Agriculture

With Palm Oil Expansion, India is Blazing a Trail to a Parched Future

To help the nation minimise its foreign currency expenditure, palm oil is being promoted as the ideal crop – at the cost of our groundwater resources.

India has had a long experience with cash crops. These include sugarcane, rubber, cashew, tea and coffee, coconut etc., all grown with the intention of increasing the farmer’s income. The most recent one, palm oil, though also linked to the country’s economy, has a certain national fervour attached to it – it is to help the nation minimise its foreign currency expenditure.

India is the largest palm oil (Elaeis guineensis) importer today, spending about $10 billion on it in 2015, even more than it spends on importing gold. Gold is more opulent and visible; palm oil is less obvious, hiding in all our essential commodities like soaps and food products, in much of the street food we consume, even mixed with our other edible oils. As a consequence, the Indian ecological and social footprint in Indonesia and Malaysia, from where it imports its palm oil, is enormous.

Worried as we are about saving our foreign exchange, the Union cabinet under Narendra Modi, in April 2017, decided to remove all land ceiling (of 25 hectares (ha)) for the cultivation of palm oil for subsidies, as corporates can get into the venture; the benefits of 100% FDI was an added incentive to lure big-time palm oil giants. All this will happen under the National Mission on Oils and Oil Palm (NMOOP). As palm oil cultivation is not viable unless it is grown in large scale – as is done to disastrous effects in Indonesia and Malaysia – the cabinet also made the provision that:

The waste land/degraded land/cultivable land in the oil palm growing states can be given on lease/rent or bought by private entrepreneurs/ cooperative bodies/ joint ventures for oil palm plantation.

This last statement, coming from the cabinet, may also sound the death knell of all our commons that can be conveniently listed under this category and handed over to the corporate sector. Rural and tribal people who depend on the commons for a multitude of things essential for their livelihood will be increasingly hemmed in by plantations, adding to the already high level of social unrest.

According to 2013 figures, Andhra Pradesh leads in palm oil acreage among the 14 states (including the northeastern states and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) cultivating the crop in the country. Of the 200,000 ha under palm oil, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana) covers 86% of the land. The Department of Oil Palm Research (DOPR) envisions one million ha under oil palm in its VISION 2030 document, and intends to bring in new technologies, hybrids, facilities and subsidies, to motivate farmers and to raise a general awareness among them about the advantages of cultivating oil palm. It further plans to relax restrictions to lure corporates with easy land availability, all to raise the present position of India to be a leading producer of palm oil.

India produces a “dismal” 0.08 million tonnes compared to Indonesia’s 22.2 million tonnes; and India’s productivity per ha was 1.12 tonnes to Indonesia’s 3.87. A film titled The Golden Palm has been made and translated into nine regional languages to facilitate the palm’s popularity in the country. Despite each palm requiring more than 250 litres per day for a good harvest, with a recommended number of 56 palms per acre, only a very passing mention has been made about the irrigation necessary, and the high possibility of water-stress. And not a word is said about the Indo-Malayan rainfall conditions, with an average precipitation of about 2700 mm per annum, under which the palm flourishes.

Palm oil plantations in Malaysia. Credit: Author provided

Indian conditions, leaving out some of the coastal regions, vary a lot between monsoons. Most farmers of cash crops rely heavily on borewells and harvest groundwater for most of their needs. India extracts about 25% of the world’s groundwater, more than the US and China combined, according to the hydrologist Himanshu Kulkarni. He added that the “groundwater supply is 80% to 95% of rural drinking water, 60% to 70% of water used in agriculture and 50% of urban drinking water”. There are no records of how much water is used by industry but that is usually clubbed together with domestic use. Eastern India, in particular, states like Odisha, have better water tables but there too, threats loom large. Estimates show that there are about 40 million borewells in India and a 60% vulnerability of groundwater reserves across the country. Ironically, there is little data available on perennial springs and even less done to preserve them.

Overview of four states in India

A survey of farmers cultivating palm oil was undertaken in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Odisha. It must be mentioned that the surveys were not easy to conduct and that information was not easy to gather. Farmers were suspicious about the field workers and reluctant to speak freely about their experiences. Some farmers were also angry and emotional about their losses in the palm venture and asked us to go away; in fact, they warned us about the risk of such interviews as some farmers may even get violent if they mistook us for palm oil promoters!

