Can India’s solar irrigation scheme succeed without benefitting small and marginal farmers?
Solar irrigation pumps installed under the PM-KUSUM scheme are meant to end dependence on diesel pumps, reduce pollution, save costs to farmers, and help reach India’s goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2070. But to what extent is the scheme including small and marginal farmers, who make up 82% of farmers in India? Gaon Connection tries to find out.
Aishwarya Tripathi 14 Jun 2023 7:06 AM GMT
Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh
There are several rents in Gangi Devi’s sari, but that is the least of her problems. The 55-year-old farmer is paying Rs 6,000 per year for electricity for the pump that irrigates her farm, and said she was always strapped for cash. “Right now if someone should ask me for ten rupees, I don’t have it,” she said.
The farmer from Bilbai village of Mahoba district thought there was light at the end of the tunnel when she heard about solar irrigation pumps that run on sun’s energy and have no running cost. But, when she asked an official from the agriculture department about them, she immediately realised a solar pump was not for her, or her kind.
Gangi Devi learnt there would be an upfront cost of around Rs 80,000, if she had to install a solar irrigation pump (SIP) on her three bighas of land in drought-prone Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. She said she has no money for it.
And this is the plight of several small (landholding between one hectare and two) and marginal farmers (landholding is less than one hectare) in the region who need a solar irrigation pump to cut down on their irrigation costs but are unable to pay upfront for such a pump.
The central government, under its PM-KUSUM (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) scheme, has been encouraging the use of SIPs to replace diesel pumpsets. But against its ambitious target to install two million (20 lakh) SIPs by 2022, only 334,886 have been installed till 2021-22, as recorded by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.
Financing of solar pumps remains a problem, states a June 2021 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
Under PM-KUSUM, the central and state governments provide 60 per cent subsidies (30 per cent each), and 40 per cent is to be paid by the beneficiary farmer. Out of the 40 per cent, bank financing is available for 30 per cent.
“Even then, investing in the upfront cost of the pump and accessing formal bank credit remains a challenge for smallholder and marginal farmers,” the report noted.
The cost of a solar irrigation pump ranges from Rs 147,000 (2 horsepower DC submersible) to Rs 464,300 (10 horsepower AC submersible).
Based on data from the Bhulekh department (Revenue department) in Mahoba, out of 157,887 farmers in the district, 65 per cent are smallholder and marginal farmers. Additionally, 11 per cent are landless farmers.
At a national scale, smallholder and marginal farmers constitute 82 per cent of India’s farming community.
Financing solar pumps is a challenge
Officials accept that the upfront cost of a solar irrigation pump is unaffordable to a large number of farmers. “It is a huge one-time capital investment which is harder for smallholder and marginal farmers to make,” acknowledged Abhay Singh Yadav, Deputy Director Agriculture and nodal head of the Department of Agriculture in Mahoba. He said the scheme would have more traction if there were higher subsidies or if the farmers could pay the initial investment in instalments.
Gangi Devi is at her wits end trying to support her family. Her land yields just enough matar and moong (peas and lentils) to feed her family. To earn money, she takes up menial jobs on construction sites or brick kilns. An investment of Rs 80, 000 in a solar irrigation pump is an unthinkable amount for her.
Naresh Kumar of Bilbai village thought of how a solar-powered irrigation pump could help him too. “But, I will never be able to save up that much money,” he lamented. If he had been able to afford a solar pump, Naresh would immediately save the amount he spends on the 30 litres of fuel to run his diesel-run irrigation pump.
“It costs me Rs 10,000 per annum to irrigate my acre of land,” the marginal farmer said. He would also not have to borrow money time and again to repair the diesel-run pumpset, which is what he said he has been doing.
Last year, Naresh Kumar could grow only three quintals of chana (yellow beans), one quintal of mustard and just enough food for his family, because he cannot afford to irrigate enough and rainfall patterns are changing. “Last year, I only earned Rs 15,000 from the produce, and I have to provide for my family of five with that,” he said.
Based on the data provided by the office of Deputy Director Agriculture, Mahoba, 47 farmers dropped out after registering for a solar pump under PM-KUSUM.
