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  Low Road and the high road

India moved a micro-inch closer to a SVO [Straight Vegetable Oil] based bio-diesel economy in the last fortnight. Two new initiatives on two fronts --one closer to the ground and one up in media lit clouds—took place in Delhi.

Project Why run by Ms Anuradha Bakhshi and GoodNewsIndia jointly organised a meet --called ‘Vriksh se Diesel Tak’—on July 31,2003 for landed migrants resident in Delhi’s slums. The thrust of the meeting was to take the promise of SVOs as diesel substitutes directly to the people who can get on with it without waiting for the government to take the lead. So it was more a how-to workshop than a meeting. Lady Catherine Young, wife of Sir Rob Young the British High Commissioner, presided. The nearly 150 strong audience came from many northern states; hearteningly most of them were from Bihar.

Bakshi has pioneered an urban SVO nursery co-operative model in the lanes of Delhi’s Giri Nagar slums.  Saplings are raised in every micro square inch of space available - on roofs, sills, ledges and along lanes. Members of the co-operative will begin to see small incomes by sale of seedlings. They are at the entry point of the bio-diesel food chain.

Prof U Shrinivasa and Mr. Nayeemulla of SuTRA flew in from Bangalore specially for the conference. The Professor made a slide presentation and spoke in simple Hindi to a very attentive audience. Earlier a brief movie was screened in which the rustic audience saw tractors and generators run on Pongamia oil. A comprehensive FAQ in Hindi had been prepared by Bakhshi and distributed free. This was read on the spot and treasured by the audience. It turned out that many had small acreages which they had abandoned because the lands were marginal. They now realised they could plant them with Pongamia Pinnata which needs little water and can deliver profits in cash and kind.

The star speaker of the meet was Mr Govinda Rao, the Ghond tribal of Adilabad, AP featured in the recent GoodNewsIndia story on bio-diesel. He pointed out how in the heart of Delhi people had unreliable power but how, deep in thick jungles their hamlets had reliable power from SVO driven gensets. He was featured briefly on national television along with Prof Shrinivasa.

The hightlight of the meet was a demonstration of a genset run on Pongamia oil. Kirloskars had not only part funded the meet but also brought in a 7.5 kva generator, the same as the nearly 200 that are running in India on SVO. The gathering watched Pongamia oil poured into the tank, but that is not conclusive proof for simple but alert people. Once the engine started they were invited to smell the exhaust. Was it the diesel smell they knew? The widening smiles and vigorous shakes of the head showed they had ‘got it’. Exhausts of engines running on SVO smell more like french-fry shops.

Encouraged by the response to the meet, Bakhshi is now a determined woman. She wishes to take the promise of SVO to the millions in Delhi’s slums who have abandoned their small holdings. As a Pongamia plantation can yield a minimum of Rs. 40,000 per year from the fifth year onwards, many may be persuaded to return to their rural habitats. Of course the SVO promise is valid for wealthy land-owners as well.  Bakhshi is now forming Project Return, where the ‘Return’ stands for Renewable Energy Technologies in Urban Rural Networks. Since the North lags behind the South in realising the SVO potential, Project Return will begin with action around Bihar, UP , MP and Rajasthan. All those wishing to support, fund or join her efforts may write to her at

Within a few days of the ground level meeting of the poor, Daimler Benz announced in Delhi its bio-diesel initiative. The media which had given cinderalla treatment to the earlier meet was now in awe. A German giant had spoken. Dr Mashelkar of the CSIR was shown exchanging an MOU to develop 30 hectares of Jatropha plantations in Orissa and Gujarat. No unknown technologies are involved and the total funding by Germany is but Rs.3 million. But Indian media’s collective euphoria was typical. Nice free publicity for benz everywhere. “You mean to say you can run a Benz on vegetable oils?” asked a news anchor in total awe. Yet over the earlier fortnight Project Why had canvassed the entire media, sent it comprehensive information kits and beseeched them to attend a live demo of an engine actually running on SVO. The media had little time for little people.

But in the spirit of GoodNewsIndia, let us say, ‘never mind; may India win somehow’. Therefore the German grant so gratefully received by the scientific establishment is also welcome. Let us hope the Germans bring in new insights. After all, a Benz running on SVO would indeed awaken somnolent decision makers. In the meantime Anuradha Bakhshi’s Project Return will persevere directly with the poor who in the end have to do India’s physical work. On July 31, they had heard it straight from Prof Shrinivasa and that is enough good news.