These surveys were in select districts, essentially to understand the farmers’ experiences with the crop and the benefits compared to what they cultivated earlier. Some broad pictures did emerge as they seemed to be common across the states: women had little or no role in the farms and were underpaid (as compared to traditional agriculture). All the small farmers involved with palm oil, or even those in the neighbourhood of palm oil plantations, complained about the vanishing grazing lands for the cattle they kept; in particular, some of them also talked about the medicinal or other nutritive forage that their cattle had recourse to earlier, which they now needed to substitute with allopathic medicine from the shops.

Larger farms tended to do better than smaller ones; government subsidies were imperative in the success experienced by some of the palm oil cultivators. Irrigation and chemical fertilizers and pesticides were a part of the system; and nowhere in these states was palm oil a completely rain-fed crop. This last needs mentioning as many of the other crops cultivated by the farmers earlier did get by to a large extent with rainfall, supplemented with additional irrigation. The last three years of drought that Tamil Nadu experienced made many coconut farmers lose their crop as they could not afford to water them. Drought is a part of the climatic pattern and coconuts, compared to palm oil, require about one-third the amount of water for a satisfactory crop.

Each of the states surveyed did throw up some unique features and issues. Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, showed cases of the usurpation of Adivasi lands by non-tribal farmers; in Telangana, farmers went deeper and deeper to harvest groundwater; and the farmers in Tamil Nadu, after an initial period of success, were frustrated enough by the logistics of procurement and payment that many of them reverted to their traditional crops. (A lot of migration of the youth from Chhattisgarh to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are for installing tubewells. These vehicles are fitted with the equipment necessary to bore into the ground and pump out water. Though not verified, this particular migration – on ‘boring-gadis’ – could be linked to palm oil cultivation in these states.)

Some of these problems are structural – like the logistics referred to – and may perhaps be overcome, but a lot of them are deeper and systemic. In a country where groundwater is being sucked up by millions of wells and a crisis about this most precious natural resource looms large, should we not look further than saving foreign exchange? And are there not better ways to go about it?

Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, the farmers visited were from several districts and towns including Trichy, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Mayiladuthurai and Tirunelveli and their experiences with the cultivation of this cash crop are being discussed. Wealthy farmers, with land-holdings of up to 150 acres, had set aside between 30 and 70 acres for palm oil cultivation; the few small holder farmers cultivated between three and seven acres of the crop. On the whole palm oil was seen as an additional income, the farmers already employed in other businesses or with enough lands to set aside some for growing palm oil. All the farmers were well aware of the subsidies available, as also the various fertilizer and pesticide requirements, the amount of water necessary, etc.

The extension workers and field officers from the government and Godrej Agrovet Ltd., and Ruchi Soya were quite effective in providing all the initial support and information. It was, however, in the later stages of the process (seven to ten years) that the problems began to multiply, especially the erratic nature of procurement of the crop and the payments, many of the farmers even reverting to paddy or mixed agriculture or, in one case, to the organic farming he had practised earlier. (All this without the mention of the productive lifespan of a palm which is about 25 years, after which a farmer will need to uproot his crop and replant, and wait for a five-year period for an income again.) Some of the large farmers managed to hold on to the crop but the small-holders were highly stressed and some even unable to make a switch back to what they traditionally cultivated as they were financially compromised.

Several farmers spoke about having uprooted their crop as it became unfeasible – they lost money in keeping a farm that wasn’t yielding enough to harvest – and it is possible that this rejection was a larger affair than admitted. In fact, the DOPR Vision 2030 glosses over this aberration with “So far an area of 1.94 lakh ha was covered under oil palm but only 1.64 lakh ha exists at present as about 30,000 ha were uprooted due to various reasons” of the conditions prevailing in 2010. This statement of the DOPR may hide crucial ailments in the scheme to portray palm oil as the ideal crop.

Coconut plantations in water-stressed Dindigul district; palm oil requires more than twice the amount of water. Credit: Author provided

Much of the oil palm plantations visited in the coastal belts of Tamil Nadu had water tables that were high. However, according to government reports, all the districts visited report high salinity (electrical conductivity more than 3000 μS/cm at 25° C), fluoride and nitrates beyond acceptable limits. On the whole, only landed farmers have benefitted from the palm oil plantations, especially those that had good and sufficient access to water. In almost all cases the farmers have been able to avail of all the subsidies from both the company as well as the government and the benefit of technical advice from the extension officers. However, certain problems have affected all the farmers. These have been:

a. a bad arrangement for the procurement of the harvested fruit and delayed or irregular payments.

