THE union government recently approved a new, poorly conceived Rs11,040 crore National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) with an ecologically damaging focus on oil palm plantations in the North-East and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, presumably due to the favourable rainfall and temperature conditions in these regions. The overall mission goal is to bring an additional 6.5 lakh ha (hectares) under oil palm plantation by 2025-26 reaching a total of 1 million ha, with production of Crude Palm Oil (CPO) expected to reach 1.12 mT (million Tonnes) by 2025-26 and 2.8mT by 2029-30. The mission seeks to reduce edible oil imports and boost domestic production of palm oil, which is known to have higher productivity than the usual cultivated oilseeds. The mission’s funding pattern involves support for seed farms, some price support for Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB), viability gap funding etc to benefit farmers and processing industries.
On the face of it, the goal of reducing the huge import bill for edible oils by boosting domestic production is unexceptionable. Edible oil imports were $11 billion (Rs 80,000 cr) last year, constituting around 60 per cent of domestic consumption, and around half of the 13.5mT edible oil imported was palm oil. (A dip in imports seen during the pandemic years are likely attributable to a drop in consumption and a rise in global and domestic prices.)
However, the Mission’s thrust towards the ecologically fragile, bio-diversity hotspots of the NE and the A&N Islands is highly problematic. It is believed that 3.25 lakh hectares or half the total acreage planned will be in the NE and A&N Islands, and the remaining in other parts of the country, with large chunks in the irrigated tracts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, the mission goals and targets as currently stated are based on many questionable assumptions made without reference to experience of past efforts at oil palm cultivation.
Oil palm plantations, especially in the world’s major producing areas of Indonesia and Malaysia, are well known for being major drivers of biodiversity loss and damage to endangered and vulnerable species, obviously linked to the deforestation that has accompanied these plantations in South East Asia and Africa. Mission advocates may argue that forest lands are not being targeted in India, but deforestation including clearing of grasslands would definitely be involved in the Andamans, as is known from experience of the earlier plantations there in the mid-1970s, which provoked vigorous objections by forest authorities. These plantations also saw displacement of many settlements of India’s last remaining isolated, endangered and most vulnerable indigenous tribes such as the Jarawa and Onge. Recent efforts by Niti Aayog and the union government to push infrastructure and tourist-oriented development in the A&N archipelago, covered earlier in these columns, reveal the utter contempt which these agencies have for these endangered tribes and for conserving the pristine ecosystem there. Taken together, these raise real danger signals about prioritising the A&N Islands for oil palm plantation.
Red flags over precisely these concerns have been repeatedly raised over several decades by specialist institutions, as seen in investigative reports accessing official documents. After plantation on Little Andaman in the mid-1970s to 80s, the Supreme Court in response to a petition moved by some NGOs, constituted an expert committee in 2002. Based on its recommendations, the SC imposed a ban on commercial and monoculture plantations, as well as introduction of exotic species, in the A&N Islands. Recently, the Niti Aayog prodded the A&N administration towards a review of the SC decision, including through a study by ICAR’s Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research (ICAR-IIOPR) whose report was submitted to the SC in December 2018. The SC sought the opinion of the apex Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) and, in January 2020, ICFRE recommended that introduction of Oil Palm be avoided in biodiversity rich areas, including grasslands, without detailed studies on its ecological impact.
In August 2020, the union ministry of environment asked ICFRE to take up such a study and ICFRE submitted a proposal for the same in November. Without waiting for this, however, the secretaries of the agriculture and environment ministries apparently decided early this year that studies had already been conducted by ICAR, so ICFRE and IIOPR would jointly prepare a report for urgent submission to the SC in view of the impending Oil Palm Mission.
Despite this strong push, the affidavit submitted to SC by ICFRE as late as June 2021 along with its report, which is still not available in the public domain, noted that there was no data from India to support the claims of ICAR-IIOPR, and reiterated that comprehensive and detailed studies be undertaken to assess the impact of oil palm on native flora, fauna and biodiversity in the A&N and as regards its invasiveness.
It is clear from the above that the union government’s decision to now launch the mission with a focus on the A&N Islands and the NE, has been taken in the face of consistent and repeated opposition by ICFRE, and has also brushed aside the call for prior studies. In what is now emerging as a consistent pattern, the union government has decided to push what can only be termed a political decision rather than be guided by evidence and expert opinion. While the SC may have the last word, it is also evident that the Oil Palm Mission should not be implemented in the A&N.
THE NORTH EAST
The tropical rain forests of the North East and other ecological features make the region, along with the A&N Islands and the Western Ghats, among the top bio-diversity hotspots of the country. The eco-sensitivity of the NE, along with the dense forest cover in most of the states, render it especially vulnerable to large-scale introduction of new plantation crops which are known to affect bio-diversity. The concern underscored by ICFRE applies equally to the NE.
There are other factors too which highlight the need for due diligence before hasty large-scale intervention. The reported rush by some chief ministers of the region to embrace the NMEO-OP, no doubt tempted by the generous financial support and subsidies on offer, highlights the dangers involved.
