Telangana: Ethanol Plant in Drought-Prone District Makes Farmers Fearful of Becoming 'Palamuru' Labour Again

Since the company that owns the factory has obfuscated its water needs, agricultural workers worry that water will be diverted from their fields and they will be forced to migrate.

Marikal (Telangana): When farmers S. Surya Prakash and K. Kurmanna saw the concrete canals being laid down at the under-construction ethanol factory near Chittanoor village in Marikal Mandal, Narayanpet district, Telangana, their worst fears were confirmed.

These concrete canals, they believe, will divert their precious agricultural water from the fields to the factory, leaving them in such penury that they will be forced to leave their villages every year to work as ‘Palamuru’ or migrant labour elsewhere in the country.

‘Palamuru’ was the word used by the people of the erstwhile district of Mahaboobnagar to refer to the district. Mahaboobnagar has now been divided into five parts, of which Narayanpet is one. Palamuru had the dubious distinction of being so drought prone that farmers and others had had no option but to work as labour in construction projects across the country.

A section of the crowd protesting the ethanol plant in Chittanoor village in Atmakur town, Narayanpet district, Telangana. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

When the Jurala and Koil Sagar projects came up in 1995 and 2012 respectively, the workers were able to settle back in their villages and farm their fields again.

“But now we face the inevitable prospect of becoming the proverbial Palamuru labour again,” said N.G. Narasimhulu (45), a farmer from Chittanoor village near the ethanol factory.

Local grievances

Narasimhulu, Surya Prakash and Kurmanna are just three of the many farmers from the villages of Chittanoor, Eklaspur and Jinnaram who have been protesting the establishment of the Jurala Organic Farms and Agro Industries Ltd ethanol plant in their neighbourhood. The three villages are about half a kilometre distant from the factory.

N.G. Satyamma, a resident of Chittanoor village, said that the locals were told that cotton and paddy mills would be erected in the company premises. Since only blueberries were being grown on that land, they initially believed it. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

In fact, a total of 14 organisations have combined to agitate against the installation of the plant. While the farmers protest the loss of water for their fields, others protest the environmental damage that will be caused by the factory, while some organisations believe that ethanol is not the eco-saviour it is purported to be and such plants should not be constructed in the first place.

The protests began about a year ago when the company began buying land in the area to set up the plant. Despite the combined agitation however, the plant was commissioned on January 1, 2023, and construction is taking place at such a furious pace that it will be completed in about six months, according to the construction workers.

At a public meeting of the protesters on February 21, 2023, held under the aegis of Chittanoor Ethanol Company Vyatirekha Porata Committee, Surya Prakash from Chittanoor village explained that the land on which the ethanol plant is coming up belongs to Chittanoor.

“The company did not face problems in acquiring much of the land as it was owned by an individual who had bought it over a period of time,” Surya Prakash said. The farmer grows paddy, cotton and red gram in his 25 acres of land and employs labour from other areas of Telangana and said that when the villagers protested the construction of concrete canals, the factory security force attacked them with swords.

P. Kalamma, a resident of Chittanoor village, said they have no objection to the construction of a hospital or other plants useful for agriculture on the company site. She fears that the diversion of water by the company will hit them hard and force them to migrate again. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

According to Kurmanna (57), a farmer from the neighbouring Eklaspur village who has one and a half acres of land, the company has diverted streams like Donu Vampu and Pedda Vampu, which pass through the area and flow into the bigger stream called Manne Vagu, to facilitate an uninterrupted water supply for the ethanol plant. The company is also seeking water from the Koil Sagar lift irrigation project, which does not have the capacity to even fully supply the farmers at this time.

The Donu Vampu and the Pedda Vampu are natural streams which flow during the rainy season and the fields around them serve as their catchment area. It is illegal to divert such streams as they help recharge the water table and the borewells in the area. Yet, the company has laid down concrete canals from these streams to the plant.

The Koil Sagar lift irrigation project is currently the lifeline of the area. The project was planned in 2005, executed from 2006 onwards and completed by 2012. But it does not serve its original purpose. Initially planned to irrigate 50,000 acres, it currently irrigates just about 10,000 acres. It was designed to hold 3.9 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water, but has never held more than 2.15 TMC of water lifted from the Jurala project on the river Krishna. If the Koil Sagar project were to fully benefit the farmers, it would need an injection of an additional Rs 70 to 80 crores for further construction, according to B. Lakshmaiah, a native of Eklaspur village and the all India convenor of Kula Asamanathala Nirmulana Porata Samithi, a participant organisation in the anti-ethanol plant protest.

