The solar buzz in Bundelkhand is helping irrigate fields and arrest migration
Farmers in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh are switching from traditional diesel pumpsets to solar-powered ones. These pumpsets are helping farmers irrigate their land at the press of a button, grow three crops a year and save thousands of rupees in diesel costs. A ground report.
Aishwarya Tripathi 26 May 2023 6:29 AM GMT
Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh
Early morning at six, Laxmi Devi comes to her field, assembles the irrigation pipes and directs them towards her patch of jowar — an intermediate millet crop between rabi (winter) and kharif (monsoon) crops. A press of a button and a gush of water flows through her farm.
Ever since February this year, when the solar irrigation pump was installed in her field in Tindaoli village in Bundelkhand, a region notorious for recurring droughts and high migration, the 45-year-old farmer has breathed a little easier.
Powered by the sun’s energy, the pumpset draws water from the ground and sustains her crop. She is no longer dependent on the rains, which are increasingly playing truant due to climate change.
“All I have to do is press a button and the motor starts and there is water,” she told Gaon Connection, as she sat on the charpoy and watched her crop being watered.
Slowly, but steadily, a solar revolution is underway in the Bundelkhand region, which is spread across Uttar Pradesh and the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. Laxmi Devi’s village is situated in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh. Irrigation pumps that run on solar energy are penetrating deeper into rain-deficient villages, helping farmers grow an extra crop and irrigate their fields on time.
Abhay Singh Yadav, Deputy Director Agriculture, nodal head of Department of Agriculture in Mahoba told Gaon Connection that solar pumps have a lot of scope in Mahoba district. “In fact, on my field visits, I have met farmers who said if solar (pump) was not there, they would have sold off their land,” he said.
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The official isn’t wrong. Till recently, Indresh Rajput was just a step away from selling his five bighas (0.7 hectares) of land in Chandpura village of Mahoba.
“This land was lying unused. I borrowed water from another farmer, and put in the diesel. I had to share half of my produce and was left with nothing,” Indresh told Gaon Connection. “I was left with about Rs 25,000 in a year. How would that suffice for anything,” he asked.
The farmer said he used to spend about Rs 10,000 on irrigation to grow 20 quintals of wheat, and his crops mostly remained under-irrigated, resulting in low productivity.
But the three-horsepower solar pump that Indresh has on his field now has changed things dramatically. Thanks to his investment of Rs 68,400 on the solar irrigation pump in 2019, commonly known as SIP, he is not only able to irrigate his field but also provide irrigation water to16 bighas of adjacent land belonging to other farmers at the rate of Rs 600 per bigha. His yearly profits are expected to now cross a lakh of rupees, said the farmer.
The solar buzz in Bundelkhand
In March 2019, the Union government launched PM-KUSUM (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) in order to do away with diesel in the farm sector, provide water and energy security to farmers, increase their income and curb environmental pollution.
Under the central scheme, the beneficiary gets a 60 per cent subsidy (30 per cent each by the Centre and the state). The farmer also has to bear the borewell cost, over and above the remaining 40 per cent share (see table: SIPs cost).
In Uttar Pradesh, the government has focussed on its seven districts that fall under the Bundelkhand region — Chitrakoot, Banda, Jhansi, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Mahoba, and Lalitpur. These districts are infamous for acute water shortage that often forces residents to migrate in search of livelihood.
Since the launch of the PM-KUSUM scheme in 2019, a total of 219,674 solar irrigation pumps have been installed in India till April 30, 2023. Rajasthan has the highest number of SIPs (59,161) followed by Maharashtra (51,905) (see map: State-wise standalone solar pumps installed under PM-KUSUM).
In Uttar Pradesh, 20,683 SIPs have been installed of which 5,589 are in the seven districts of the state that fall in the Bundelkhand region. Mahoba district has 1,304 solar irrigation pumps (see bar graph: Solar irrigation pumps in Uttar Pradesh).
Getting a third crop
It is May, the harvesting of winter crops is long over, and most fields lie dry and brown. They have been left fallow to recover for the next crop cycle. But some farmers such as Indresh Rajput of Chandpura village are growing vegetables on his land and crimson tomatoes peep through green foliage.
Solar irrigation pumps are helping farmers grow crops beyond the kharif season, thereby arresting migration. Moreover, these pumps are showing a positive impact on the lives of women farmers.
Laxmi Devi of Tindaoli village has always taken care of most of the farm work in her two bighas (0.28 hectare) of land in Kabrai block of Mahoba. She has sown seeds, weeded and tilled her land herself. But she depended on her husband or devar (younger brother-in-law) to irrigate her fields.
“I couldn’t start the diesel pump. My devar or husband used to do it. When the diesel was exhausted, I had to wait for one of them to buy it,” she said.
Not any more. Now all she has to do is press a button and her crops start to get irrigated.
For Swami Prasad Rajput his five horsepower solar motor pump that he installed in March this year has yielded marigolds and roses in his 15 bighas of land in Chandpura village.
“I used to spend Rs 50,000 on diesel in the summer months. The solar pump has eased the burden,” said 72-year-old Swami, who borrowed money to get the solar pump installed in his field.
