Pine Needles Powering the local economy in Himalayas

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
“The words of god are not like the oak leaves ,which dies and falls to the earth,but like the pine tree ,which stays green for ever….. Mohawk wisdom..
The quintessential abode of Gods in the Hindu mythology “The Himalayas” have a unique quality of themselves, which we humans have stumbled from times immemorial and are still unraveling to no end. No other mountainous range in the world has ever cast such an impregnable impression on the collective psyche of people, their thinking and way of living as has the Himalayas . From folklores to religious treatises to medicine ,Himalayas have been omnipresent in the life of an Indian in all their splendour and glory . I have been lucky enough in my service career for having been associated with the Himalayas, since three fourths of my postings have been revolving around these majestic mountains. Every time I had a sojourn with the Himalayas whether in the form of an official assignment or a brief vacation ,opened new vistas of knowledge and information which were hitherto unknown to me. The summer of 2019 i.e last year May saw me and my wife pack our bags and once again heeded to the call of mountains of Uttarakhand, Pithoragarh to be precise. Having been posted to Pithoragarh early in my service ,I had a desire to see what the effects of time and tide had brought to bear on this nascent place after a hiatus of three decades. My itinerary included a brief stay at Pithoragarh and then venturing out to the nearby places of interest like Berinag and Patal Bhuvneswar etc.
Just to put the reader in the right perspective ,the current road widening under the ambitious “Char Dham” yatra project started by the Modi Government has blossomed the fortunes of nearby places too on this famed route thereby catapulting them too into limelight. Having had a fill of our events at Pithoragarh and Patal Bhuvneswar both of us ventured out on the Berinag- Almora state highway. Just short of Tripuradevi village on this state highway, I caught sight of heaps of pine needles drying out in the sun .
A man was feeding the pine needles into a large gently humming metal drum attached to more such chambers and a motor. With curiosity getting the better of me, I stopped at the place and enquired. What came out was a bundle of surprises for me and led me further into knowing the vast world which a pine needle nestled with in itself. The set up I was told was a power plant to generate electricity from the pine needles. Wow. What an innovation. Uttrakhand, also known as the “Dev Bhoomi” land of Gods for its many pilgrimage centers ,is an Indian state in the western arm of the Himalayas bordering in the north the Tibet and Nepal to the east. The state’s ecosystem is unique in the sense that it is made up of snow clad mountains, rivers, lakes and diverse flora and fauna. A large portion of this landscape are the “Chir”/Pine forests, large plantations of which were introduced by the British and continued by the local Governments of the day, for commercial timber and resin. But the Chir/Pine forests dominate the landscape (covering 400000/1540 square miles) and has contributed to the problems as well.
These pine trees shed their needles on to the forest floor ,littering it with essentially delicate shreds of dry ,high energy -kindling . One study estimates that the net annual pine needle yield in the state of Uttrakhand to be some 1.3 million tonnes. Pine needles shed by the trees between March to June cover the hill slopes which are prone to fire . Though forests fire play an important ecological role, they also bring some inestimable losses. It challenges the make up of forests. As per GB Pant national institute of Himalayan environment ,the forests fire renders inhospitable some 1800 plants used as medicinal herbs and broad leaf species such as Himalayan Oak. Indigenous plants and trees are valuable ecologically and socially as they conserve soil and water thus allowing rich biodiversity of wild edible and minor forests produce that are used by the locals. The loss of natural wealth translates into much more than monetary one for the socio – cultural fabric of Himalayas. Here enters the saviour couple in all their sincerity, the duo of Rashmi Jain and her husband Rajnish Jain. Rashmi Jain a graphic designer by profession with her husband a management consultant with a background in solar power irrigation have set up “Avani” at Berinag in the Kumaon region of Uttrakhand in 1999.