“Before the Koil Sagar project, just 10% of our village population would remain in place and the rest of us would migrate in search of our livelihoods,” said Narasimhulu. “Even digging borewells did not help.”

M. Venkatrami Reddy (70), said that before the Koil Sagar project, their villages were water starved. But now they grow both kharif and rabi crops. The area is home to over 500 deer and peacocks which used to graze and drink water in the streams which have been diverted to the company premises now. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

The villagers of Eklaspur, who cultivated the 480 acres of land on which the ethanol plant stands, say they have been forced to move 20 to 25 kms away from their village and lease land for their livelihood. At the same time, they face depredations in their fields from the hundreds of deer and peacocks that have been ousted by the ethanol plant. “With the fall in total cultivated land, the deer are grazing on our crops and becoming prey to dogs. They have nowhere to go,” Surya Prakash said.

The villagers also complain that the company has fenced off routes between the villages from Eklaspur to Chittanoor and Jinnaram to Lankala, over which they had enjoyed easement rights for centuries.

Among these grievances, about 13 families claim that they were duped out of their rightful compensation.

Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, the company seems to have ignored the 2004 Supreme Court verdict in the Mekala Pandu case, which said that the compensation paid to farmers who were assigned land from the government for their use over generations must be equal to the compensation paid to private owners of land.

U. Ramachandraiah, a resident of Eklaspur, deployed his tractor for the campaign for 10 days. All the farmers donated to the campaign according to their capacity. Locals say the company gave false affidavits that there are no deer and peacocks in the area. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

According to several farmers whose assigned land was taken over by Jurala Organic Farms and Agro Industries Ltd, they received no notification of the acquisition of their assigned land by the company. If they had, they might have been paid the compensation as per the Supreme Court verdict. Instead, they were made to sign on blank sheets of paper while transferring the land to the company and were paid in cash.

“The company staff took photocopies of the land pass book and Aadhaar card and gave us Rs 46,000 in cash. They initially promised us alternative land in lieu of the land taken from us but haven’t given us a chance to meet them since. Now a concrete road runs on the land they took from us and the remaining land remains fallow,” said K. Rahim, a farmer from Chittanoor village.

Despite denials by the company, K. Rahim bears testimony to the fact that the plant has encroached assigned land in Chittanoor village without paying proper compensation. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

V. Nagesh, another farmer from the village, said that his aunt’s family, who now work as labourers in Hyderabad, were paid just Rs 20,000 for their two acres of assigned land.

“We were apprehensive about seeking compensation as we were under the impression that we don’t have rights over the land,” he added.

Concrete canals constructed and pipelines being laid to divert the Gainikunta Vampu or Pedda Vampu to the factory premises near Chittanoor village of Marikal mandal in the Narayanpet district of Telangana. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Activists are now planning to challenge the company’s forceful acquisition of land in the courts. “The signatures taken from them [the farmers of the assigned land] are invalid,” said Lakshmaiah.

Hidden requirements                     

The villagers’ fears of water problems caused by the ethanol plant are not unfounded. Water from the Manne Vagu, the stream near the Chittanoor factory into which the Donu Vampu and Pedda Vampu streams flow, merges with the Ookachettivagu downstream. The Ramanpadu dam built on this stream serves the drinking water needs of Mahabubnagar, Wanaparthy, Acchampeta and Nagarkurnool towns.

With the company diverting water from the Donu Vampu and Pedda Vampu streams by laying concrete canals into the ponds being dug within the company premises, the farmers are not only apprehensive about lack of water for agricultural needs but also afraid of water pollution.

Those opposing the ethanol project believe that the concrete canals laid towards the Manne Vagu will be used to let out effluents. Though the company claims the factory is zero liquid discharge compliant, meaning it will not pollute the area beyond its premises, the villagers believe otherwise.

The concrete road laid by the company on 20 acres of land assigned to 13 families of Chittanoor village. The company acquired this land without paying the families adequate compensation, thus ignoring a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that the same compensation should be paid to the owners of both assigned lands and private lands. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

The company also claims that it does not intend to use water from Koil Sagar and will draw water from the Jurala project instead. However, the direction in which the pipelines have been laid negates this claim, said K.M. Narender Goud, a villager from Chittanoor and petitioner against the company in the NGT (National Green Tribunal).

