India Fills Up on Biofuels
The Equatorial Press Lead Story India's major cities have long slumbered under a haze of air pollution. Now, the Indian government is launching a major push to improve its air quality by calling upon the country's vast agricultural holdings to produce biofuels. With slow public interest and minimal infrastructure investment, can India's government rally its people around the concept? (Photo by Eirik Rief)

By Anil Upadhyaya

India has experienced major environmental damage in the past decades, especially in urban areas. One such damage comes from poor air quality, the result of environmentally unfriendly transport. Though some cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai have attempted successful policy initiatives to combat air pollution, most major urban areas in India have met with little success. In response, the Indian government has combined the country's intensive agriculture with the need for pollution reduction in a major push for biofuels.

As one of the largest sugar producers in the world, India has the capacity to produce alcohol for ethanol from molasses, a major byproduct of the sugar industry. Nevertheless, ethanol use in India is still very low, with very few national projects set up to produce ethanol. The present capacity for ethanol use in the country is 3.2 billion liters per year but the current production only reaches 1.3 billion liters. To encourage the use of ethanol, the Indian government has mandated the use of 5% ethanol-gasoline blends in nine Indian states and four territories. Much of the enthusiasm for ethanol comes from the fact that it has been used successfully in other countries and can be easily blended with gasoline. Ethanol-blended gasoline also reduces dependence on imported oil and avoids toxic substances present in gasoline, such as benzene.

The Indian government is also partnering with states to promote biodiesel. Produced from oil pressed from the seeds of plants or from waste vegetable oil, biodiesel avoids the toxic sulphur compounds found in regular diesel, and its production offers employment opportunities for the rural poor. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, biodiesel refineries are being implemented with funding from the Indian government and a major Indian oil company. This public-private partnership may be an indicator that biofuels will become an important component of the Indian economy in years to come.

Anil Upadhyaya is a journalist based in New Delhi who covers South Asian affairs.