Similarly, Parmeshwari Dayal usually spent a lot of time trying to get water from the nearest pond 600 metres away, through pipes to his farm. The 35-year-old farmer from Chandpura switched to a solar pump in February this year.
First come, first serve basis
Lamora village in Jaitpur Block, which lies about 48 kilometres from the Mahoba district headquarters, has 88 sanctioned solar irrigation pumps, the highest in the district.
One reason for this is the proactiveness of Swami Prasad who handles the Jan Suvidha Kendra in the village. Documentation work to avail a solar irrigation pump through PM-KUSUM is elaborate, and Swami is quick to generate the maximum number of tokens under the government’s Pehle Aao, Pehle Paao (first come, first serve) model.
This is similar to a tatkal reservation for a train seat, where an application window opens up with a fixed number of tokens that are then allotted.
Khoobchand Raikuar, a 32-year-old farmer who owns 10 bighas in Lamora village, already has a three-horsepower solar powered pump. He wants to apply for another five-horsepower one.“I have already saved the money. I am just waiting for the slots to open up,” an eager Khoobchand told Gaon Connection. He said by having the pump installed he was saving up to Rs 25,000 a year he otherwise spent on diesel.
A number of farmers in Mahoba are waiting to install an SIP in their field. Dheeraj Yadav too is looking forward to making a switch to solar-powered pumps to help him irrigate his 20 bighas of land.
“Electricity supply is erratic. My 68-year-old father and I have to take turns to irrigate the land through the night. Solar can solve this for us,” Dheeraj told Gaon Connection.
Concerns around groundwater
Shilp Verma, a Senior Researcher, Water-Energy-Food Policy at International Water Management Institute explained that “the nature of solar pumps is such that farmers have to invest heavily upfront and then there is no running cost. When farmers have free power, they have the incentive to keep pumping.”
“If a large number of solar pumps are installed then it might lead to groundwater exploitation. There is little evidence as of now because we are still at a nascent stage,” he warned.
There has to be a groundwater source in order to avail the KUSUM scheme. In 2022, the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB) categorised the Kabrai block in Mahoba district, where Indresh lives and farms, as ‘semi-critical’ in terms of subterranean water reserves.
A region is categorised as semi-critical in terms of its groundwater reserves if the annually extracted groundwater is more than 70 per cent, and less than 90 per cent of its total extractable groundwater annually.
As recorded in 2022, out of 0.28 billion cubic metres of annually extractable groundwater, Mahoba is witnessing an extraction of 0.26 billion cubic metres (BCM) — 0.25 BCM of it being extracted to meet agriculture-related needs. That’s 91.91 per cent of groundwater extraction out of the total extractable groundwater available.
An NOC to certify the presence of groundwater is required from the district-level groundwater department to apply for the SIP, but it doesn’t have any depth limitation.
“We survey the land for which the farmer needs the certificate. If the water is present, the NOC will be made available, no matter the depth of water,” said Akshay Kumar, Hydrologist, Groundwater Department, Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh.
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Maintenance remains an issue
Admittedly, solar pumps are helping farmers in the area, but they are not without their challenges, said Abhay Singh Yadav, Deputy Director Agriculture, nodal-head of Department of Agriculture in Mahoba.
“A major challenge is the absence of maintenance at the local level and lack of insurance of solar panels against natural calamities,” Yadav said.
Bhagat Singh Rajput from Chhikahra village in Kabrai block owns two hectares of land and is reaping the benefits of owning four solar pumps. But he faced a serious problem when a storm blew down the solar panels.
“Three of my solar panels flew off due to the storm. I tried the toll-free number (for maintenance) and registered the incident but they said they don’t warranty the panels against any natural calamity.”
Bhagat Singh complained that he suffered a loss of Rs 50,000 because the panels were destroyed, and spent an additional Rs 10,000 in running around to find a solution.
In Supa village of Charkhari block, Badri Prasad Tiwari, who owns eight bighas, was none too happy with his solar pump.
“I was the first one to get it installed in 2018. It worked well for two years. Suddenly, one of the plates caught fire at night. I was promised a replacement if anything went wrong within five years,” he told Gaon Connection.
But nothing has happened and the 72-year-old farmer is frustrated. His crops were not irrigated on time in 2021, which meant a loss of more than a lakh.
“I am dissuading anyone who wants to register for a solar pump in the village from doing so. I plan to sell off my plates and recover some money,” the farmer said.
On being contacted, Yadav from the agriculture department informed Gaon Connection that he wrote to the firm responsible for setting up SIP in Mahoba on July 11, 2022 apprising them of the situation. He complained again on August 31 last year. There was no response.
On September 14, Yadav wrote to Ramesh Chauhan, in-charge of the Solar Cell in the Department of Agriculture, elaborating the inconvenience caused to farmers and non-responsive behaviour of the private solar installation company Premier Energies Limited. Eight months later, there has been no response.
Gaon Connection reached out to Premier Energies Ltd over email and phone to get a comment but hasn’t received a response yet.
This story is the first in the three-part series produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. You can read the second part here.