On a sunny afternoon last month, two dozen people gathered at the council office in a south Indian village to protest against a new ethanol plant they say is polluting their backyard.
Over a year ago, locals were alarmed when they saw construction begin on the government-sanctioned grain distillery on a vacant plot about a kilometer away from their homes.
Touted as a green fuel and a solution to cut tailpipe emissions from vehicles when blended with gasoline, ethanol — a biofuel — is key to India’s action to tackle climate change.
However, the residents of Chittanur village in Telangana state say they are not ready to pay for the national clean energy drive with their health.
In September, the plant started operating for a trial period. Villagers told Context that, despite claiming to be a zero liquid discharge (ZLD) facility, it had released hazardous effluent in the stream running near the village.
Effluent discharged by distilleries can contain acids and heavy metals, which if untreated can harm soil fertility, aquatic life and human health, according to Indian researchers.
The stream is an essential source of water for surrounding villages. Local people said a child fell seriously ill after swimming in contaminated water while adults who came into contact with it developed skin rashes.
“The government might reduce pollution by blending ethanol, but the hidden cost is the pollution that locals like us face wherever its ethanol is produced,” said Sugunakar Reddy, a village resident who works in the IT industry in Hyderabad.
TO NO AVAIL
Reddy said inhabitants had repeatedly complained about the ethanol plant to the district administration and pollution control bodies, but to no avail.
Jurala Organic Farms and Agro Industries, the company that owns the plant near Chittanur, did not respond to questions about its operations.
Once fully functional, the distillery is to use food crops like rice to produce 800,000 liters of ethanol daily to be sold to Indian gasoline retailers.
Many countries around the world, from the US to Indonesia and Brazil, blend biofuels with gasoline to reduce their fossil-fuel import burden and curb climate-heating emissions from the transport sector.
Starting from the early 2000s, India used sugarcane to ramp up ethanol production to 4 billion liters annually to meet a target of blending 10 percent ethanol into gasoline.
In addition, about five years ago, it decided to harness food crops — rice and maize — to increase production for a higher 20 percent blend target that took effect in 2021, requiring 12 billion liters of ethanol each year.
Since 2020, the government has approved nearly 200 new grain-based distilleries, nine of them sited in Telangana.
It has eased the way for such facilities by weakening regulations to exempt them from public hearings before getting environmental clearance, offering financial support and putting in place long-term purchase agreements for their output.
The biofuel push has seen experts flag the risks of increased pollution impacts and warn that over-use of crops for ethanol production could threaten food security for the poor and hurt a sector already hit by climate change.
India’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, which also steers biofuel policy, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Chittanur protests, which started a year ago, foreshadow the risk of local conflicts erupting in other areas with ethanol distilleries.
Farmer Vakiti Ramanji said residents found out that the Chittanur plant had been given the green light without public consultation, triggering demonstrations and a village council resolution against it.
Locals fear toxic effluent from the plant could contaminate groundwater in the future. “This will have scary outcomes for our health and the crops we grow,” Ramanji said.
After they raised objections, residents said the plant’s operator started taking effluent out in tankers and releasing it on the roadside, sparking angry protests and clashes between villagers and police which led to many arrests in October.
Locals are also worried about how ethanol production will affect their food and water supplies in a drought-prone region.
Farmer Puttapalli Murli said producing one liter of ethanol takes three kilos of rice and six liters of water.
While the ethanol company has been given permission by the government to take water from a nearby dam, farmers are not getting enough for their irrigation needs, he added.
According to government data, sugarcane and rice use up to 70 percent of India’s irrigation water.
Murli said the plant had promised to buy rice directly from villagers but the government is already selling subsidized rice from public stocks to ethanol producers, undercutting farmers.
The Food Corporation of India, which maintains national food stocks, released 2.5 million tonnes of rice to 100 distilleries from March 2020 to July 2023, according to data requested by Context.
The body is also responsible for allocating rice and wheat to India’s public food distribution system for the poor.
With India ranking 111 out of 125 countries in this year’s Global Hunger Index, the national policy of diverting food crops for ethanol has been criticized by experts.
“The use of rice for food should be prioritized over its use as fuel,” Siraj Hussain, a former Indian agriculture secretary, and agricultural economist Shweta Saini wrote in an opinion piece published in June by online news platform The Wire.
In August, the government stopped releasing subsidized rice for ethanol production amid concerns over depleting stocks, but the halt may only be temporary, according to Indian media.
Promit Mookherjee, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank, said the government should not set an ambitious biofuels target and then make changes to the “fragile” agriculture sector to achieve it.
Instead it should assess how much ethanol can be produced sustainably from existing farmland and then seek other efficient ways to boost ethanol production, he said.
Incentivizing farmers to grow feedstock for ethanol will deter them from diversifying into new crops and cultivation methods needed to adapt to climate change, while the policy could increase planet-heating emissions from land-use change, he added.
A 2022 study published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences in the US — which produces most of its ethanol from corn — found that expanding crop production for biofuel intensified the use of fertilizer and water.
This resulted in the carbon footprint of corn-based ethanol being “no less than gasoline and likely at least 24 percent higher,” the researchers wrote.
While using food crops to produce ethanol — known as “first-generation” biofuel — is easier, technology now allows the use of agricultural waste to produce “second-generation” ethanol.
Several companies have successfully demonstrated this new method in India but are struggling to scale it up, Mookherjee said, calling for a government roadmap for sustainable ethanol production.
In the meantime, Chittanur residents are refusing to be pushed aside in the race to hit national biofuel targets.
“Everyone tells us that this plant is for the development of India,” IT worker Reddy said. “Is our village, our farmers not a part of India? Do we not have the right to live a healthy life?”
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