b. the long distance between the farms and the processing plant as there is only one processing plant in Ariyalur in Tiruchirapalli district for the entire state; this delay in procurement of the fresh fruit bunches from the farm has led to the bulk of the produce from the farms being used for the production of crude oil fetching lower prices.

c. the increasing expense of wages for farm labourers.

d. the number of male-flowering palms that the farmer did not envisage and hence lost out on the profits. (Research has shown that that male inflorescence is promoted by water-deficit conditions. This point was also mentioned by a farmer in Theni district who cultivated 100 acres of oil palm; he also claimed that 120 litres a day was sufficient for a palm. As in Malaysia and Indonesia, the water conditions vary little through the year, it probably does not alter the sex-ratio of the inflorescences, unlike in the drier conditions of India. The problem of an abundance of male-flowering palms that the farmers face could be related to water stress).

Andhra Pradesh

In Andhra Pradesh, oil palm was earlier cultivated only in the West Godavari, Krishna and East Godavari districts, mainly in the paddy fields. Though AP as a whole has a maximum rainfall within 1200 mm per annum, with some districts having only about 500 mm, oil palm cultivation in these districts has flourished with the rampant harvest of ground water. There was little concern among the farmers that one-fourth of the mandals in the state is water-deficit or with water that is affected with salinity or polluted. The justification of the farmers for the switch from paddy to palm oil is the shortage of available labour, which also makes other crops unfeasible; besides, there was substantial subsidy provided by the government for oil palm cultivation.

In quite recent history, many of the successful farmers looked for lands that were cheaper than in the Krishna and Godavari deltas. Over the years, this led to a slow but steady migration of rich farmers into the three north coastal districts of Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam where the population is predominantly tribal. Apart from cheaper land and labour, the rainfall in two of these districts is higher than that of the coastal districts. By 2014, of the estimated potential of 74,500 ha in these three districts, a total of 20,600 ha had come under palm oil. The social impact that this growth had is best seen in Vishakapatnam’s Madugula mandal.

The accentuation of an older land-alienation process that had begun years ago has come to the fore. This began with the influx of the Kapu, Yadava and Velama people moving into tribal areas and buying off tribal lands and practicing agriculture. On their part, the tribal populations practiced shifting cultivation in the forests and bothered little with settled agriculture on lands allotted to them by the British. Over time, these lands passed over to the non-tribal immigrants. As in the case of Sankaram panchayat mentioned below, the patta lands were sold to the Velama people who cultivated a variety of crops, often with the former owners working as labourers, and a new social dynamic was established.

However, since the 1990s, new waves of migrants (mostly Kamma people from Krishna, Guntur and other districts) entered this region and bought large parcels of lands, mainly for oil palm cultivation. The common method of occupying land is to first buy some land adjacent to a hill, and then slowly move towards the hill. As the land would be notified as ‘hill poromboke’ (Poromboke means government land; such lands are also along rivers and streams) there is no one to object to the encroachments and later the revenue officials are contacted to have the lands “regularised”. There is a case of a member of parliament who bought 100 acres of land in Madugula mandal and appropriated another 150 acres of government land.

Madugula mandal in Visakhapatnam district is at the confluence of non-tribal and tribal areas in this part of Eastern Ghats. Most of the tribal panchayats in the mandal are in the tribal sub-plan area. Though the tribal people here have been demanding inclusion in Schedule V areas they have been ignored and hence face the brunt of the non-tribal population, in particular, the rich (and upper caste) farmers from Guntur, Krishna and Godavari Districts. As mentioned above, these are the farmers who have been migrating to the interior and far-flung locations where the land is cheaper. Most of these farmers have bought hundreds of acres of lands belonging to tribal people, usually with the help of local politicians. The local non-tribal farmers buy only small pieces of lands from the tribal people. The trend has resulted in the tribal people moving further into the uplands, clearing more forests and building new settlements in reserved forest areas. In addition, lands in the control of the revenue department – formerly used as commons by the people – have also been occupied by the rich migrant farmers.

Palm oil seeds. Credit: Flickr/Munir Ahmed

In Madugula mandal, palm oil cultivation began in 1990 on five ha and has now grown to 486 ha, over six panchayats and 25 hamlets. The government incentives for a five acre plot of palm oil are: Rs 65,000 for installing a tubewell and motor; Rs 10,000 for four years; and a 90% subsidy on other expenses like manure, planting material etc. (it is 75% if the land-holding is more than five acres). A repeated complaint on this matter by the tribal people is that they receive no subsidies for their traditional crops, even if they lose their crops due to a bad monsoon.

