Chasing the sun in Samastipur
How solar irrigation in Bihar has helped double yield
At a time when farmers across the country are in distress, solar power-irrigated agricultural fields at Chakhaji village in Pusa block, Samastipur, Bihar, are lush green. Standing resplendently are bumper crops of peas, tomatoes, a variety of vegetables and tobacco.
Since the solar power irrigation project was launched towards the end of 2016, dividends have been good. There is no more dependency on the polluting diesel pump sets or the vagaries of State electricity to pump water into the fields. Solar panels herald improved irrigation, carbon-free air and increased earnings for farmers.
Two experienced organisations in the development sector, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) and the International Water Management Institute/Tata Power, joined hands and worked out a successful business model over five years, since 2011. Now five entrepreneurs are providing water for irrigating 180 acres of land at a charge.
“Earlier, though ground water was available at a depth of 25 to 35 feet, taking it to fields was a problem,” says Ajit Chaudhary of AKRSP. “Electricity was available only for four to five hours in a day.” Diesel pump sets for irrigation were expensive, emitted carbon dioxide, and had to be replaced periodically. Initially, a system was worked out where farmers would pay ₹120 for an hour of water supply to an irrigation development committee representing two groups of 90 farmers. The water was drawn through a shallow borewell using diesel pumps. Though farmers were able to get an extra crop in the zaid season, which falls between Rabi and Kharif, the managers of the committee were not getting viable returns.
The business model was reworked with the community and solar-powered irrigation using 5 HP pumps was introduced through farmer entrepreneurs who could make the initial investment of ₹50,000. AKRSP and IWMI/Tata Power made an investment of ₹8 lakh — ₹3.5 lakh for the solar panels, advanced as loan and the rest as subsidy.
A solar-powered 5 HP submersible pump provides approximately one lakh litres of water per day on a sunny day, enough to irrigate 20 to 25 acres of land. Similarly, a 5,000 litre tank can be filled in 22 minutes for drinking purposes. Since the water comes from a greater depth, it is also contamination-free.
Yatin, an entrepreneur at Chakhaji village, has 20 solar panels and irrigates 30 acres for 110 farmers at ₹90 for an hour’s supply. He also irrigates his one acre of farmland and is in tune with the farming problems of the region. With 5 HP pumps and bigger pipes, the volume of water released is more and pumping time is less. Since the introduction of the solar-powered irrigation scheme 15 months ago, Yatin’s earnings have trebled to ₹1,20,000 annually. He has paid off the ₹35,000 loan for the solar panels and by 2020 hopes to become the sole owner of the solar-irrigated system.
Every three months, entrepreneurs are trained on maintaining the system and cleaning the panels.
Increase in income
Farmers’ incomes haved increased too. Arun Kumar Singh, who has an acre of land, says as against ₹6,000 paid for water in a season earlier, he now pays ₹2,000 and because of increased flow, yields have doubled. He is able to get two, sometimes three, crops in a season.
Ram Dulhari, a widow, has two acres of land but cultivates just half-an-acre. The rest is leased out at ₹3,300 per acre and she uses the income to educate her children. With solar powered irrigation, the value of the leased land has increased. Market savvy, she grows peas because it entails less labour and good returns. Notably, ten farmers at Chakhaji are women.
Cementing the community is the Kisan Vikas Samiti, which provides street lights, and the Adarsh Kisan Club that helps finance loans and also looks at social issues. In 2011, computer classes were started for girls in the village and 16 girls, who completed the course, are employed. Hindus and Muslims come together to celebrate festivals under the umbrella of the Club.
In the adjoining village of the traditional Kushwaha farming community, entrepreneur Neel Kamal supplies water to 50 acres for 100 farmers, 10 of them single women. In addition to the seasonal vegetables, farmers cultivate tobacco and fruits. Since the soil here is sandy, Kamal says more water is required. Fifty per cent of the farmers settle their water fees promptly, the rest when they sell their crop.
Solar-powered water is available for eight hours a day, but most farmers make do with just two to four hours. It is only in winter and under foggy conditions that the sun’s rays may not be adequate. They can then turn to diesel to meet their requirements.