- Around 99,000 farmers in Rajasthan have installed solar pumps for irrigation in the last decade. However, farmers in many districts, where there the groundwater levels are depleting, are unable to now use these pumps to draw water.
- Many of these farmers are repurposing the solar panels for other uses or selling them. They are demanding that the central government subsidise more powerful solar pumps to extract water from a greater depth.
- Experts, however, disagree with the demand for more powerful pumps, saying it will lead to further overextraction of water.
As temperatures rose in June this year, Jaman Singh Saini, a 69-year-old farmer from Badangarh village in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, was irrigating his 31-acre farmland of millets, using an electric pump which came with its own challenges – erratic electricity supply, voltage fluctuation and associated costs.
About 10 years ago, in 2013, Saini had attempted to overcome these challenges by opting for a solar pump through a government scheme. He had invested Rs. 1.2 lakh, in addition to the subsidy, to set up a 3.5 horsepower (HP) solar water pump. Initially, the solar water pump served its purpose, but in 2016, the groundwater level dropped below 400 feet, exceeding the maximum operational capacity of the subsidised solar pump, which could function only to a depth of 320 feet (100 metres). With no viable usage, Saini decided to sell off the solar panels and the pump and now relies on his electricity-powered pump for irrigation.
Like, Saini, there are many farmers in the area who have installed solar pumps in their farmlands. In farms that were near Katli river, which originates from the Aravali range, few solar pumps were functioning, supporting sprinklers, as the groundwater level was up to 200 feet. But in most places, farmers regret their decision to invest in solar pumps.
Another farmer, 35-year-old Manoj Kumar, who lives a few kilometers away in Chainpura village, installed solar pumps in November 2022 under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) scheme with a 60% government subsidy. He had hoped for a permanent and effective solution to irrigate his farm. However, due to the depleting groundwater, his solar setup too has now become redundant, he shared with Mongabay-India while repairing a fence to protect his crops from wild animals. He has now sold his solar panels.
Saini and Kumar’s stories highlight the challenges faced by farmers in adapting to renewable energy solutions amidst unpredictable groundwater levels in Rajasthan.
Tulcha Ram Sinwar, state general secretary of Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, says that many farmers in Jodhpur, Bikaner, Churu, Jalore, and Barmer areas of western Rajasthan, are facing a similar problem.
The Central Ground Water Report 2022 claims scanty groundwater recharge and overexploitation as the key reasons for groundwater depletion. The report says, in western India, particularly Rajasthan and parts of northern Gujarat has an arid climate, and the annual groundwater recharge is scanty. The stage of groundwater extraction is very high in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, and Daman & Diu, it adds.
Schemes for solar pumps
Farmers in Rajasthan have been installing solar pumps for a decade. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), initiated in 2010, helped farmers to get solar pumps at a subsidised rate. In 2019, the Government of India (GoI) launched another scheme named PM-KUSUM that gives subsidies for up to 7.5 HP solar pumps.
With a total of 57,692 farmers benefiting from the scheme as of February 28, Rajasthan is on top of the list of beneficiaries of the PM-KUSUM scheme, followed by Maharashtra (47978) and Haryana (44325). The scheme aimed to add a solar capacity of 30,800 MW by 2022. However, the government claims that the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered the pace of implementation and has extended the deadline till March 2026.
Under the JNNSM and KUSUM scheme, more than 99,000 solar pumps have been installed in Rajasthan from 2010 to 2023, as per the data provided by the Rajasthan Horticulture Department, the nodal agency of the PM-KUSUM Scheme in Rajasthan.
Solar panels diverted for other purposes
Farmers that are no longer using their solar pumps, are diverting the solar panels for other use or selling them.
For instance, Veer Singh (56) from Ismailpur village now uses his solar pump to draw water for his farm, from a pond instead of from the ground. “Many of us have a pond at the side of our farms, which we use to collect water and use it for the irrigation purpose later. There is no point in spending so much money on solar pumps and not using them. So, I and many of the farmers in the area have started to use solar pumps in farm ponds. For groundwater, we use electric pumps,” said Singh.
Similarly, Vijendra Singh (57), a retired soldier from Indian Army residing in Murot village in Jhunjhunu district, installed solar pumps in his farms in 2016, but with the groundwater level depleting, these panels were of no use for irrigation. He is now repurposing them to generate electricity for his home.
“I have purchased 12 solar panels other than ten solar panels that were installed with the solar pump. I am installing them on my terrace. Now with the installation charge, inverter and battery cost, it costs around Rs. 5.5 lakh. This will help generate electricity for three rooms including fans, cooler and refrigerator. Our village has a lot of power cuts. So, once the solar panels are installed, my family will not depend on electricity supply,” claimed Singh.
