other parts of India.
[contact details follow]
For the country as whole, he grows misty with his
vision. "Sir, the economics are compelling," he says. "We
get green cover, environmental rewards, local incomes and nation level
independence. I have not drilled through the finer details. We could
easily put the oil cake through digesters that would yield a rich
fertiliser slurry, methane and drop costs further. The green cover would
induce happy micro-climates and increase water resources. It is all so
Nothing quixotic here. Biodiesel investigation is
serious stuff worldwide [read
more at this link ]. Only in the west the accent has been on
vegetable oils [which are far too valuable in India's kitchens] to run
automobiles. Dr.Shrinivasa's thrust on the other hand, has been to use
non-edible oils to ignite a process of rural enrichment.
Biodiesels have many advantages. They are cheap and
renewable, they disperse profits, are safe to store [due to a high flash
point], need nothing new to be invented to run engines, are kinder on
the engines, have a long shelf life, are biodegradable, release no more
carbon di oxide than the trees originally consumed and have cooler,
clearer exhausts. And to the delight of many investigators the exhaust
from an engine on biodiesel "smells of pop corn and french
Why do they bother?:
In N.Viswanath the project has a passionate evangelist.
An engineer by training, he is an able media activist. Suparna Diwakar
is a bubbly consultant. And Dr.Shrinivasa is
the unassuming leader of few words with an unassailable conviction.
Yet some 30 years ago he grew up in a modest family of
fishermen in a small town called Udipi. It was even smaller then than
now. The first hop out of his town was into the new institute of
technology at Chennai. Since then, a life in academe. Why should he
bother beyond the routine of a withdrawn family centred life? He is
obviously not personally affluent and yet he dreams of riches for India.
How come this supposedly feeble land produces people like him.
He and his team are a part of the little known good
news about India. If you suspend your cynicism you will find them here
and there. Not too many but enough.
Dept. of Mechanical Engineering