“If the company intends to bring water from the Jurala project, they should lay pipelines from there. But instead they have laid the pipelines from the Nagireddypalli pump house, which stores water from Koil Sagar dam,” said Goud.

Even if the company did take water from Jurala, which stores only seven TMC of water rather than the intended 12 TMC, it would come into conflict with the farmers there, said Goud.

“In the rabi season every year, tail end farmers under the project complain about shortage of water,” Goud explained.

The villagers of Eklaspur said the yield of their crops were lower than usual last year because water was not released into the canal. If the ethanol company grabs a bigger share of water, they might have to migrate again, they said. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Last year, the government stopped the flow of water to the canal which takes water from the Nagireddypalli pumphouse (which stores water from the Jurala dam) to the Koil Sagar project on the assumption that there would be enough water in the area owing to good rains.

“I got just nine quintals of cotton instead of the normally expected 15 to 16 quintals yield because of this,” said Kurmanna. If water pollution is added to a fall in the availability of water, it would be a double whammy for the farmers, he added.

The pipeline laid along the embankment of the canal which carries water from the Jurala dam to the Koil Sagar project. M. Harish Kumar Reddy, a ward member in the Chittanoor village, said the company closed ducts which supplied water to their fields while laying the pipeline. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Since the company was given permission by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to commission the ethanol plant under the B2 category, it was exempt from holding the mandatory public hearing. But a 15-megawatt coal power plant is also coming up on the premises of the ethanol plant sans a public hearing, though holding one is mandatory for any plant above the five megawatt capacity.

According to Lakshmaiah, the company originally sought 0.09 TMC of water, but received sanction for 0.0309 TMC. This volume of water is not enough for the kind of production it is aiming for, he said.

“The company had proposed the allocation of 8.5 litres of water to produce one litre of ethanol, but the ministry has sanctioned only four litres of water. So how they will manage is the big question,” said Lakshmaiah. “They will use more water than they will officially claim to use. What is the guaranteed utility figure given by the technology supplier? As a public hearing has not been held, none of these things have been disclosed.”

K. Kurmanna (57), a farmer from Eklaspur village, said he got just nine quintals of cotton last year rather than the expected 15 to 16 quintals as water was not let into the Koil Sagar project. He fears a repetition of these losses if the ethanol company grabs a bigger share of water after it starts production. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Producing one litre of ethanol requires 2.22 kilos of rice or corn and four litres of water. The plant seeks to produce six lakh litres of ethanol, so it would need 24 lakh litres of water per day. With the plant expected to run for 330 days a year, it will need 0.033 TMC per year. Now, with a power plant on the premises, the company is likely to use a lot more water unofficially, which would be easy in a system that already lacks checks and balances.

While seeking environmental clearances, the company stated that it needs one TMC of water. Because Koil Sagar is dependent on back waters which are available only during floods, the company will need to store the water inside the premises and also divert natural streams for production.

The villagers also suspect that deep underground wells have been dug in the ethanol plant’s premises. This cannot be independently verified as access to the site is denied. But the company has openly laid pipelines on public land on the banks of canals. Though the villagers brought this to the notice of government officials via an application on December 23, 2022, no action has been taken against the company, said Lakshmaiah.

One of the huge pits in the company premises that will store water and sludge. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Jurala Organic has further sought permission for the establishment of a synthetic organic chemicals manufacturing unit in the premises, permission for which is yet to be granted. Despite this, construction has already started on the unit and is proceeding at a brisk pace. How much water will be required to run this unit is yet to be determined.

Hard-won gains

During the February 21 meet against the ethanol plant, Raghavachari of the Palamuru Adhyayana Vedika said, “The lift irrigation projects like Koil Sagar, Nettampadu, Kalwakurthy and Bhima were taken up after we started movements establishing the link between large scale migration and lack of water. Farmers were digging borewells up to even 500 to 800 feet at many places because of lack of water. The government put off taking up these projects, but did so after the success of the Alimineti Madhava Reddy lift irrigation project in Nalgonda district. These hard-won gains are being now given away to facilitate pollution-causing industries in the entire erstwhile Mahaboobnagar district.”

According to the villagers, even the sarpanches and other elected public representatives refuse to take up the matter.

The villagers said that pipelines have been laid along the embankment of the stream to let out effluents from the factory. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

The meet on February 21 was the culmination of a 10 day long padayatra (foot march) by the protesters to spread awareness of their grievances across 54 villages from Chittanoor to Atmakur near Ramanpadu village. The padayatra began after a round table meet with 600 intellectuals, people’s organisations, farmers bodies and representatives of political parties in Hyderabad on October 30, 2022.

