Solar initiation brings cheers to farmers in Rajasthan’s Chambal belt, but is it sustainable?Written By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi | Published on Updated: Nov 16, 2022, 13:57 IST | 1668587254944Through a pilot project, farmers in Shankarpur and Gopalpura are able to cultivate wheat and a variety of vegetables. But they are also extracting water using solar submersible pumps in an area that already has a sinking groundwater tableDhaulpur, Rajasthan: Roasted bajra (pearl millet) will go well with buffalo milk tea, said Baby Devi (35), her red bangles glinting under the blazing sun. Bajra is cultivated predominantly in her village Shankarpur in Rajasthan, located at walking distance from River Chambal.
A farmer and mother of four, Devi grows bajra and arhar (pigeon pea) in her uneven plot located near the river. She dug a borewell in another piece of land adjoining her house in 2016 for cultivating wheat in winter. But prolonged power cuts and a sinking groundwater table hit her hard.
Though Devi cultivated wheat in 2017 by drawing water from a neighbour’s borewell, it was not sustainable due to water charges and power cuts. She finally found a solution by installing a solar submersible motor pump and three solar panels to power them. The plot now has a few guava saplings in it, but will be readied for wheat in the rabi season.
Why the allure of wheat when a normal monsoon is enough to grow nutritious bajra in semi-arid Shankarpur? Though both have Minimum Support Prices, bajra is a kharif crop, which means the land lies fallow in the rabi season. Cultivating wheat at this time will bring in extra money for farmers.
However, the most apt answer lies with eating habits. As Baby Rajput of Gopalpura put it, they cannot eat bajra during summer and the relatively humid rainy months as it heats up the body. So, bajra is consumed in the winter (from November to January) and wheat almost throughout the year (February to October). “When I could not grow wheat, I had to buy it for Rs 20,000 annually. That explains the preference for wheat,” she said.
A pricey choice
Shankarpur, the last village of Dhaulpur district near the Chambal, has 110 households. Though the Chambal region receives monsoon rains, much of the water runs off causing soil erosion. In many places, farmers have to dig up to 600 ft to get water from the borewell.
“The land remains fallow or has only mustard crop in the rabi season. Installation of solar panels has provided farmers with an extra source of income in winters,” said Satyendra Sengar, the team leader of Manjari Foundation in Sarmathura block, under which Shankarpur falls.
Both Devi and Rajput installed solar-powered pumps in their borewells in 2020, under the foundation’s Parivartan project. With an ample supply of water, Devi now grows wheat, which needs irrigation six times until harvest. Last year, she harvested seven quintals. She no longer needs to spend Rs 15,000 each every year to buy green fodder for buffaloes and wheat for personal consumption. Okra (ladies finger) and kakri (cucumber) have already found a spot in her list of summer crops.
“Vegetable cultivation in summers was near impossible due to power crisis and low water levels in borewells. For us, solar is a godsend,” said Rajput, who got 20 quintals each of bajra, mustard and wheat last year. She is fond of growing bitter gourd, potato and ladies finger. Farmers like her also saves around Rs 1,000 that they spend each month on electricity.
Though the project has touched only two farmers so far, about 30 more are getting the benefits by paying money. In Devi’s case, nine acres belonging to seven farmers get water, for which she charges Rs 700 per bigha and earns Rs 25,000 yearly.
On average, Rajput charges Rs 350 per hour for water discharge to the nearby fields spread over 32 acres. She earned Rs 80,000 through water supply last year, with the motor working from 9 am to 4 pm.
However, Depinder Kapur, Director of Water Programme, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), warns about over-extraction. “Normally, farmers irrigate either early in the morning or evening. Solar pumps are used more during the day as panels get charged at that time. Solar power is free, so over-extraction is bound to happen. When we are promoting solar, we are not looking at water," he said.
CSE’s Deputy Programme Manager for Renewable Energy, Binit Das cautioned about the need to monitor water use to keep the groundwater table intact. "Generally, people in rural areas tend to keep the pump switched on even when it is not in use."
When asked about this, Sengar said even though farmers are now interested in adopting solar for irrigation, the NGO has not thought of adopting the project on a large scale. “It is not like we want to install 50 to 60 solar pumps. Also, we have already been working on improving groundwater in these areas by building ponds and anicuts, and by adopting other rainwater harvesting methods,” he claimed.
A positive spin
Most farmers in Rajasthan do not prefer solar installation due to its high cost. Besides, many are not aware of the government subsidy under the Centre’s PM-KUSUM Scheme, aimed at providing energy security to farmers.
As of September 2022, Rajasthan has 1,58,884 standalone solar pumps sanctioned and 49,616 installed under the scheme. However, according to Das, the subsidy is often not released on time and sometimes there is a long wait.
In Devi and Rajput’s case, no government scheme was utilised. When asked about it, Senger said, “It is a long-drawn-out process. Also, we have not made use of any such scheme yet.”
The total installation cost of the 10-horsepower pump and three solar panels was Rs 5 lakh. Devi and Rajput contributed Rs 50,000 each, while the rest was borne by Manjari Foundation. The pump has a one-year warranty, while solar panels have up to 15 years.
“Winters (October to February) were particularly difficult due to frequent power disruptions. Most often, we had to stay out in the cold to irrigate fields. Now I irrigate throughout the day and sleep well at night. Solar has made life easy,” Rajput beamed.
Puja Devi takes water from Baby Devi for her wheat and mustard crops. “As I have a small plot, there is no need to install solar panels. I can get water whenever I want.”
Premvati, who has 0.25 acres of land, echoed Puja. Last year, she bought water five times for irrigating her wheat crop and managed to harvest six quintals of the grain.
Another neighbour, Rekha has a borewell on her 0.75-acre plot. She is thinking of solar installation as her yearly power bills amount to Rs 10,000! In line with her thoughts, clean energy expert Manu Maudgal from the Delhi-based Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation said economic benefits were the immediate impact of a solar installation.
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)