As each palm requires in the neighbourhood of 250 litres of water each day there are tubewells every four to five ha and most farmers use drip irrigation. Water tables have dropped to 90 ft over the last few years; though there are no records maintained for earlier years the people who had wells in their lands tell us that water was available at 25-30 ft. Farmers who have been traditionally cultivating sugarcane and paddy – both water-intensive crops – also confirm that their harvests have decreased over the years, probably due to the tubewells dug for oil palm. Sugarcane has gone down from 25-30 tonnes to 15-20 tonnes; paddy has dropped from 25 bags to 15 bags an acre.

About 300 families are working in the 486 ha of plantations in Madugula; the women do the lighter work of clearing the dried fronds, spreading fertilizer and weeding and the men are occupied with the harvest, loading the crop in vehicles and operating the irrigation. These lands were earlier used to grow a variety of crops (pulses, millets, maize, various beans and was also a place with a variety of uncultivated foods). Of the 30 farmers in the area in oil palm cultivation, only five are from the region; the rest are migrants. The migrants are able to adopt more easily to the new ideas involved in oil palm cultivation as well as being more influential and able to get their way with the officials and politicians for lands and subsidies. This has resulted in many of the original land owners, usually with smaller holdings, selling out to the rich newcomers and becoming labourers on their own lands. A supressed social tension due to land alienation is obvious when speaking to the Adivasi farmers.

The main problems encountered or caused by the advent and growth of palm oil plantations in Andhra Pradesh are:

a. the yields are high during the monsoon but the prices are low (and conversely the prices are high in summer when the yields are low); some farmers believe that this is a ploy of the processing plant owners who have formed a syndicate

b. small farmers find it unviable to cultivate oil palm and there are cases when they are surrounded by large plantation owners who (perhaps due to their demand for huge amounts of ground water) have affected the crops of small farmers; some small farmers, due to their inability to adapt or convert to oil palm, or access the various subsidies available, have been forced to sell out, ending up as labourers on their own lands

c. there are cases of adivasi villages like Lakshmipeta (Sanakram panchayat) where the 15 families are completely surrounded by oil palm and have no option but to work in the plantations as wage labourers; as most of the lands are under oil palm the tribal people have no access to the commons they used formerly.

Most of the tribal farmers lamented the loss of wild foods that they regularly collected to supplement what they cultivated, and regretted that they were fenced in by oil palm with little or no access to collect NTFPs (non-timber forest products), which included medicine and fuel wood. Most of the tribal people also had cattle which grazed freely in the commons. One farmer mentioned that their cattle were healthier when they could roam about and eat a variety of foods; now, as they are stall-fed, they often fall ill and need to be treated by medicine bought from outside.

Unlike in Tamil Nadu, where the distance of the processing plant and lack of regular procurement proved to be a serious constraint to the farmer, there are three oil palm processing plants established by private companies (Agro Cooperative Corporation, Foods, Fats and Fertilizers, Palmtech and Ruchi Soya) in the districts of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam. The processing capacity of the plants range from one to five lakh tonnes and the companies have buyback arrangements with oil palm farmers in different mandals in the districts.

On an average, 25-30 tonnes of oil palm fruit per hectare can be harvested while the oil content after processing of the fruit is five tonnes per hectare. The estimated average yield of oil palm fruit in the 12,000 hectares in the region is 300,000 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches and 60,000 tonnes of processed oil. The government has been encouraging farmers to grow oil palm as the yields are more than other oil crops; the average life of the plant is 25 years and from the fifth year onwards the plant starts producing matured fruit, generating income for the farmers. From the processing plant the oil is sent to edible oil refineries at Kakinada for further purification. There are several edible oil refineries in Kakinada which refine domestically produced oil from these processing units besides imported crude palm oil from Malaysia.

Telangana

In Telangana, the findings were restricted to the Bhadradri Kothagudem/Khammam zone, where a processing plant is located in Apparaopeta village of Dammapeta mandal. With a capacity of 60 tonnes per hour it is expected to process palm oil cultivated in 30,000 acres across 26 mandals. As far as the facilities for processing is concerned it is clear that Telangana is ahead of other states. Already, in 1986, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government had selected suitable regions of the state for the cultivation of oil palm (with 17 mandals in Khammam district), with the AP OIL Federation initiating a processing plant in Pedavegi near Eluru in 1991. This first plant had a capacity of one tonne/hr. As oil palm cultivation expanded, the plant was upgraded to process two tonnes/hr by 1993 and three tonnes/hr in 1995. As the amount of FFBs increased beyond the capacity of the plant the Federation was forced to use private units for processing and then established a five tonne/hr (expandable to ten tonne/hr) by 2007 in Ashwaraopeta in Khammam district.

