Solar pumps are not “silver bullet” to overcome irrigation challenges

Central and state governments are promoting solar power to meet India’s irrigation requirements. The recently approved KUSUM scheme alone targets to install 17.5 lakh off-grid and 10 lakh on-grid solar pumps and 10 GW of solar power plants capacity in rural areas by 2022. The objective is to meet multiple ambitious goals ­– provide access to assured irrigation, increase farmer income through sale of surplus power, reduce electricity subsidy burden (~Rs 50,000 crores) and expand the distributed renewable energy capacity.

But will the multitude of objectives be met? Unlikely, asserts Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in its latest report titled Silver Bullet: Are Solar pumps a panacea for irrigation, farmer distress and discom losses? The report is supported by CSE’s surveys of farmers in three districts in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

In some areas, solar pumps can help meet irrigation requirement, however, CSE’s survey of farmers in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh pointed to overexploitation of water and misuse of pump due to poor policy design and implementation.

“Clean energy does not always mean green solution. We have enough evidence from states like Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu about the impact of highly subsidized electricity on groundwater withdrawal. Large-scale solar pump deployment without a comprehensive plan to monitor and control water usage would be equally disastrous,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, at a public meeting organised in Aurangabad, Maharashtra to share the report.

Speaking at the meeting, H M Desarda, former member of Maharashtra’s State Planning Board agreed: “Increased dependence on groundwater for irrigation has resulted in improving agricultural yields, but it has also led to depletion of groundwater resources at an alarming rate.”

Off-grid pumps – the focus of various schemes – pose the most serious risk of over-extraction of groundwater given power generated by them can’t be injected into the grid. They are also uneconomical since they are underused — survey of farmers in Buldhana, Maharashtra, showed utilization of pumps was as low as 33 per cent.

The solar pump schemes have so far mostly failed to benefit their intended target group – small farmers. CSE found that in Pilibhit most of the subsidised solar pumps had been installed by large farmers. The KUSUM scheme proposes installing solar plants on farm land. This option will require large investment or the ability to lease land for 25 years, which will likely exclude small farmers.

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