After registering on the PM-KUSUM portal, the confirmation token is generated within ten days. Post confirmation, a farmer has to deposit his share (40 per cent) of the total amount within a week.
A new system of depositing a non-refundable deposit of Rs 5,000 has been implemented from February 2023 to curtail the drop-out rate.
“Many farmers used to drop-out post registration due to financial limitations, which disturbed the target achievement time-frame,” Abhay Singh Yadav explained to Gaon Connection.
Abhishek Jain, Fellow and Director – Powering Livelihoods, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), New Delhi, reiterated that financing of solar pumps was a big area where a lot of work needs to happen.
Lack of finance flow is a major reason why PM-KUSUM is seeing less traction, said Jain.
Need smaller capacity solar pumps
In Mahoba, the agriculture department has been given a target to install 3 horsepower (HP) and 5 horsepower solar irrigation pumps, which are more expensive and not worth the investment for farmers with small landholdings. A 3 HP pump costs Rs 193,460, farmer’s share being Rs 77,384 and a 5 HP pump costs Rs 273,137 with farmer’s share being Rs 109,255. Farmers said that they wanted less capacity (2 HP or lower) irrigation pumps as they have small landholdings with lower irrigation needs.
Lakhanlal Kushwaha from Lamora village in Jaitpur block of Mahoba, who owns 1.2 hectares of land, leaves a part of his land fallow because there is no source of irrigation. A solar irrigation pump could be game changing for him. He uses his diesel motor on some days and buys water for irrigation at other times paying Rs 600 per bigha (0.14 hectare).
“I have a 200 feet deep borewell which has just two inches of water. I have a small farm and need a smaller power motor,” said the 50-year-old farmer.
Swami Prasad, who runs a Jan Suvidha Kendra (online facilitation centre) in Lamora village is the point of contact for local farmers to be updated on government-run schemes.
“Many farmers here have small landholdings and need a 2 HP pump but it isn’t available in Mahoba,” he told Gaon Connection.
Suresh Kumar Singh, additional director agriculture and nodal officer for PM-KUSUM in Uttar Pradesh, responded: “Mahoba lies in the Bundelkhand region where the groundwater levels are low, and small motors of 2 horsepower and less wouldn’t pump out sufficient groundwater.”
But Abhishek Jain, an expert from CEEW, contradicts this. “It will work for sure. The answer (suitable solar-pump) is not a generic one for all of Bundelkhand. The answer varies every 50 metres. So in the same village there might be borewells which are better suited for 3 HP, and borewells which are better suited for 2 HP.”
He went on to inform that CEEW suggested to MNRE to focus on smaller pumps of 2 HP, 1 HP and sub-1 HP, to be able to include the smallholder and marginal farmers — a major chunk of the agriculture community.
Reference models in practice
Khethworks, a social enterprise, is creating technology and products for farmers with small landholdings. This is helping farmers to tackle inconsistent monsoon rains and costly pumping.
Akli Tudu who owns less than one hectare of land in Dhalbhungarh village, East Singhbhum district, Jharkhand, invested a subsidised amount of Rs 26,000 in a 0.34 horsepower solar pump, provided by Khethworks.
“I put it in my jhola and carry it home when the irrigation isn’t needed,” the 35-year-old farmer told Gaon Connection.
Tudu’s portable pump has five variable speeds to control the water flow, which has an automatic cutoff at 65 feet keeping the groundwater exhaustion in mind.
“We are specifically targeting smallholder and marginal farmers in open surface recharging areas. Presently we are working with about 4,500 farmers,” said Victor Lesniewski, Founder of Khethworks.
Another promising model for optimum use of solar irrigation pumps is emerging in Kheda village in Anand district, Gujarat. The project is being run by Foundation for Ecological Security since 2019, which is promoting community solar irrigation pumps where a group of farmers shares the cost and service of these pumps.
“We use open wells for these pumps rather than borewells to keep a check on groundwater because what’s not visible doesn’t get accounted for. We also don’t utilise water sources which have water level below 110 feet,” said Devabhai Gambhalya, project manager, Foundation for Ecological Security.
Under PM-KUSUM, 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.