Both small and large farmers cultivating between 3-40 acres were interviewed, with experiences of the crop ranging from about 4-5 years to 30 years. Though most of them have shifted to this crop from a variety of other crops (maize, eucalyptus, paddy, tobacco, mango, cashew), they have all used heavy subsidies provided by the government and other federations. Irrigation meant a minimum of two borewells at a 100 feet (done by only one of the 24 farmers); all the rest had dug 250-400 feet for ground water, some of them using three such wells, to irrigate their crops. To run the water-pumping generators machines, the State Electricity Board has provided electricity to the oil palm cultivators on an “out of turn priority” basis.

Other advantages and subsidies include free technical guidance from oil palm experts, including assistance to the farmers for obtaining loans from banks; the supply of quality oil palm seedlings to farmers at subsidised rates; cultivation subsidies at Rs 12,500/ha (usually as fertilizers for a period of four years) with a maximum limit of Rs 75,000/for six ha; and subsidies for drip irrigation at 70% of the cost of the unit to all categories of farmers, with a maximum subsidy limit of Rs 50,000 per beneficiary.

A matter of extreme concern, however, is the ground water scenario in the state. Of the total area (29,98,798 ha), irrigated by ground water is 21,10,959 ha (70.4%). Of the 464 mandals the state also recognises that 42 of them have over-exploited their ground water, eight of them have their ground water in a critical state, and 55 mandals are in a semi-critical state with their groundwater. The department further informed us that there is a dip in groundwater levels by 0.94 metres across the state in the period March 2017-18, with a maximum fall of 4.12 m in Medak district which had a deficit of 24% in rainfall. The subsidies for irrigation – which essentially means harvesting ground water, with richer farmers having deeper wells and many of them having more than two such wells – that the state provides for oil palm cultivation needs to be viewed in this light.

Not to mention the heavy use of fertilizers (that are also subsidized and recommended to the farmers) that leach into the ground and pollute more of the ground water and surface water. Nitrate levels of more than 10 mg/l is considered excessive in drinking water but ground water in all districts of the state show more than 45 mg/l, pointing quite clearly to fertilizer use; other parameters, for fluoride (beyond 1.5 mg/l) and salinity (more than 3000 u cm at 45 deg C) are also higher in Khammam and way beyond acceptable limits for normal use, let alone drinking. It is indeed ironical that the state, while admitting to these grave problems around ground water, also subsidises its unlimited use for a commercial crop like palm oil.  

Odisha

In Odisha the survey was conducted in the Gunupur and Muniguda Blocks of Rayagada district, which is hilly and predominantly inhabited by tribal people, chiefly the Kondhs and the Saora people and their several sub-tribes. Almost all of them live in forested areas, depending on subsistence agriculture and the collection of forest produce that include a large variety of wild foods, especially several species of fish from the numerous streams and rivers. It was recorded that palm oil has now replaced indigenous crops in all the terrain (uplands, lowlands and the swampy grounds along rivers and streams) and has displaced 57 species and varieties of cultivated crops and 80 types of wild forest foods. In many senses, this is the pattern of land conversion towards mono-cropping one notices in Borneo (both Malaysia as well as Indonesia) whose palm oil growth model we in India are trying to replicate.   

Odisha has a long history of cash crops of which oil palm is the latest and perhaps the worst avatar, with each of them contributing their share to the displacement and marginalisation of the tribal population and the usurpation of indigenous commons and forests. Since the 60s the paper industries have made a presence in Rayagada. They have kept an eye open for raw material for their trade and gradually the uplands, especially tracts of 5000 acres or more, giving way to eucalyptus, subabul and casuarina plantations. These were precisely those lands that the tribal people regarded as spaces of ‘food diversity’. These occupations continue to the present day.

In 1936, the first sugar factory was established in the district and much of the naturally irrigated areas came under sugarcane. Farmers from Andhra Pradesh were brought in by the companies concerned; these farmers leased tribal lands at low prices and, when in 1971 when the land settlement happened, they managed to have the record of rights changed to their names. By the end of the ’70s, sugar prices declined, the factories closed and the next crop, cotton, made its appearance. By the mid ’90s a Cotton Board was set up by the district administration and heavy subsidies and market linkages were provided which encouraged farmers from Kerala and Karnataka to join the venture, and more tribal lands were leased out and an even larger amount of land slipped out of tribal hands unnoticed, all in the name of cotton.