While government spokespersons claim that oil palm plantation will take place in the NE only in lands identified for agriculture, past experience shows that given shortage of suitable cultivable land in the region, fresh plantations could well lead to deforestation or incursions into forest fringe areas. The undulating hilly terrain in much of the region would also call for land leveling, since oil palm requires flat, well-drained soil, leading to considerable disturbance of the local ecology and eating into surrounding hillsides, forests etc.
It would also be an error to consider the entire NE as suitable for oil palm which requires relatively high temperature of about 30c throughout the year and steady, heavy rainfall typified by the 2700mm of rain received in plantation areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Irrigation is another concern, since oil palm is a thirsty crop requiring around 250 litres per plant per day with about 56 palms per acre. In most of the NE, this would call for substantial extraction of groundwater, questioning sustainability.
In large parts of the NE, land is owned by the tribe or community rather than by individual farmers. This traditional structure has often been exploited by vested interests corrupting tribal chiefs or community leaders. Many fear that large oil palm plantations could be set up in the NE through a combination of financial inducements and political pressure, in the process alienating small farmers from their fields and triggering social unrest. Agatha Sangma, MP from Tura in Meghalaya and sister of the chief minister of that state, has underlined this aspect in her anguished letter to the prime minister protesting against the mission and calling for its withdrawal.
In view of the above, it is necessary that the Oil Palm Mission proceed with extreme caution in the North East, with careful location-specific studies and consultations with all stakeholders before any interventions.
Earlier studies by different agencies have identified 14-odd states with potential for oil palm plantations. Of these, most emphasis in earlier programmes had been in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, followed by Tamil Nadu, apart from smaller-scale interventions elsewhere. However, these efforts under earlier avatars of oilseeds missions, have had mixed results not only in terms of yields, but also in terms of equity, sustainability and other socio-economic effects.
Average oil yield of only around 1.4 T/ha between 2006-7 and 2016-17 is shown in official records, a far cry from the 4 T/ha cited for oil palm in the mission, projecting a four-fold increase in productivity over conventional oilseeds taken to yield around 1T/ha on average. Even the mission’s own end-point target of 2.8 million T from 1 million ha comes nowhere the claims. The mission projection of “10-46 times more oil per hectare compared to other oilseed crops” clearly has to be taken with a barrel of salt! There is thus a large gap between the promise and the ground reality, as discovered to their dismay by many a farmer.
Other notable trends have been documented through field surveys and investigations. Despite plantations being undertaken in irrigated areas, heavy dependence on groundwater has been noted. Oil palm has a long gestation period of 4-5 years before it starts fruiting, and needs replanting after 25 years, and small farmers therefore find it difficult to manage this crop.
Productivity of oil palm is known to increase with scale of plantation, and this has driven a noticeable trend in earlier unified AP and TN towards large holdings, often in excess of 100 acres. In many cases, this has involved encroachment of village commons and peramboke lands, forest or tribal lands, and lands of smaller farmers. Oil palm plantations in forest-fringe areas, and so-called degraded and waste lands near forests, also tend to drive encroachment into forest lands as witnessed earlier.
In 2017, the present government even relaxed land ceiling limits, granting permission for leasing-in of so-called wastelands including by corporates, and tweaked regulations on corporate and FDI investments in palm oil plantations, intensifying the drive towards large plantations.
In view of these mixed results, driven mostly by exaggerated claims and expectations, experts have suggested a different approach with realistic productivity deliverables but lower risk, less environmental impact and greater sustainability. About 40 per cent of lands assessed as suitable for oil palm are outside biodiversity-rich areas, so one suggestion is that India could try oil palm cultivation in well-irrigated paddy fields. Areas currently under coconut, rubber or banana plantations could also be suitable. It has also been suggested that promotion of oil palm among small farmers would yield more equitable benefits and be more sustainable. Some experts have even argued that, if similar subsidies as provided in NMEO-OP are extended to conventional oilseed cultivators, their productivity too could be boosted substantially. Earlier Oilseed Mission reports have also projected that with improved planting material and cultivation techniques, oilseed productivity could be more than doubled. Even industry leaders have said that the goals of raising domestic oil production and reducing imports could be met by focusing on groundnut, soyabean and mustard along with oil palm.
In sum, the stated goals for substantial expansion of oil palm plantation in India require a research and evidence based, locale-specific and multi-dimensional plan to expand oil palm acreage but only where economically feasible, socially equitable and ecologically suitable. Meanwhile, oil palm cultivation in the most ecologically sensitive and vulnerable regions of the A&N Islands should be ruled out. Mission activities in the biodiversity rich and ecologically sensitive NE should proceed only in a limited area with the greatest caution, and based on prior studies. In other areas, NMEO-OP should again be promoted through small farmers in ecologically suitable areas not dependent on groundwater, again based on rigorous review of previous efforts. NMEO-OP therefore needs to be thoroughly re-cast, in conjunction with efforts to boost productivity of other oilseeds.