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Anand Karve: A new chapter in rural entrepreneurship

By Juned Sheikh

Dr Anand Karve, winner of the Ashden Award for Renewable Energy, has developed ways of harnessing agro-waste into fuel. Karve heads the Appropriate Rural Technology Institute which has developed pioneering seed and irrigation techniques to help farmers

Anand Karve

Dr Anand Karve's Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) has no intention of sending a mission to Mars, which is probably why it will never make the headlines in the mainstream media. But Karve's dedication to rural development has recently won him the Ashden Award for Renewable Energy.

Karve got the award for his remarkable breakthrough in converting sugarcane leaves, generally thrown away or burned after harvest, into fuel.

A sprightly 65-year-old scientist, Karve has a PhD in botany from a German university. He, and a few other like-minded scientists and technicians, founded ARTI in April 1996 at an age when most people are settling down to lead a `retired' life.

ARTI started with the objective of `developing, popularising and commercialising innovative rural technologies' to improve the quality of life and standard of living of the rural residents of India. "If people have enough employment opportunities in rural areas why would they migrate to the cities?" Karve asks.

ARTI's record is impressive. Besides developing renewable energy resources from agricultural waste, it has pioneered nursery techniques to make seeds develop faster, and helped farmers tackle adverse weather conditions. Says Karve: "Farmers lose out on valuable time if they start sowing operations after the monsoon season settles in. If they can sow the seeds in a nursery before the monsoon starts and transplant them once the season is in full swing, they can enhance their produce significantly." ARTI has also developed low-cost, high-humidity chambers to allow seeds to grow better.

The institute has a plant tissue culture laboratory and has constructed a roofless greenhouse at 1/10th the cost of a conventional greenhouse. It has developed a drip-irrigation technique that prevents water wastage and a transportable wheelbarrow, a low-cost water tank and a bakery -- all with the sole purpose of helping villagers.

But it was Karve's work in developing fuel from sugarcane waste that won him accolades and the Ashden Award. The idea took root when Karve's daughter, Priyadarshini, was looking out for a subject for her Master's thesis. She tried converting sugarcane leaves into charcoal and Karve immediately saw the enormous potential in the idea.
Initially Karve didn't meet with much success. But when he put the leaves into a retort, or a container with a lid, where they were starved of oxygen, he was able to come up with charcoal.

Thus Karve found use for the 4.5 million-odd tonnes of sugarcane leaves in Maharashtra. "These leaves have no nutritional value and are difficult to decompose. So they are simply burned and this causes pollution," he says. Karve set up a kiln to char the leaves and convert them into smoke-free char briquettes that could be used as a fuel in rural as well as urban homes.

Besides drastically reducing the fuel costs of an average urban family, producing char briquettes also earns the family an additional income.

Dr Karve is enthusiastic about the Indian government's decision to introduce Gasohol, a five per cent blend of ethanol and petrol. Ethanol can be extracted from sugarcane. "Now the government should increase the percentage of ethanol in petrol and also allow the use of the sugarcane crop in making ethanol," he says.

Karve thinks methane is a better fuel option. Like ethanol, it can be extracted from agricultural waste and its calorific value is higher than that of liquefied petroleum gas.

Karve's journey has not always been smooth. He has had to face his share of social problems. For instance, when he sought the help of the scavenger caste to collect leaves for money, their leader flatly refused. "You educate your children in the best of schools and colleges and want our children to remain scavengers?" said the man.

Dr Karve, grandson of the legendary social reformer Maharishi Dhondo Keshav Karve, has learnt to work around these social pitfalls. His work in rural areas is designed to open a new chapter in rural entrepreneurship, a move that will not only boost rural incomes but will also discourage the rural poor from migrating to urban slums.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2003