The NDA government, which announced the proposed ₹1.44-lakh-crore solar irrigation scheme in the Union Budget 2018-19, had got its inspiration from the success of half a dozen farmers in a nondescript village in Kheda district in Gujarat.

The farmers, with technology assistance and funding from two international agricultural research organisations — International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and CGIAR research programme on Climate Change (CCAFS) — not only deployed solar irrigation pumps two years ago, but also managed to accrue multiple benefits. “Solar irrigation pumps, apart from giving them a clean and cost-effective way to irrigate their fields, helped them generate substantial non-farm income by selling surplus electricity to the grid,” said Tushar Shah, a research fellow at IWMI’s field unit in Anand. Besides, they also contributed their bit to the ongoing national effort of reducing carbon emissions.

These six farmers in Dundhi village in Kheda formed the world’s first solar pump irrigators’ cooperative at the instance of the IWMI-CCAFS in early 2016. “I can’t say they were very convinced when we approached them first. But they were willing to shell out ₹5,000 per kilo watt (kW) of power while we funded the rest of the total cost which worked out to be ₹75,000-80,000 per kW,” Shah said.

For the farmers, the IWMI-CCAFS team set up a 7.5-10.8 kWp (kilo-watt-peak) capacity solar irrigation pumps which were connected to each other in a micro-grid.

“In May 2016, the cooperative entered into a 25-year power purchase agreement with local electricity distribution utility — Madhya Gujarat Vij Company Ltd — which offered them a feed-in tariff of ₹4.63 per unit for evacuating surplus power to the grid,” he said. Besides, the farmers received an additional ₹ 2.50 as bonus for generating green power as well as conserving groundwater.

“So far, these farmers have been able to rake in a total of ₹7 lakh from selling surplus power. Besides, they were able to generate additional revenue by irrigating their neighbouring fields,” said the IWMI official. Using solar pumps has larger societal benefits as well. They reduce the carbon footprints of farming which is said to be 5 per cent of the cumulative carbon dioxide. In addition, they would also help reduce amount of groundwater withdrawn.

More members

The success of the project brought in three more farmers in the village to the cooperative, paying 30 per cent of the capital cost as against 5 per cent coughed up by the founding members, Shah said. According to him, farmers from Mujkuva, a village in neighbouring Anand district, have also come forward to set up a similar cooperative. The IWMI-CCAFS team is installing solar pumps in villages in Bihar’s Samastipur district. “What we are trying out there is very different model from that in Gujarat. We are targeting water service enterprises which supply water for irrigation for a fee. Conventionally, these units use diesel pumps which would be replaced with solar pumps, he said.

Apart from cutting down on their operational cost, the water service firms would be able to generate additional income from selling surplus power.

In India, there are around 18 million grid-connected irrigation tube-wells which account for an estimated ₹70,000 crore of power subsidies. Cutting them is not going to be an easy task, given the fear of farmer backlash. But solar irrigation pumps may offer a way-out perhaps. Under the Kusum scheme, the government has proposed to provide for 17.5 lakh solar irrigation pumps.