An oil palm plantation in Johor, Malaysia, photographed in February 2019. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su
- In August 2021, the Union cabinet approved an outlay of Rs 11,040 crore for a proposal to expand palm-oil production in India, with a thrust on the A&N Islands.
- A host of natural events, set to become more unpredictable in the age of climate change, make the islands quite unsuitable to cultivate oil palm.
- Instead, India could consider promoting the traditional cultivation of edible oils and tree-borne oils, which could help Indigenous and marginalised farmers both.
The issue expanding palm-oil production in India – which the government has justified as a saviour of our foreign exchange – resurfaced in August 2021. The Union cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved an outlay of Rs 11,040 crore for the proposal, towards its ultimate goal to have 1 million ha under palm and becoming atmanirbhar, or ‘self-sufficient’, in oil.
This goal was already present in the ‘VISION 2030’ document of the government’s Department of Oil Palm Research (DOPR), together with promises to easily avail land to corporate owners and to remove the 25-ha ceiling. The currently novel aspect of the venture is the name – National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP), with a thrust on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the northeastern states.
India is the world’s leading vegetable oil importer, and whose exports in May 2021 shot up 68% from last year. Of this, palm oil accounted for 60%. In 2005, India had an import duty of 80% on palm oil; in 2008 this was reduced to zero, and later, hiked to 15%. It now stands at 30.25% for crude oil and 41.25% for refined palm oil, including cesses and other charges.
It is remarkable that in the government’s update, the cabinet categorically approved the plan despite the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education not having agreed to palm-oil plantations in biodiverse areas like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands are home to 2,650 species of flowering plants, of which 223 species are endemic and 1,300 species don’t occur on the mainland.
In the decades past, rampant deforestation here has wreaked havoc. Today, thousands of hectares face severe erosion and have lost their topsoil. They also suffer from poor drainage, low nutrient status and coarse soil textures, affecting a sizable fraction of the land in the south and middle Andamans. These conditions are contrary to what is ideal for oil palm cultivation: fertile and stable soil that imposes no limits on root development.
In addition, the average annual precipitation in Port Blair is 2,870 mm, which would be good were it not for the fact that it is not evenly spread. In fact, the islands have low or no rainfall for five or six months of the year. The islands also lie in the path of tropical cyclones, which can’t be good for palm-oil plantations.
Previous concerns about the spread of palm oil in other countries, notably Malaysia, Indonesia and countries in Latin America and Africa, have brought to fore various problems that typically follow in their wake. Some of them are deforestation, land-rights violations, water scarcity, declining biodiversity, loss of the commons and greenhouse emissions. In most of the 14 Indian states that the DOPR has targeted, the primary source of irrigation for the palms is or will be bore-wells. But bore-wells in these and other parts of India have already been blamed for sinking the water table, worsening water scarcity and salinity, and other problems.
Through all these activities, directed by a state-corporate nexus, Indigenous peoples and landscapes have suffered the most.
The government’s present thrust on palm-oil expansion emphasises higher capital investment, employment generation, reduced import dependence and claims that the initiative will benefit farmers. The mission has included a ‘viability price’ to buffer farmers against international fluctuations of the price of crude palm oil, and promises various inputs and other forms of assistance. The subsidy for planting material has more than doubled, to Rs 29,000/ha, and the mission is to replace old plants at Rs 250/plant. The mission will also subsidise seed gardens, terracing, bio-fencing and land clearance costs, while the industry is set to receive higher power capacities.
It is obvious that India is thirsty for edible oil. But can palm-oil plantations be the answer? As many countries in the European Union, and the US, are moving away from palm oil, on account of its deleterious consequences, the sole reason for India to continue on its path is the math.
If harvests are optimum, palm oil requires about 15-times less land than traditional oils for similar yield. However, yields in India have been far lower than that in Indonesia and Malaysia, and we can’t wish away the reality of low rainfall in most Indian states.
Further, despite farmers across India traditionally producing many of the other edible oils – without requiring the sort of investments palm oil seems to warrant – the India state has made little effort to encourage them. Different communities in India have traditionally identified with specific oils: mustard oil in Bengal, sesame oil in Tamil Nadu, coconut oil in Kerala, mahua oil in much of Central India, etc. This has lent a characteristic flavour to their cuisines. But of the various tree-borne oils that had been targeted in 28 states, only 11 states have implemented the programmes, despite budgets allocated for the purpose.
The Union cabinet has overlooked some more points relevant to the palm-oil expansion, and are worth considering. For three examples: 1) palm oil has a longer gestation period before the yields begin, and the present outlay of subsidies may not be sufficient; 2) with climate change, tropical cyclones in the Andaman Islands may trigger events not conducive to palm oil, given the already deteriorating land there.
3) In much of India, groundwater extraction exceeds the recharge rate – in some states by 100%. This water source already supports 60-70% of agriculture in India, meets 50% of urban needs and 80-95% or rural drinking-water needs. Then there is the industrial sector, the numbers for which are not easily available, but are bound to be significant. There are already around 40 million bore-wells around India, and many states have declared that their reserves are up to 60% vulnerable.
If the rate of groundwater consumption continues at this rate, half the demand for water in the country is not likely to be met by 2030. Groundwater depletion is also accompanied in India’s north and east by increasing heavy-metal toxicity.
For this wealth of reasons, the Union cabinet would be wise to rethink the NMEO-OP, and include other edible oils as well as tree-borne oils in its future plans. The obvious advantages are that the latter are not nearly as water-depleting – a factor whose importance we can’t overstate – and will help support Indigenous peoples and marginalised farmers alike.
Notably, at present, the palm-oil expansion is controlled by four major players: 3F Oil Palm Agrotech, Godrej Agrovet, Ruchi Soya and Navbharat. And together, they are responsible for around 80% of India’s palm-oil cultivation. Counter to such centralisation of opportunity and fortune, these other oils will also help maintain biodiversity and promote the diversity of tastes and cuisines already at the heart of Indian food ways.
And finally, these oils will provide for a gender-sensitive livelihood option – something that has disappeared from palm-oil plantations around the world.
India’s palm-oil push is linked to the changes in its forest policies, especially the Compensatory Afforestation Fund, and to bring in the corporate sector to help afforest degraded lands.
Finally, it may be worth reflecting on whether India’s ‘atmanirbharta’ push with palm oil will allow the government another advantage. In early 2020, Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad criticised India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution and said it treats its minorities badly. The comment precipitated a stand-off between India and Malaysia for some months, but India’s low oil-stock and the formation of a new government in Malaysia helped restore trade.
India imports mineral fuels, oils, nuclear reactors, precious stones, bituminous substances, petroleum and various other products from a large host of countries, across continents. At the same time, it has repeatedly bristled at comments from experts and leaders in other countries about its response to the COVID-19 crisis, its declining press freedom, iffy human development indicators, room for pseudoscientific healthcare practices, etc. It may be worth tracking what the next item on the ‘atmanirbharta’ agenda could be.
Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.