The October 30 meet brought up more issues regarding the ethanol plant than even the farmers were aware of at the time.

Among the many assertions made in a video message by Kicchennagari Lakshma Reddy, a former Congress party member of the legislative assembly in Telangana and one of the owners of the Jurala company, was the announcement that the company would buy paddy from the farmers in the fields surrounding the ethanol factory and pay them on the spot.

“That is an attempt to hoodwink the farmers to gain acceptance for the project. It is a false claim because the government has been supplying rice to ethanol companies at subsidised prices. This policy, which started in 2018, aims to achieve the targeted 20% blending of petrol with ethanol by 2025,” said K. Babu Rao, a retired scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology.

The embankments of the ponds dug by the ethanol company along the Manne Vagu stream in Chittanoor village. The villagers fear these ponds will become repositories of effluents. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Babu Rao said the ethanol blending programme is neither green, nor sustainable nor even desirable.“We are not comfortable on food security and have earned the dubious distinction of falling in the ranks in the world hunger index from 101 in 2021 to 107 in 2022 out of 121 countries,” he pointed out.

Aside from this, there is no chance of Jurala Organics buying paddy from the farmers at even a minimum price of Rs 35, because that would be uneconomical for the company, Babu Rao continued. The price of ethanol made from rice supplied by the Food Corporation of India is pegged at Rs 56.87. A litre of ethanol requires 2.2 kgs of rice. Even at the government’s price of Rs 20 per kg of rice, the cost per litre amounts to Rs 44 for just rice. With the remaining Rs 12, the company will have to pay electricity charges, processing costs, salaries and other expenses.

“There must be other hidden subsidies to make this industry viable, otherwise these companies cannot earn profits,” said Babu Rao. “The production of ethanol from either sugarcane or rice or maize has not benefitted the farmers so far.”

Fencing raised by the ethanol company has closed the easement routes to the farmers’ fields, said R. Devender Reddy, a farmer in Chittanoor village. The farmers say they may have to detour several kilometres to reach their fields in future. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

The use of sugarcane and rice for the production of ethanol will also harm the crop diversification agenda India desperately requires. The government’s own paper on the roadmap for ethanol blending pegs the irrigation water used by sugarcane and paddy at 70%.

How useful is ethanol?

According to the Institute For Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, matching the distance driven by electric vehicles recharged from one hectare of solar power generation would require ethanol derived from up to 251 hectares of sugar cane or 187 hectares of maize – even accounting for losses from electricity transmission, battery charging and grid storage. The institute thus concludes that manufacturing ethanol is not a judicious use of land as a resource.

A water pond near the ethanol plant in Chittanoor village which the farmers fear will also fall victim to pollution. They also believe they will not be allowed to use this water for irrigation. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Though Jurala Organic claims that the plant will help fight pollution, Babu Rao says, “The residues left in the form of sludge would require a lot of energy to be made into cakes. Though big claims are made about the sale of carbon dioxide by the company, the country already has more than a crore tonnes of the gas used mainly by soft drink companies. All ethanol plants cannot sell the gas. The plant would thus only add to the carbon footprint of the planet.”

Since ethanol cannot be blended with diesel but only with petrol, it will serve just 1.5% of vehicles. With Hyderabad city alone adding two lakh cars per year, the use of petrol is not expected to come down unless the authorities add more public transport. Of the 196 grain-based distilleries approved by the Union government, nine have been approved in Telangana itself.

Jurala Organic had also proposed erecting an alcohol based synthetic chemical plant on the premises of the ethanol plant. But when opposition to the ethanol plant grew, the company stopped talking about it. “This plant will for sure lead to a lot of pollution in the area and deprive farmers of water,” said Babu Rao.

The villagers of Chittanoor fear that if the ethanol company grabs a bigger share of water, they will have to migrate again. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

S. Surya Prakash, a farmer with 25 acres of land in Chittanoor village, said the company deployed private security who wielded swords against the villagers protesting the diversion of water by the ethanol company. Photo: G. Ram Mohan

Meanwhile, the protesters allege that false cases are being foisted by the police on women and youth who undertook the peaceful padayatra just last month.

A questionnaire sent to the director of Jurala Organic Farms and Agro Industries Ltd remains to be answered. This article will be updated should the questionnaire be answered.

G. Ram Mohan is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted on Twitter at @mnirm.