Why Are Solar-Powered Systems in a State of Disrepair in Chhattisgarh, India?

clothes drying on solar panel outdoors in front of blue building
Gaon Connection
Chhattisgarh, India
Why Are Solar-Powered Systems in a State of Disrepair in Chhattisgarh, India?

In January 2021, Pamed police station in Chhattisgarh, 93 km from the district headquarters in Bijapur, registered an FIR against unknown people for stealing 15 batteries used in solar power generation from the Pamed Balak Ashram, a boys’ residential hostel.

This was not the first mishap at the state-of-the-art solar photovoltaic power generator plant that was set up at the ashram in 2012.

In 2019, one of the sheets short-circuited; another time some of the photovoltaic sheets shattered due to wind, others became victims to a stray ball and now, they serve as mounted surfaces for the students to dry their clothes. The solar photo-voltaic power generator at the ashram that is responsible for running the water pump and purification unit along with providing electricity to the classrooms for the junior school, the sleeping area and the washroom, has a combined 50 kW capacity. It has been dysfunctional for the past one-and-a-half-years now. The hostel, with over 150 boys, has 10 rooms, including rooms for the students, the faculty and the kitchen.

Set-up in a region marked by left-wing extremism, the hostel is a facility for children belonging to the Dorla and Gond tribal communities from over 15 villages, where the government has little presence. The children are sent off to hostels to ensure not just their education, but also their safety in the red-corridor.

shattered solar panel
Complicated machinery and less than 10% of the budget towards solar energy spent annually on the maintenance of the said machinery, have not made things any easier / Credit: Gargi Verma.

The boys’ ashram in Pamed is a stark example of the state of disrepair the solar power generators have fallen into, in the forested hinterlands of Chhattisgarh, where solar energy was pushed at a massive scale for nearly a decade by the erstwhile BJP state government under the guidance of the central BJP government. From 158 mega watt (MW), the installed capacity of solar units in the state has jumped to 944 MW in 2022, as recorded by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).

In Bijapur’s Dharmavaram, a village separated from Pamed by the Chintavagu river, 19-year-old Lakshmi Podiyam uses the now-defunct solar sheets as a quick dry station. "Last year, when our house was flooded, I spread the pages of my books on the sheets under a heavy stone to dry them off. We dry our clothes there too,” she told Gaon Connection. The system was set-up in her house in 2014, but it gradually stopped working.

"Initially, we could turn on two light bulbs, but since 2019 only one light bulb works; it stopped generating any power since the pandemic," she said.

After repeated complaints, technicians finally responded in late 2021. “They fixed it last December. But it has now stopped working again,” she said. Despite the widespread net of solar-based power generators in the state, and despite the central and state government’s push to increase solar energy’s share in the total electric generation, the users don’t completely trust solar energy. Complicated machinery and less than 10% of the budget towards solar energy spent annually on the maintenance of the said machinery have not made things any easier. 

Pamed, albeit part of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh, only became accessible through the state in 2021. The road from within the Maoist stronghold runs through Kasiguda near Usur to Pamed across two river-beds and several forest nullahs (ravines). None of these water bodies has any culverts or bridges, although two have been sanctioned. The connectivity to over a dozen villages like Gaganpalli, Pusbaka, Bhattiguda, and Kanchar, thus is seasonal.

Conventional energy scores over solar energy

Located closest to the Telangana town of Cherla, Pamed was the first to be "modernized" with multi-story houses and shops boasting refrigerators to store cold-drinks and local brands of beer. According to Chhattisgarh state energy officials, Pamed got access to thermal electricity in 2021, after the Telangana government finally decided to sell electricity to Chhattisgarh.

Despite Chhattisgarh having the third richest coal reserves in the country and being a power surplus state that sells its electricity to other states, parts of the state in the south and north are still not electrified, due to topographical and security challenges.

As soon as electricity (from non-renewable sources) became an option, the staff of Pamed Boys’ Hostel decided to switch to an electric connection in lieu of the solar operated system.

water pump outdoors
Chhattisgarh leads the country in the highest area irrigated, over 150,000 hectares, using solar pumps, according to data from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy / Credit: Gaon Connection. 

“After the batteries were stolen, we didn’t have any other option. We waited for a replacement for a month, but then we applied for an electric connection. Now our water pumps and the rooms are electrified,” said a staff member from the boys’ hostel requesting anonymity.

Before 2021, the village was dependent on solar energy. Solar PhotoVoltaic sheets dotted the skyline and converted solar energy to power water pumps at communal taps, light street lamps and provide electricity in hostels and hospitals. The Chhattisgarh Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA), ensured that solar-based power generators were installed across the hard-to-access hinterland.

Created in 2001 as a registered society under the state’s energy department, CREDA has been lauded nationally for the widespread solar-based power generators across the state, especially in the forested regions where there is no access to other types of electricity. It is the nodal agency for the development and promotion of non-conventional and renewable energy in the state.

The agency is responsible for the implementation of schemes sponsored by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy; it also receives funds from the state for off-grid and large grid solar power generator set-ups, solar-powered water purification plants, pumps and other amenities.

Chhattisgarh leads the country in the highest area irrigated, over 150,000 hectares, using solar pumps, according to the data available with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

Under the Congress government, CREDA also started working on solar-operated cold storage, solar-operated tricycles and even solar-operated biogas plants. On ground, CREDA outsources most of its maintenance work to contractual employees. For the maintenance of the power generator units, it deploys Service Units, a cluster of technician helpers where each cluster is responsible for nearly 100 systems.

According to records maintained by CREDA, the state has 569 units to look after 6,731 set-ups generating nearly 21 MW. “The district officer forms a monthly roster for maintenance, which is followed by the units, and they submit a report each month, after which their payments are processed,” Akash Sharma, Operations and Maintenance head, CREDA told Gaon Connection.

On December 15 last year, the maintenance technicians who form the service units in Bijapur submitted a memorandum to the district officer complaining about irregular payments and demanding permanent jobs instead of contractual opportunities.

“We work under duress and threat of Maoists and are not compensated for it. Registration of complaints from these areas is difficult. Only when we get security and enter the region for field visits do we get complaints. Some of these set-ups are a decade old and thus prone to wear and tear due to rain and wind,” said one of the technicians empaneled with CREDA in Bijapur, requesting anonymity.

broken solar panels in front of a blue building
The cost of maintaining solar panels always exceeds the budget allocated to it / Credit: Gaon Connection.

Maintenance woes 

CREDA is maintaining 29,975 solar power generator systems, 16,931 drinking water pumps and monitoring more than 117,000 solar irrigation pumps, and 93,840 solar home lights cumulatively till November 2022. For this maintenance, the state government sanctioned Rs 27.5 crore in 2019, Rs 30 crore each in 2020 and 2021 and Rs 40 crore in 2022. However, CREDA budgeted for Rs 30.54 crore in 2019, Rs 48.36 crore in 2020, Rs 41.15 crore in 2021 and Rs 50 crore in 2022.

According to Sharma, the gap is generally managed by using funds from other beneficiary departments, such as Panchayat and Health, Education and tourism.

Even as the state government is pushing the new solar panel set-up annually, the budget for its maintenance has grown but too slowly, sources in the department said. “The expenditure on the maintenance is always more than the budget sanctioned. We manage to fill the gaps by using funds from other government agencies, for electrification of their premises. Paucity of funds is one of the reasons why our cluster technicians are still contractual employees,” said an official from the maintenance wing of CREDA.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Gaon Connection on 30 June 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Solar panels were installed at Lakshmi Podayam's house in 2014, but gradually stopped working / Credit: Gaon Connection. 

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