Dung Power: India harnesses a new energy cash cow
India is tapping into a new source of energy that promises to help clean up smog-choked cities and is already providing a vital source of income for poor Indian farmers: trucks full of cattle manure.
Cows are revered as sacred creatures by the country’s Hindu majority. They also hold a prominent place in rural communities in India, where they are still regularly used as draft animals, according to AFP.
Rural households have long burned sun-dried cattle dung to heat stoves, a practice that continues despite government efforts to phase it out with subsidized gas cylinders.
Villages on the outskirts of the central Indian city of Indore are now being generously rewarded for handing over their mounds of cattle waste as part of a pilot project to meet the city’s electricity needs.
“We have very good quality dung, and we keep the dung clean to make sure it fetches the best price,” farmer Suresh Sisodia told AFP.
The 46-year-old sold nearly a dozen trucks of fresh manure at the equivalent of $235 per shipment, more than the monthly income of an average Indian farm household.
Sisodia’s farm has 50 head of cattle and in the past occasionally offset costs by selling manure as fertilizer. Now he hopes for a more reliable stream of income.
– “Shit money” –
“Farmers pick it once every six or 12 months and there are seasons when they don’t – but the plant could give us a stable income,” he said, adding that his farm generates enough manure to fill a truck every three. weeks.
His family has been one of many recipients of “Gobardhan” – literally “manure money” in Hindi – since the inauguration of a nearby biomass plant by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February.
Livestock dung from Sisodia is transported to the factory, where it is mixed with household waste to produce flammable methane gas and an organic residue that can be used as fertilizer.
Eventually, the plant is expected to process 500 tonnes of waste, including at least 25 tonnes of cattle dung, every day – enough to supply the city’s public transport system, with plenty of leftovers.
“Half of it will run Indore buses and the other half will be sold to industrial customers,” factory boss Nitesh Kumar Tripathi told AFP.
Gobardhan’s pilot program has faced its share of logistical hurdles, with dilapidated rural roads preventing the factory’s manure transport trucks from reaching the farms.
Farmers have also been skeptical of what appears to be a get-rich-quick scheme and demanded “prompt and regular payment assurances” before signing up, said Ankit Choudhary, who scouts villages for potential suppliers.
The Indian government, however, has high hopes for the move, with Modi pledging to commit to waste-to-gas plants in 75 other locations since the Indore facility began operations.
Cultivating alternative energy sources is an urgent priority in India, which burns coal to meet nearly three quarters of the energy needs of its 1.4 billion people.
As a result, its cities consistently rank among the most smog-choked urban centers in the world. Air pollution is responsible for more than a million deaths in India each year, according to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet.
– Holy wanderers –
The project is also guaranteed to attract Hindu nationalist groups – Modi’s most important political constituency and outspoken cow protection advocates.
Under their watch, “cow vigilantes” have bankrupted slaughterhouses and lynched people accused of participating in the slaughter of cattle.
But cattle-centric religious policies have had unintended consequences, with wandering cows now commonplace in villages and even on busy roads in major cities.
Government cronies such as Malini Laxmansingh Gaur, former mayor of Indore and a member of Modi’s party, hope scaling up the biogas project will inspire farmers to keep their cows even when they are too old to give milk or helping to plow the fields.
“This extra income will both clean up the villages and fight stray animals,” she told AFP.