Solar power helps farmers irrigate fields in water-scarce Bastar

  • In Chattisgarh’s Bastar district, solar-powered lift irrigation system is helping farmers irrigate fields in months when water is scarce.
  • The solar-powered pumps are provided to the farmers under the Saur Sujla Yojana, a flagship scheme of Chhattisgarh, launched in November 2016. So far, nearly 96,000 solar pumps have been installed across the state.
  • Access to irrigation at an affordable cost helps small-holder farmers diversify crops and increase cropping intensity.

Sukmani Nag, a resident of Dhodrepal’s Patelpara hamlet in the Bastar district of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, oozes confidence as she speaks about solar-powered irrigation, at a meeting with six other women from her village. She emphasises how the solar-powered lift irrigation system has helped farmers in the area.

“The solar-powered lift irrigation system is ensuring that farmers in Patelpara can grow vegetables even in summer and winter seasons when water becomes scarce. All of us met and planned for the lift irrigation system which uses water from the perennial Kasandi Munda Bahar nullah flowing by the village. We didn’t like the idea of borewell as it draws out precious groundwater,” Nag told Mongabay-India.

This irrigation system was launched in November 2016 as a flagship scheme of the Chhattisgarh government. Chief engineer Sanjeev Jain from Raipur-based CREDA, which comes under the energy department of the Chhattisgarh government, said, “CREDA has installed near about one lakh irrigation pumps (95,935 exactly) across the state under the Saur Sujla Yojana. On a daily basis, 1,000 pumps are being set up. ” Significant work has taken place in Bastar for solar intensification in irrigation, he said.

“Before the installation of the solar lift irrigation system, a gram sabha (village council) meeting was organised and consent of the beneficiaries was taken,” said Puran Markam, the area coordinator of PRADAN, a not-for-profit organisation that works on agriculture and livelihood issues. Markam looks after the entire Alva cluster in the Darbha block of Bastar region, under which Dodrepal falls. In the Alva cluster, solar lift irrigation is present in 10 hamlets and 200 farmers are benefitting from it.

Remati Manjhi, who was with Nag, noted that the solar irrigation system in their hamlet, at the moment, caters to 32 farmer families from the total of 52 families, but more may join later. She recalled that before the solar irrigation system that has changed lives over the past five years, when there was uncertainty around crops and vegetables weren’t available, it was the women of the area who ventured into the forests for collecting edible green leaves for preparing fritters with meals. Both Manjhi and Nag are beneficiaries of the project.

In Dodhrepal, under which the Patelpara hamlet falls, the solar lift irrigation structure is looked after and operated by two community members selected by the community.

As the women carefully unfold a map to pinpoint the location of the solar installation system and flow of the water into the fields marked in orange, Nag said there are four other hamlets in Dhodrepal, but the lift system is used only by the residents of Patelpara. She said farmers share water on alternate days and five families can use water at the same time.

This system has also shown benefits for trellis farming which needs water twice a week for climbers like bitter gourd. In the trellis farming system, vegetables are grown supported by long wooden poles tied with wires.

Diversifying crops and increasing cropping intensity

Manjhi said it took three months for the solar lift irrigation structure to get completed (April 2020) but it got operational only in October 2020 after the monsoon season. The cost was shared by the community and the government. The total cost for the solar installation came to Rs. 331,000 and of that, the government contributed Rs. 296, 000 while the beneficiaries contributed Rs. 35,000. “However, some farmers still use individual diesel pump sets. But those who use water from the solar lift system have to pay a small fee of Rs. 20,” Manjhi added. The Ganga Jamuna Pani Samiti, a group of people from within the community in Patelpara, is being run in the hamlet currently to take care of any repair work needed in future.

Solar panels installed near a nullah in Patelpara hamlet of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi/Mongabay.
Solar panels installed near a nullah in Patelpara hamlet of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi/Mongabay.

Abha Kumari, who works for PRADAN, called Alva “a model cluster” and said the idea behind solar-powered driven irrigation is to ensure that farmers can grow more than one crop a year.

According to Saroj Mahapatra, integrator at PRADAN for Chhattisgarh, the solar-powered lift irrigation intervention in a hilly and undulating terrain like that of Bastar has proved to be a game-changer, ensuring farmers access to irrigation at an affordable cost. “This has helped smallholder farmers diversify crops and increase cropping intensity. The overall system has been well-accepted by the community and created demand for more,” she told Mongabay-India.

The adoption of solar-powered irrigation is spreading in nearby areas as well. For instance, in Bastar’s Madarkonta village, which is 13 kilometres from Dodhrepal, such a structure is being set up and would be ready by next year.

Read more: Jharkhand’s solar pump scheme aims to improve lives of farmers by increasing irrigation potential

Solar pumps facilitate access to surface water for farming

Superintending engineer P.K. Jain from the Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Authority (CREDA), who is based in district headquarters at Jagdalpur, said the solar lift irrigation system helps farmers access surface water available in rivers and streams. For this, site identification is carried out and discussions are held with communities to motivate them to resolve water issues with the help of non-governmental organisations.

While Sanjeev Jain added that under the scheme, pumps can be either surface or submersible. “As the water table is receding, submersible pumps sometimes become defunct. However, after a heavy monsoon, the water table gets easily recharged. Surface pumps also work well during the rains and up to January-February but after that surface sources sometimes dry up. Surface pumps are also unable to lift more than 25 feet,” he explained.

A view of the check dam constructed on the perennial nullah in Patelpara hamlet of Bastar district. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi/Mongabay.
A view of the check dam constructed on the perennial nullah in Patelpara hamlet of Bastar district. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi/Mongabay.

Sanjeev Jain claimed that the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) launched the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) scheme on a national level, in 2019, after being inspired by Chhattisgarh’s Saur Sujla model. “The benefit is that farmers who do not have electricity connection for irrigation can irrigate their lands using solar power.”

The number of solar pumps installed in four districts of Bastar subdivision (Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker and Narayanpur) under the Saur Sujla scheme from 2016-17 to 2020-21 is 17,736. Out of this, 10,822 are submersible pumps and 6,914 are surface ones. The total funding under the scheme has also increased over the years: from Rs. 450 crore (Rs. 4.5 billion) in 2016-2017 to Rs. 553 crore (Rs. 5.53 billion) in 2020-2021.

National initiative to provide clean energy to farmers

According to the MNRE, PM-KUSUM is one of the largest initiatives in the world to provide clean energy to more than 3.5 million farmers in India.

“Powering these fossil-fuel-based pumps with solar energy will significantly reduce carbon emissions from agriculture activities and reduce the burden of cross-subsidies on financially distressed DISCOMs (distribution companies). To reduce dependency on diesel-powered irrigation pumps, the government is keen to promote off-grid or decentralised solar irrigation primarily through PM-KUSUM which targets adding 30.8 gigawatts of solar capacity by installing 1.75 million pumps by 2022,” said Manu Maudgal, director at the New Delhi-based non-profit Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation.

As part of its climate pledges, India is committed to increasing its share of the installed capacity of electric power from non-fossil sources to 40 percent by 2030. Besides large-scale solar projects, the government is also focusing on decentralised solar plants as that can help rural communities, especially farmers.

It is estimated that Chhattisgarh stands fifth in the country in state-wise estimated solar energy potential. Apart from Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh are also accelerating the promotion of solar irrigation systems, Maudgal added.

Read more: Sunrays light up dark villages in Jharkhand


Banner image: The solar-powered lift irrigation system is proving to be highly beneficial for farmers. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi/Mongabay.

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