Solar irrigation can transform rural India

The season of election promises is over, arguments have been won and lost on the hustings, but the problems are waiting to be solved.

Agrarian distress is real and persisting, water is growing into an ever bigger human crisis, state power sector has once again managed to bring itself on the edge of the precipice,  and the human and fiscal cost of the downward-spiralling nexus between energy, water, and agriculture is staggering.

How do you double farm income without making the farmer dole and debt-waiver dependent? Impressive advancements and rapidly falling prices of solar technology and the recently announced KUSUM scheme of the Centre offer a promising solution.

The KUSUM scheme has three components: (a) private sector led large-scale solar at sub-station; (b) off-grid solar irrigation and (c) grid-connected solar irrigation. Component (a) and (b) either do not solve the real problems of perverse nexus or only improve power supply but cause further damage to groundwater.

Our analysis shows that Component (c) can potentially double the farm income, save groundwater, save subsidy for the State government, and generate jobs.

Political economy in a bind: More than 80 per cent of freshwater is used by agriculture, and more than 60 per cent of Indias irrigated agriculture is via groundwater. Unmetered and subsidised energy for agriculture has created a recurring fiscal pressure and burdened industry with cross-subsidy.

Repeated bailouts of the State power sector reflect the way the state power sector has been managed and governed. Sixty five per cent of Indias rural population depends on 15 per cent of its GDP contributed by agriculture, growing at an annual average of less than 2 per cent. Average income of agriculture household in India is less than 9,000 per month of which only about half is contributed by farm income (Nabard All India Financial Inclusion Survey 2017).

India cannot address its water and energy economy without addressing agrarian distress and finding non-agriculture income options. Connecting the solar irrigation pumps to the grid to sell surplus electricity provides an additional source of income for the farmer which has been amply demonstrated by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) through a pilot project in Dhundi (Solar Power as a Remunerative Crop- SPaRC) and NDDBs solar cooperative in Majkuva (Gujarat).

In a recent pilot launched by Punjab (Pani Bachao, Paisa Kamao with which authors are closely associated) farmers have demonstrated a saving of about 30 per cent due to day time power supply and ability to optimise use of water.