When asked if people are working towards putting panels at home, Vijendra said that it is not affordable for everyone to put solar panels. “Investing around Rs. six lakhs at a time to install solar panels is not affordable to everyone. I can afford it, but not everyone is that capable,” he said.
Another user, Bulesh Devi (35) in Chainpura village, Jhunjhunu, showed the broken solar panels on her terrace that her family had initially installed for pumps and are now used for electricity at home. “We installed ten solar panels on our terrace, out of which three got broken in heavy winds. Now, we have to purchase more panels to get proper electricity which will require further investment,” she said.
There are many farmers who have sold their panels to others or the dealers from which they bought them earlier.
Parvesh Saini (36), from Indali village, Jhunjhunu district purchased solar panels and a pump in 2021, but as the groundwater depleted, he sold it further to people who live close to the Katli river basin where the groundwater level is high, he told Mongabay-India.
Demand for powerful pump
The 2022 annual report published by the Central Ground Water Department highlights the situation of groundwater in Rajasthan, stating, “The overall stage of groundwater extraction in the country is 60.08%. The stage of groundwater extraction is very high in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu, where it is more than 100%, which implies that in these states, the annual groundwater consumption is more than annual extractable groundwater resources.”
For farmers, extracting groundwater is costly and if they bore further to reach the groundwater after levels have depleted, it will cost more. Hence, many are shifting back to electric pumps which can draw water from more depth.
According to Sunil Bhuria, a solar dealer in Jhunjhunu district, Rajasthan, one solar pump of 7.5 HP, including the solar panels, cables and installation charges, costs around Rs. four lakhs. After a 60% subsidy, a farmer has to invest around Rs 1.65 lakh.
An electric pump of the same 7.5 HP costs Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 35,000, and with additional cable, installation, and delivery charges it would be a total of Rs. 70,000. The electric pump however, uses grid electricity and the electricity bill comes to around Rs. 4,000 to 5,000 every month.
“Solar pump is a one-time investment. However, an electric pump costs less and works better in places where the groundwater level is low. Most of the villages receive electricity for farming at night, which is inconvenient for the farmers too. So, with solar pumps, farmers can irrigate their farms morning to evening without depending on the electricity supply,” said Bhuria.
But to use solar pumps to extract groundwater from a greater depth, they have to install more powerful motors, which will cost more. This is the reason farmers in these districts are asking the government to subsidise pumps of higher power.
Based on growing complaints from farmers, the Rajasthan State Horticulture Department, which is the nodal agency for this scheme, wrote a letter to the central government in April to increase the limit of subsidy to 15 HP solar pumps, from the current subsidy for pumps of 7.5 HP.
Deputy Director Rajasthan Horticulture Department and nodal officer of the PM KUSUM Scheme Danveer Verma, said, “Looking at the current scenario of Rajasthan with the depleting groundwater rate, we have requested the increase in the subsidy rate on solar pumps to be useful to the farmers. Hence, a letter was sent to the central government in April to increase the subsidy rate for the farmers in Rajasthan from 7.5 HP to 15 HP. It is now in the hands of the central government to decide.”
Famer’s unions are also raising this issue in front of the government. Tulchharam Sinwar, from Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Rajasthan, says, “Solar connections are emerging as the best option for the timely supply of electricity to the farmers for irrigation, but till now, the government’s plans regarding solar connections are not suitable for the farmers with the depleting groundwater level. In Jodhpur, Bikaner, Churu, Jalore, and Barmer areas of western Rajasthan, farmers irrigate by discharging water from 300 to 500 meters deep. In this scenario, if the government provides 20 HP solar pumps on subsidy, then only the farmers will be able to get its benefit,” says Tulcha Ram Sinwar, the farmer leader.
But, experts do not agree with the demand as it will further exploit groundwater. Simran Grover, CEO of the Centre for Energy, Environment & People (CEEP), while talking to Mongabay-India, stated the importance of an integrated and tailored policy approach that balances the interest of farmers, communities, and ecosystems. CEEP is a Jaipur based thinktank working on low carbon transition.
“In Rajasthan, out of 302 blocks, groundwater is over-exploited in 219 blocks. While solar pumps can be a boon for farmers, a cautioned approach toward irrigation policies is needed. Emphasis needs to shift towards water conservation while balancing the development needs of farmers and communities. This shall require a multi-dimensional approach. Water-intensive crops may be systemically discouraged by encouraging less water-intensive crops, restructuring agriculture subsidies across different departments (including electricity) to encourage markets and adoption of less water-intensive crops, and linking subsidies to mandatory adoption of water-efficient practices such as the use of drip systems. Some of these practices can be easily integrated with the Kusum scheme by provisioning appropriate incentives and mandates for water efficient technologies,” said Grover.
Banner image: Om Prakash from Indali village in Rajasthan had installed a solar pump for irrigation under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission. The solar pump stopped working in 2015. Photo by Parul Kulshrestha/Mongabay.