Odisha has a long history of cash crops of which oil palm is the latest and perhaps the worst avatar, with each of them contributing their share to the displacement and marginalisation of the tribal population and the usurpation of indigenous commons and forests.

In 1992-93 palm oil cultivation began under the Integrated Scheme for Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Maize (ISOPOM) scheme of the Odisha government. It was initiated on 1,971 ha of which 250 ha was in Rayagada district, the cultivators and sole beneficiaries included those who had acquired tribal lands, the big farmers, and the companies. The situation was similar in 10 other districts (Nabarangpur, Koraput, Bargarh, Dhenkanal, Cuttack, Mayurbhanj, Bhadrak, Balasore, Nayagarh and Sonepur) where the palm oil cultivation was and is being promoted by the state.

The list of subsidies provided for cultivation is long; and the advice offered for the proper cultivation of the palm includes the use of various pesticides and fertilizers. Some of these are: diuron, atrazine, and paraquat. The last one is banned in 32 countries including in the EU and is known to have caused deaths in Rajasthan. Other poisons subsidised and recommended by the state are monocrotophos, highly toxic to birds, even killing those not intended if they eat insects affected with the chemical, and which also pollutes the water causing danger to aquatic animals and plants; and carbaryl, a broad spectrum pesticide that affects the respiratory and the central nervous system.

Conclusion

In the modern world economy, it is not easy to deny the importance of foreign exchange and a self-sufficiency that preserves foreign currency. Yet, to promote it through means that are so obviously detrimental to the already critical natural resources – in this case, water – is courting disaster. India as a whole faces a huge water crisis and the various state ministries dealing with ground water acknowledge as much. There are also independent experts and hydrologists and an abundance of data, including satellite images, which show how critical the water situation in the country is.

India too has its indigenous edible and non-edible oils that have been used traditionally. There has been little sustained effort to promote these oils and oil seeds, nor their collection and proper processing. In many parts of rural India that used such traditional oils until recently, the switch to refined and industry-produced oils has come not because they are better but because local oils have become more difficult to produce as they depend on technologies that are seen as ‘time consuming’ in today’s circumstances.

However, with slight improvements in technology, many of these uncultivated oils seeds could be put to use, without the social and ecological impacts that the “industrialised” production of oil through soya bean, rapeseed, (groundnut) etc., leaves behind. Notably, the native tree-borne oil seeds are part of the landscape with the rural and tribal people of the area having the knowledge about their harvest, storage and processing. Many of the oil seeds were harvested, both for local consumption as well as for trade until quite recently and were an important aspect of their livelihood. The promotion of indigenous oils would also support a larger biodiversity (which most monoculture attempts at oil production destroy), would enhance ground water levels and protect them from pollution, and allow a system of knowledge that actually produced its own oil to continue thriving.

The amount of water that palm oil monocultures require is more than any other crop; the water is usually groundwater, especially in Andhra Pradesh, the largest palm oil producing state. The amount of chemical inputs used as fertilizers and pesticides are also high and inevitably leach into the soil and water bodies: there is no option for the ground water to remain unaffected. It is indeed tragically ironic that our groundwater resources, known to be in a critical state, are allowed to be polluted and exploited for a commodity like foreign exchange. And the state, through a cabinet order, actually promotes this by offering freebies and inviting the corporate sector and industrialists, many of whom have doubtful track records as far as the environment is concerned.

Palm oil is not viable in smaller scales, as seen in the erratic nature of procurement and payment in Tamil Nadu causing farmers to revert to their earlier crops and even uprooting existing palms. Why can we not maintain the variety of edible oils that we have in India and elsewhere, and experience the flavours and tastes of the diversity? Like in Borneo, where there are more than six million ha of oil palm plantations in Sarawak and Sabah alone, forested landscapes will gradually give way to a monotony, at scales unknown in an India that has only experienced Bt cotton and patches of pine and eucalyptus.

What we are up against is a well-planned mission that links the country’s imagined and hyped need for foreign exchange with the removal of restrictions on land ceilings for subsidies and an open invitation to the corporate sector to take over. With a simultaneous dilution of the Forest Rights Act, the questionable and sometimes unlawful use of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAMPA), it seems quite obvious that with palm oil expansion we are blazing a trail to a parched future.

Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.

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