India's Ambitious Biogas Program in Question

An ambitious and heavily subsidized program to encourage rural India to install biogas and manure plants for renewable energy appears to have been largely a flop, at least in Uttar Pradesh, according to Surabhi Agarwal, an engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology in Khanpur.

Despite acute power shortages in rural areas, varying levels of poverty and impoverishment and a cheap and efficient power source, why is the program not an outstanding success? Agarwal studied biogas plants installed in the past decade or more in four villages in the Hardoi district in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year to determine the status of the plants, record experiences and challenges if any.

Her survey turned up a disastrous condition as most of the plants lasted about four years and were discarded for a variety of reasons. It is unclear what condition the plants are in outside of Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest states.

The government introduced the National Biogas and Manure Management Program in 1981-82 to increase awareness of and access to the technology, devoting nearly Rs.10 billion (US$176 million at current exchange rates) to the program in India's 11th Five-year Plan. It envisioned the saving of 240,000 tonnes of natural gas or 1.71 million tonnes of firewood equivalent per year, or the saving of 1.16 billion tonnes of organic manure per year, with considerable benefit to rural women involved in collecting fuel wood, and improving sanitation by linking sanitary toilets to biogas plants, which equally would help in reducing greenhouse gases, of which methane is one of the most potent.

Biogas is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in the absence of air and is composed mainly of methane and carbon dioxide. It can be produced inside a biogas digester which is essentially an airtight container in which organic waste such as cow dung and plant materials are decomposed to produce biogas. This biogas can be used directly to run appliances such as stoves and lanterns, or to generate electricity.

After the decomposition is complete and the biogas has been extracted, the leftover waste material is a wonderful form of organic fertilizer, rich in nutrients and conducive for the development of soil microorganisms. A biogas digester also allows for more effective waste management since all organic waste may be used for biogas production, thus reducing the quantity of waste required to be disposed of in landfills.

In findings presented to a meeting at the Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow, Agarwal estimated that a functioning biogas plant could provide enough energy to cooking three meals for a family of five to six people, or for lighting a 60-100 watt bulb for six hours, or other such uses. Her study, which was supported by The Hummingbird Project and the Asha Parivar democracy NGO, clearly found that implementation has left a lot to be desired.

The engineer obtained a list of installed plants and visited each of them in four villages, visiting 14 plants to review their status. What she found was shocking. Of 16 biogas plants on the list, 13 were no longer functioning. One was working but at suboptimal capacity and the other two were fake as no biogas plant was found on the stated site.

Agarwal said on an average she found a plant survived for 4.1 years of operational life, a big setback to the alternative energy program. Although the government offered to share half the cost of repairs with the beneficiaries, old and non-functional plants were not repaired and put back in use. People interviewed by Agarwal were unable to identify the exact reasons for the failure of the plants but some reasons mentioned were: leakage in the drums, the plants stopped producing gas, there was a shortage of cattle and thus organic waste, or the plant collapsed after construction.

The Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and social activist Sandeep Pandey said they tried to locate the maintenance person responsible for upkeep - who instead of helping those struggling to keep the biogas plants going was instead doing alternative tasks in the state capital of Lucknow on the orders of his superiors.

So lack of serious government will to promote alternative energy is another obstacle. Overall there are only four maintenance technicians in the entire state of Uttar Pradesh.

Based upon her interviews, Agarwal said there is a need to provide maintenance support to those opting for biogas plants. A sustainable option of maintenance and repair service provision needs to be worked out. One participant suggested that maintenance experts can do periodic inspections.

The study found that people are usually not short of manure as on an average they had two cattle per family. In some settings community biogas plants have been very successful but in most settings it is a challenge to run community biogas plants successfully as they need a high degree of mutual trust, collaboration and sharing of resources among other issues.

Most people who got the benefit of the national program are reasonably well-off financially in their village's context. Surinder Kumar, director of the Giri Institute of Development Studies, said that if financially weaker sections had benefited from this scheme and installed the plants, then they would have tried to sustain them as benefits would have meant a lot more to them than those financially better off and had other means to access energy and the non-functioning plants didn't affect them to a great extent.

Dr Sandeep Pandey, a former faculty of IIT Kanpur and IIT Gandhinagar, shared another example from Bakshi-ka-Talab area near Lucknow where a biogas manure plant runs very successfully on human excreta. For this program to be successful government has to prioritise it first, said Dr Pandey. China meets 5% of its energy needs through biogas, then why cannot we?

Surabhi's study is just a step towards mobilising a growing response to push for promoting alternative energy options in the state. Dr Pandey said that they will take this study outcome forward till plants become operational again. It is not the technology of biogas that is failing in UP rather the poor way it is being rolled out. When electrician is available for repairs and maintenance all across the state then how come biogas technicians are not available when it is a cheaper and more sustainable option to meet our energy needs?

(Bobby Ramakant is the editor of Citizen News Service - CNS)