After seeing the forests fire endanger the lives of locals and the wide spread destruction year after year, the couple wanted to do something regarding it. Rajnish began exploring the possibility of harnessing energy from the abundant pine needles. He realized that it could be a way to fix several problems at once as well as reducing the dangers from fires. Electricity produced from these pine needles could supplement or replace cooking fuel which had to be brought in . He hoped it could even prevent migration /exodus from numerous villages of Uttrakhand as a lack of reliable income from agricultural produce had forced people from these villages to seek greener pastures in cities and metros. With this in mind he began to research using pine needles as a source of fuel /energy production called as “Bio mass Gassification”. In fact “Biomass Gassification as a concept was not new in india at that time. Way back in 1994, this idea had gained lot of importance when S Dasappa an engineer by profession at IISC/Indian institute of science Bangalore started working on it with the Swedish firm Dasag . His team experimented not with pine needles ,but with rice husks ,leaves and coconut shells as feed stock which was heated to above 1000 C in a reduced oxygen environment. In those conditions this concoction gave out a mixture of gases including Carbon monoxide , methane and hydrogen. These gases were further refined of dust and tar and burned to power an electric generator.
Dasappa’s design has since been improved and patented. But according to Rajnish his suggestion to use pine needles for Bio mass Gassification was met with resistance and rejection from Government officials and researchers in 2007. As per them the pine needles weren’t highly combustible to be used as a source for gasification. A laughable idea, since I remember having made bonfires of pine needles to keep ourselves warm during our regular army patrols in the remote mountains of Himalayas . Pine needles are virtual store houses of pine oil and can be seen oozing out of them if rubbed strongly on your palms. In fact the villagers were alien to the concept of Gassification and thought of it as a far fetched idea. The idea however intrigued the “Volkart foundation” a venture set up by Swiss brothers in 1953 to support NGOs working for poor communities and they invested in pine needle experiment. With active support from agencies like these Rajnish struck on the idea of chopping these pine needles into smaller pieces to increase their density before feeding them into the Gassifier . Lo behold and it worked. In 2009 he succeeded in setting up the world’s first 9 KW pine needle power plant. Today this power plant produces power to generate the “Avani “workshop ,while left over carbon powder is bound together with locally made glue and made into briquettes to burn as a sustainable form of cooking fuel.
Encouraged by his success, Rajnish participated in many accelerator programmes to pitch in his work and pursued support from various government agencies. He believed his venture could provide a sustainable livelihood to score of villagers particularly the women folk and hoped it could reduce the massive forest fires if rolled out on a large scale. It led to setting up the “Avani” bio energy a for-profit enterprise in 2011. “Avani bio energy then signed an agreement with the state electric facility ,which under national policy was required to source a percentage of its energy from renewable sources. By 2014, a policy on the commercial use of pine needles including Gassification was brought into effect by the Uttrakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency. But then there were many hurdles to this ambitious project still in store. The mountainous terrain in the region makes it difficult to collect pine needles scattered on the slopes. With unmotorable slopes, Pine needles could only be collected manually. For every 1KWh generated , 1.5 kilos of pine needles are required. Since necessity is the mother of invention, they hit upon an idea of to install smaller decentralized power plants of 10-25 KWh each ,so the volume of pine needles needed could be met with manual collection.
Rajnish threw up the idea of collection of these pine needles to the village women folk who were initially hesitant . But having explained them the genesis of this venture as also the fact that their major portion of the day was spent collecting the fire wood on their heads and backs making them hunch back prematurely encouraged a few to come forward to buy his plan. Each kilo of these pine needles collected fetched them RS 2/two which over 6-7 hours of hard labour of collection amounted to double the minimum wages for the state. “Avani in fact has numerous examples where in the local women folk have earned Rs 8000/ in their first year and added to their household kitty which skyrocketed to Rs 17000/ per month in later years.
There are now about seven x 25 KW power plants at different villages on this Almora- Berinag stretch, with many of them owned by the village based entrepreneurs. As well as boosting the local economy, Rajnish hopes to lower the forest fires by his venture. The indigenous medicinal plants usually destroyed by these forest fires have also been revived since then . The above experience of interacting with the Avani staff at Tripuradevi village near Berinag set me thinking that what stops from other hilly states like Himachal, Union Territory of J&K, Sikkim, Arunachal etc from replicating the same venture and ameliorating the cause of their poor folks. May be the need to walk that extra mile by both the local entrepreneurs and the State dispensation.