Saturday, September 29, 2012

Grow, baby, grow - all the guar you can

I don't know what to make of this story. An economics soap opera ? How the most unexpected things can happen  ? How sometimes prosperity can hit you from the strangest of directions ? Read on - judge for yourself.

The story starts in a very boring manner. Everybody knows Americans guzzle gas. With the Sheikhs turning the screws, Americans are feeling the pinch. Ouch - the price of oil is hurting. Drill baby drill, is fine, but oil is, alas, not to be found. Need new forms of cheap energy so that Americans can continue to guzzle away. Suddenly they discovered a new "source" - Shale gas.  Apparently natural gas is  found in rocks called shales. And apparently shale gas is rather plentiful in the US. Wonder of wonders, use of shale gas even releases lower greenhouse gases than evil Oil.. Voila, the new gold rush is on. 

All very good. What's new. This sort of thing happens all the time. The real interesting bit is that, in order to extract this gas, you have to do "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking". Without getting too technical, an essential ingredient in this process is an obscure agricultural product called guar gum. You simply can't extract the gas without guar gum ! Guar gum is derived from the , rather ordinary, guar bean.

Cut to Basni, on the outskirts of Jodhpur in Rajasthan state in India. This is a drought prone area, near the desert. The sight of fat , sweaty Americans is not new in this area as they come to tour the Thar desert and see the palaces and forts of Rajasthan. But suddenly the villagers started to see far more Americans than usual. This lot was different. They did not want to see forts or palaces. They wanted to buy all the guar you had !

You see, Rajasthan is the guar producing capital of the world. The farmers here are mostly poor - this is after all desert area. They have been cultivating guar for centuries to feed their cattle. For some strange reason guar doesn't grow well anywhere else in the world. 90% of guar is grown in India - the balance 10% in neighbouring Pakistan. Some 70-80% of guar in India is grown in Rajasthan.

It was, as if, money was raining from the sky. Guar used to sell at Rs 10 a kilo. At Rs 40, the farmer made a nice profit.  In December last year it touched Rs 70. And in March, this year,  it touched an impossible Rs 300 !!

Farmers who were in debt , or dirt poor, are suddenly seeing untold riches.  They've built a house. They've bought colour TVs. Two wheelers are plentiful - even the odd car is seen. Thousands of farmers have suddenly been lifted out of poverty into, what for them, is a quality of life they could not have even dreamt about. Guar gum is suddenly, back gold. The largest Indian agricultural export last year by far, more than basmati, more than cotton, was guar gum !

Of course, it has all the makings of a stampede. Everybody, man, woman and dog, is trying to grow guar.  Factories have sprouted adding crazy capacity to extract gum from the guar beans. Traders, middlemen and the usual scoundrels have descended to trade on the guar market - there was so much of the Wild Wild West going on that the government has banned the futures market in guar.  There has also been much stockpiling by the energy firms that the next season demand for guar might plummet. Lots of punters will burn their hands.

But for the next few years at least, the trend is inexorable. Shale Gas will be an important source of energy in the future. The largest reserves are in China, another energy guzzling economy. Nobody has yet found a way to extract this gas without guar gum. Nobody has also found a way to grow this economically outside of Rajasthan. So there is much prosperity waiting in store for the agriculturists of Rajasthan. Its a great story - those hardy souls deserve every bit of it. However you could be forgiven for some rather puzzled faces as to how come money is raining from the sky when even water doesn't. And the even more puzzled stare of their cow which is wondering, whatever happened to the guar bean it used to chew contentedly, not so long ago.