In India's drought-prone Marathwada, solar water pumps are a mixed blessing

man standing in maharashtra
Money Control
Beed, Maharashtra, India

In India's drought-prone Marathwada, solar water pumps are a mixed blessing

Government schemes to solve big problems like water scarcity are, naturally, only as good as their implementation on the ground.

In 2019, the Maharashtra government announced the Mukhyamantri Saur Krushi Pump Yojana (MSKPY), to deploy one lakh off-grid solar-powered water pumps within three years. The pumps are also being counted towards a renewable energy target of 22 gigawatts (GW) by 2022 set for the state under the National Electricity Plan 2018.

The pumps harness renewable energy, to draw water for agriculture in the daytime. Some villages in Maharashtra only get electricity at night, so the ability to run a water pump during the day is important to local farmers.

“I don’t have to go to the farm at night to pump water (now)... There is no fear of getting electrocuted,” says Manisha Pawar, who owns and farms 2-acres in Kalsambhar, a village 59 km from the district headquarters at Beed.

Pawar paid 10% of the cost - Rs16,570 - to have the solar-powered water pump installed on her farm in October 2020. Since then, she says, she’s been able to grow vegetables and millets (jowar) in addition to the Kharif crop and fodder she managed in the summer months before.

Officers of the implementing agency, Mahavitaran (also known as MSEDCL), say that 61,069 solar pumps had been installed under the scheme as of December 3, 2020. More than half of them, 32078, in the drought-prone Marathwada region with an average rainfall of 700mm and groundwater below 400-500 ft, according to farmers and reports.

Eligibility rules

Under the MSKPY, farmers with an assured water source but without an electricity connection are eligible for the scheme. However, Bharat Kamble, PRO, MSECDL, explains that farmers in areas where the groundwater is already below 60 meters can’t qualify for the scheme as per Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) rules.

“We ask farmers whether the groundwater level is as per rule,” said Chandramani Mishra, a superintendent engineer of the renewable energy section of MSEDCL. “If he affirms, then only we give pumps. However, there is no mechanism to check groundwater level technically with equipment with MSEDCL,” he said.

As of now, officials seem to be depending on farmers to know and correctly report the ground water level.

“Farmers need to apply online. MSEDCL officials approve the applications if farmers are eligible as per rules. Farmers receive intimation on a mobile phone. Farmers have to choose the vendor of solar pumps from the list available online,” Mishra said.

“There is no mechanism or rule to check how deep bore wells are dug up by farmers. Farmers in the forms fill that water level is in the limits as per rules,” Atul Deulgoankar, an environmental activist from Latur, said.

"If farmers continue to exploit groundwater, it will be depleted further."

According to Pintu Tangde, the sarpanch of Kalsambhar, Pawar's village, the groundwater table on her farm had receded to 400 feet at the time of getting the solar pump.

Additionally, bigger farmers have found ways to avail of the scheme too.

Umesh Deshmukh, a farmer from Mirkhel, 40 km from its Taluka Parbhani, in Marathwada, has received a 3 HP pump under the scheme. “We have a total of 35 acres of land. We have divided it among five brothers, my father, wives of two brothers. Thus, technically we all are marginal farmers. Electricity connection is in the name of my father. We all applied for the pumps and we, fortunately, got selected,” Deshmukh said. “Our borewell is more than 250 ft deep,” he said. One meter is 3.3 feet.

Still, there are advantages of the solar pumps for farmers.

“Earlier, the electricity DP box would explode when the load was high,” Deshmukh said. “I don’t have to face such an issue with solar pump. I don’t have to go to farms at night to water the crops. This year, I have cultivated watermelon, ginger, and muskmelon in the summer and I am hopeful that I will get a good harvest and income,” he said.

Experts speak

Pratha Jhawar of the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, said, “Government, seeing the misery of farmers due to lack of water, gives away pumps to applicants. But if farmers continue to exploit groundwater, it will be depleted further. And solar pumps might not be useful in such a worst (case) scenario. Instead, the government should assess the areas/regions to know how many pumps should be distributed in that area,” she said.

Maharashtra “has 1.5 crore farmers and the number of available pumps is only one lakh. How much power subsidy burden will decrease? Or how much pollution caused by diesel pumps will decrease?” another expert asked.

Sarpanch Tangde of Kalsambhar village said: “Water level has already gone down to 400 ft in the village. We have to get water from a pond that is 4-5 km away.”

This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Money Control on 18 April 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A 2019 photo of a man standing beside a borewell in Aurangabad, one of eight districts in Marathwada / Credit: Francis Mascarenhas, Reuters.

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