The Tarai region in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh presents peculiar development challenges. The community is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood but unavailability of electricity compels farmers to use diesel pumps for irrigation. These pumps are very expensive and irreversibly damage the environment.
Kusmavati and several of her peer farmers in the Sari Kanhar village of the Bahraich district in the Tarai were also facing this problem. Moreover, Kusmavati had to depend on her husband to carry the bulky pump to the field every week. What farmers like Kusmavati needed was a solution that would bring down farming input costs and reduce agriculture-induced stress on the environment.
Solar irrigation pumps emerged as the best option from the environmental point of view, but how could the community afford the high capital cost? Even with the discounts and subsidy given by the government, the cost was prohibitive and farmers were not sure solar pumps would work as efficiently as the diesel pumps.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and this was amply demonstrated when the Tata Trusts and their partner Trust Community Livelihoods (TCL) implemented a project to enhance the income of small farmers through crop intensification. The on-ground project teams decided to promote solar irrigation pumps and, to make them affordable, neighbouring farmers were grouped in water user groups of five to seven members so that costs as well as water could be shared.
The first two pilot units were installed in 2014-15. The project teams compounded the benefits accruing from the solar pumps with the dissemination of techniques for water economising and improving agricultural productivity. The project was a huge success.
“I was initially sceptical, but now I have experienced the impact of using the solar pump,” says a happy Kusmavati, one of the first beneficiaries of the project. She and four of her farmer friends contributed to the cost of investing in a solar pump and then used it as a common facility. The result of switching over from diesel to solar power is higher yields and improved incomes. “I am now able to plant additional summer crops of tomato and lady’s finger due to improved availability of water for irrigation,” says an empowered Kusmavati.
Encouraged by the results, the project is being scaled up with additional installations. Using the subsidy from the government’s agriculture department, 20 new pumps were installed in March 2016. Together, the 22 solar pumps installed through the Tata Trusts’ project is benefitting 114 small and marginal farmers across 92 acres in 14 villages. The impact of the intervention is already evident with farmers asking for assistance in installing 150 more solar pumps.
The pumps installed by the Trusts’ project in Bahraich have reduced consumption of diesel by 7,600 litres in the summer of 2016. This is a big achievement for ‘greening’ of irrigation systems in the Tarai. Encouraged by convenient and cheap access to irrigation, farmers are now planning to cultivate cash crops.
To derive even more benefit for farmers, the Trusts are exploring the possibility of introducing a subsidy-free system of solar pumps based on low-cost pumps of small size. The pumps can then be used individually. The challenge for the project teams is going to be how to prevent an enthusiastic community of farmers from over-exploiting the ground water.