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India success story of CSIR Technology absorption - efforts at grassroots - level developmental work

Agrotechnology for citronella grass and extraction of oil therefrom

Soon after its establishment in 1961, CSIR-RRL, Jorhat, in conformity with its charter, took up a programme for acclimatizing and developing agrotechnologies for commercially important herbs and grasses suited for cultivation in the North Eastern Region (NER). The basic objectives were to develop crops that were

1. Suited for cultivation on wasteland/ barren land or where Jhum or shifting cultivation was practiced;
2. Rural employment oriented;
3. Amenable for value addition locally.

CSIR-RRL, Jorhat. acquired fifty slips of citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus / C. winterianus) from sister CSIR laboratory CIMPO now CIMAP, Lucknow, for acclimatization and trial cultivation. Through systematic repeated selection and multiplication, an improved variety designated Jorlab-C2, with high geraniol oil content, was developed. Agrotechnology practices were standardized and appropriate designs developed for small distillation plants for extraction of the oil. As the region lacked dependable equipment fabrication firms, the designs for the distillation units were licensed to a tea machinery manufacturer in the Region.

Diffusion CSIR-RRL,Jt. realized that it would be difficult to convince the cultivators to take up the new crop as the local market for it was not developed. They thus sought to proliferate the cultivation of citronella amongst the established ‘tea planters’ in their vicinity as they had the resource endowments to venture out in the new area and RRL was available for assistance and monitoring. The agrotechnology practices and saplings were supplied initially to three well-known tea planters in Assam (Williamson & Magor, Jourhat Tea Company and Consolidated Tea & Land Company). In two years time Williamson and Magor increased the area under citronella cultivation to 100 hectares and commenced extraction and selling of the citronella oil. The success emboldened 50 other tea planters in Assam to take up the cultivation as well. Thus around 1970, CSIR-RRL,Jt. felt that it was now time to diffuse the crop to rural areas as the risks of introducing it were now manageable. RRL organized awareness and training camps in remote areas, encouraged and assisted farmers to form cooperatives and above all supplied them with the planting material. Simultaneously RRL sought to create endorsement of the government and marketing agencies for the new crop. The first major assignment to RRL came from the Govt. of Nagaland to set up on a turnkey basis, a 500 kg / batch centralized distillation unit in Yaongyemsen village. With this development by 1972, over 150 family farmers around Yaongyemsen were cultivating citronella grass covering an area of over 200 hectares. Soon thereafter the Govt. of Nagaland sought to dissuade farmers in the hilly district of Nagaland from Jhum cultivation, RRL assistance was solicited. It mounted a special campaign in Mokachung district for cultivation of citronella. The result was the stabilization of the population and the crop there.

RRL then took up on a systematic basis the diffusion of citronella cultivation in Penegri village area in Tinsukia sub division of Assam, an area that is surrounded by thick forests. Normal crops could not be grown there due to the fear of marauding elephants. Citronella crop was eminently suited here as its smell is repugnant to the elephants. In ten years times 250 families of the area were producing and marketing citronella oil valued at Rs. 6 crore annually. The cultivation of citronella was then extended on a massive scale in Assam especially in the Nakachari, Khairabari, Tamulpur, Parkizuti, Atteikhat, Rajapra, Patpara, Adoguri areas with the involvement of NGOs.

The laboratory then extended its work through its branch laboratory at Itanagar to Pasighat area in Arunachal Pradesh. Further, to cope with the increasing local work load, RRL set up three sub-stations in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland to further the extension work. In the years 1991-98 there was a glut in the citronella market and the prices fall nearly 30%, consequently many of the growers shifted to tea. However, the market is better now and the laboratory has taken initiatives to woo back some of the growers by popularizing two of the new and further improved varieties of citronella that it has developed. The cultivation of citronella now extends to around 4000 hectares yielding about 400 tonnes of oil annually..

RRL’s work was recognized and applauded locally as well as centrally. The government of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland were especially supportive of RRL’s initiatives and afforded it funds for setting up centralized distillation units at several places in their states. It was awarded the FICCI Award for Science & Technology in 1982 and Ficci Award for Rural Development in 1985. During the lull period CSIR gave RRL a special grant between 1995-97 and also during XIth Plan to proliferate their work further and the Department of Biotechnology; Govt. of India provided a special fund over the period 1997-2002 for a similar purpose.

Cost Benefits
The fabrication facilities in the region have improved over the years. The designs have been adopted by local fabricators and the distillation plants now available from several sources besides the RRL licensee. The saplings are also available from local growers. There has been widespread impact. Today there are around 125 distillation plants, with varying capacities (500-1000 kg of grass) operating in the NER. The expenditure at (the then prevailing value of the rupee) for the project were very modest, totaling to around Rs. 100 lakhs of in-house funds over the 35 year period 1964-65 to 2001-2002 and external support of around Rs. 25 lakh.

As against this the contribution to the economy can be gauged by the following indicators 

More importantly it is noted that the development has enabled around 4,000 hectares of low grade land to be utilized, averted Jhum cultivation in some areas, helped create decentralized employment for about 20,000 people in remote areas and created local resources valued at over Rs. 17.5 crore annually.

The intention of CSIR-RRL, Jorhat now CSIR-NEIST (North East Institute of Science & Technology) was not to derive revenues from this work for CSIR but to contribute S&T inputs for the social and economic development of a remote and backward region of the country. Even valued as a ‘private good’ with a deemed ‘surrogate royalty of 5%’ on the value of oil produced, the revenues to CSIR-RRL,Jt. would have been far in excess of Rs. 100 lakhs, the expenditure it incurred. The other additional intangible returns that have resulted are the social costs of employment generation and stabilization of population in a difficult region.