The World Is Boycotting Palm Oil, But India Wants To Produce More Of It. Here’s Why

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Sriman Narayana, a farmer from Pothureddypalli village in Krishna district, decided to take up palm oil farming on his 2.6 ha farm after government officials painted a rosy picture of growing oil palm.

Four years later, the small farmer ended up uprooting close to 400 oil palm trees he had planted. “The plants would have started yielding in another two years. But I was not able to bear the expenses involved in their maintenance,” he says.

Narayana is not alone. The largest oil yielding crop in the world, the Indian government has been encouraging farmers to take up palm oil production across different states, but many small palm oil farmers, who constitute 70 percent of the country’s farming community, are regretting their decision of taking up its cultivation, as they accrue huge debts.

Golden Palm: The Journey So Far

With over 1.3 billion people, India remains both, the world’s largest consumer, as well as the biggest importer of palm oil.

Hiding in all essential commodities we use, palm oil is derived when bunches of fruit grown in plantations are pressed in refineries to yield a sweet, earthy oil.

With over 1.3 billion people, India remains both, the world’s largest consumer, as well as the biggest importer of palm oil. Being cheap and extremely versatile, its use remains fundamental to the country’s challenge of providing inexpensive edible oil to an increasing population, with limited agricultural land.

Since 2001, palm oil consumption in the country has increased from 3 million tonnes to nearly 10 million tonnes—a growth of over 230 per cent.

This tremendous growth, however, has come at a huge cost, with India importing palm oil from other countries. Understandably, India now wants to produce more of this oil at home, to reduce this spending.

The government had anticipated this growth in demand, as early as in the 1980s, and set up a committee to identify potential areas for growing the crop.  Having identified 2 million hectares of land, the government implemented the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil Palm (NMOOP) under the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17).

Under the mission, the government provides huge subsidies to farmers, that include covering up to 85 percent of seedling costs, and 50 percent of outlay on irrigation, chemical inputs, and processing units to 12 states. Every year, the 12 states under NMOOP set a target of bringing additional area under the crop.

And though the Mission received an initial enthusiasm, the targets have been routinely missed. In 2017-18, the Union government had to cough up US $6,774 million ( Rs 45,917 crore), the highest ever spent on importing palm oil.

Worried about the escalating import costs, in April 2017, the Indian government even decided to remove all land ceiling (of 25 hectares (ha)) for the cultivation of palm oil for subsidies and allowed corporations to enter into the venture by providing benefits of 100% FDI was under the National Mission on Oils and Oil Palm (NMOOP).

Since palm oil cultivation is not viable, unless it is grown on a large scale, the cabinet also made the provision that private entrepreneurs/cooperative bodies and joint ventures can use waste/degraded/cultivable land for oil palm production.

The Department of Oil Palm Research (DOPR) envisions one million ha under oil palm in its VISION 2030 document and intends to bring in new technologies, hybrids, facilities and subsidies, to motivate farmers to cultivate more oil palm.

Palm To Plate: Pros & Cons

With all the intervention, India still produces a “dismal” 0.08 million tonnes compared to Indonesia’s 22.2 million tonnes; and its productivity per ha is just 1.12 tonnes compared to Indonesia’s 3.87.

“As far as palm oil production is concerned, India hasn’t been able to achieve self-sufficiency and it is unlikely to also happen in the future,” says Kamal Seth, Country Head, India, RSPO.

Experts mainly give two reasons for this.  Many view India’s policy towards palm oil as  “a disastrous environmental exercise that will come at a very high expense”.

First, since the oil palm plant is not native to India, experts say India doesn’t have the required agro-climatic condition for a sustainable and valuable large oil palm cultivation programme.

“As in case of several plants and trees, while they can be grown in areas where the required growing conditions aren’t exactly met, the fruiting capability of the plants in those conditions is severely compromised. The same is true for Oil Palm. Temperatures above 34deg C result in abortion of male and female flowers and lead to poor crop setting. Cold temperatures (below 18C) during winter months of December and January and high wind-speed during monsoon will stress the palms and impact yields negatively. Looking at the agro-climatic conditions required for Oil Palm, there is no region in India which could be considered and classified as suitable for high yielding, rain-fed Oil Palm plantation development,”  Shyam Ponappa,  and Ranveer Chauhan, write in this academic paper.

The biggest problem with palm oil cultivation in India, however, is water, or a lack of it. By 2030, India is forecast to have only half of the water it needs. Each palm requires more than 250 litres per day for a good harvest, and many have been critical of India’s strategy of pushing for the cultivation of the most water-intensive crop in states where there is no water.

“Supporting this requirement will be unsustainable for India in the long term and will negatively impact the quality of life for populations in the regions that choose to grow irrigated Oil Palm. India’s own experience of close to 30 years of focused Oil Palm cultivation program offers enough evidence of the limitations that Oil Palm faces in Indian conditions,” the paper adds.

For the small farmers, there is also an added financial risk of the long cropping period and the low yields in growing conditions.

“Oil palm is not economical for small landholders and tenant farmers as there is practically no income in the first six years. Besides, it is susceptible to market and seasonal fluctuations,” says Subbarao, another farmer who spins a profit out of his cultivation, but acknowledges the problems small farmers face.

The Way Forward

A keyword missing in India’s palm oil policy is “sustainability”. Across the world, environmentalists have blamed palm oil for ecological destruction in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, but in India, that conversation is a non-starter, and both growers and consumers largely remain ignorant of it.

In India, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil ( RSPO) has been trying to bring the focus on sustainability. “Only a few Indian companies joined the roundtable and the number of supply chain certificates issued remains low,” says a study published in the January 2018 issue of the Review of International Political Economy.

That is slowly changing, but what is required is faster, more concerted action. “ The RSPO is also starting to now work with small farmers on best practices, prescribed in the RSPO independent smallholders standard, if the farmers were to apply the best practices, over a period of time they would see the same acre of land would produce more, thereby improving incomes,” Kamal Seth, the Country Head, RSPO, told Youth Ki Awaaz.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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