- Farmers in West Bengal who switched from diesel or electricity to solar-power irrigation pumps say profit margins have increased due to the negation of irrigation costs.
- Yet, records show only a small section of farmers get subsidies for solar-powered pumps compared to electricity and diesel-powered pumps.
- While high initial investment discourages many farmers from converting, the central sector farm solarisation scheme PM Kusum hasn’t taken off in the state either.
Compared to a year ago, Sanjit Biswas now worries less about his profits from farming. A small farmer owning a one-acre farm at Hazarinagar village in Hanskhali block of Nadia district, West Bengal, Biswas had been struggling with dwindling profit margins due to increasing farming expenses, including fuel costs for irrigation. But the solar-powered irrigation pump he installed in February 2022 saved him around Rs. 15,000 on fuel during last year’s boro (water-intensive, winter paddy farming) season alone.
Of the total Rs. 2.37 lakh cost, the state government offered Rs. 1.42 lakh as subsidy under the Financial Support Scheme for Farm Mechanisation (FSSM). Biswas had to pay the remaining, Rs. 95,040, for which a loan was arranged from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) at a 5% annual interest rate on a 24 months repayment schedule, which ends in January next year. “I will be relieved then. Irrigation cost has already reached zero,” Biswas told Mongabay-India.
He said that three horsepower (HP) solar pumps are fit for boro cultivation on 0.65 acre land, adding that 3-4 acres of land can be brought under irrigation for other crops, like vegetables. Pumps of five HP capacity can cover around 1.5 acres of land for boro cultivation. “Many small farmers would benefit if the government can take the scheme to more people, as there are many areas where power connectivity hasn’t reached farmlands and farmers solely depend on diesel-operated pumps,” he said.
The overlooked alternative
Despite such enthusiasm from Biswas, none of his neighbours in the village has opted for the scheme as of now. Similar is the case of Dhipal Chandra Karmakar, the lone solar-powered pump user at Bererpara village in Hanskhali block.
A relatively big farmer owning around 13 acres of land altogether in multiple plots, one of Karmakar’s two electricity-powered irrigation pumps was converted to a solar-powered system about four years ago. He says the solar system has helped him save Rs. 5,000-6,000 annually on electricity costs.
The lack of farmers’ interest in opting for solar-powered pumps is evident from a government document that shows in neighbouring North 24-Parganas, India’s second-most populous district, of the 331 farmers to whom subsidy was released during 2021-22 for purchasing a different type of farm machinery under the FSSM scheme, 114 installed electric pump sets of 1.5-five HP capacity, while 52 went for petrol/ diesel pump sets of 1.5-5 HP capacity, and only nine opted for solar pumps of 1.5-5 HP capacities.
This is despite the government, in 2021, bringing down the land requirement for setting up solar pumps under these schemes to one acre from 1.5 acres. This should have brought a larger number of farmers within the ambit of the scheme, as the average land holding size in West Bengal is .77 hectare or 1.9 acres.
“Despite the subsidy, the farmer will still have to cough up around Rs. One lakh for a three HP pump, and it takes about a month or a little more to get the subsidy amount deposited in the bank account. A loan, if taken, has to be repaid within two years. In my case, I have an EMI cost of Rs. 4,200 per month for two years. There are many small and marginal farmers for whom this is not easy,” Biswas said.
Both Biswas and Karmakar agree that hybrid irrigation pumps with both solar and electricity options would best suit the farmers’ interest, as it would allow them to irrigate their land even at night, at the crack of dawn, or on cloudy days, when the solar pump fails to deliver well.
Such a solar-electricity hybrid pumping system scheme was introduced in three districts – Nadia and North 24-Parganas in southern West Bengal and Cooch Behar in the northern part of the state, mostly as pilot projects. One project at Char Haripur village in Sutragarh area of Santipur in Nadia comprised 13 solar-electric hybrid pumps, each of five HP capacity and catering to six hectares of culturable command area, at the total cost of Rs. 20 million, under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikash Yojna (RKVY) – RAFTAAR scheme.
Since there are few farmers owning six hectares of land in West Bengal, the administration helped farmers form water users’ associations. One farmer had to give a plot of land (.01 acres) to the government on lease for the infrastructure, and farmers of the neighbouring plots would pay that farmer a charge for irrigating their land.
“Farming my 1.6 acres of land in winter used to cost Rs. 6,000 over three months on electricity charges. I have been saved from it, and farmers of my neighbouring plots have also benefited, as they are paying a reasonable charge,” said Bidhan Chandra Pal, on whose land the setup was installed.
The water usage charge usually comes to Rs. 2,000-2,500 per bigha (0.33 acre) for the whole three-month season of winter paddy and Rs. 200-300 per acre per hour for vegetables and other crops like jute and mustard that do not require daily watering. Each pump can cater to 2-2.5 acres for the winter paddy and up to 13 acres for other crops.
A challenging trade-off
While Pal and his neighbours sounded happy and demanded more such projects, the administration is not approving them anymore.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an officer of the district administration said that approving such projects stopped in 2022 in Nadia district after nearly 90% of the district’s community development blocks came under the critical or semi-critical category with regard to groundwater depletion.
“Encouraging zero-cost groundwater extraction may not be a good idea in areas where the groundwater has depleted below the safe level. We are taking opinions and going slow on this,” said the officer.
According to Aditi Mukherji, Director, Climate Change Impact Platform at CGIAR, almost all mitigation options to reduce greenhouse gas in the agriculture sector has a negative impact on productivity, except for solar pump.
“Solar pumps can help farmers increase the yield. This is what our studies in Bangladesh show very clearly. Farmers who irrigate boro paddy with solar-powered pumps are making 7 to 8% more yield than those irrigating with diesel pumps. As long as the government subsidises the high upfront cost, it is mostly beneficial for farmers,” she told Mongabay India.
She pointed out that West Bengal was lagging behind other states when it came to solarization of the irrigation system, having less than 1,000 of India’s total 300,000 solar pumps installed, as per data provided by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).
“Most West Bengal’s solar pumps are off-grid, whereas grid-connected pumps are the way forward. Farmers can earn from feeding power to the grid when the pump is not operational. This would also negate the possibility of farmers commercially extracting groundwater to take advantage of low-cost pumping, as they can earn substantially from selling electricity,” she said.
The state’s water resources investigation and development department website says that the possibility of connecting existing solar-powered minor irrigation installations with the grid “is being studied and monitored.”
However, the central sector scheme PM KUSUM, which facilitates such a grid-connected solar-powered irrigation system, has not taken off in the state. The government has opted for only one component of the scheme, which allows farmers to solarize their grid-connected agriculture pumps. But of 23,700 pumps sanctioned, only 20 have been installed as of April 30.
An honourary faculty at the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST), Shibpur, and solar energy expert, SP Gon Chaudhuri says that West Bengal may have some policy reservations impacting the PM Kusum scheme’s implementation. “The state opted for only one component of the scheme but even that hasn’t taken off here. I think the government has some policy reservations against the scheme, which is why they aren’t taking any visible initiatives towards implementing it,” he told Mongabay-India.
Banner photo: A women irrigates a field using water pumped from a solar pump. Photo by Subhrajit Sen/Mongabay.