ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Solar Irrigation Pumps and India’s Energy–Irrigation Nexus

A response by the co-authors of the article “Promoting Solar Power as a Remunerative Crop” (EPW, 11 November 2017), to Meera Sahasranaman et al’s discussion article “Solar Irrigation Cooperatives: Creating the Frankenstein’s Monster for India’s Groundwater” (EPW, 26 May 2018), enables a proper assessment of the Dhundi experiment and reiterates the critical role that solar irrigation pumps can play in India’s agricultural future.

India’s groundwater economy is stuck in a perverse nexus between electricity subsidies and groundwater depletion. From Punjab down to Tamil Nadu, free power to farmers has been the cause of rampant groundwater over-exploitation and deteriorating finances of electricity utilities (see for instance, Kumar 2005; Kumar and Singh 2007; Kumar et al 2011). The situation can be salvaged if irrigation tubewells are metered and farmers charged for power consumed in irrigation. But this will have political risks that leaders will be unwilling to accept for much time to come. Solar irrigation pumps (SIPs), considered unviable, are being aggressively promoted with high investment subsidies by governments and DISCOMs (electricity distribution companies of India) to reduce farm power subsidy burden. Since 2014, SIP numbers have grown at CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 65% per year; at this rate, India will have 12 million SIPs by 2025.

In Shah et al (2017) we had argued that, when it comes to groundwater overdraft, SIPs may be worse than free grid power, because solar energy is available during daytime, and is uninterrupted and free. We also argued that one way to reverse this perverse outcome is to promote “Solar Power as Remunerative Crop” (SPaRC) among farmers by (i) using SIPs to replace grid-connected electric tubewells, and (ii) offering SIP owners a buy-back guarantee for their surplus solar energy at a remunerative price. Such a policy would create an incentive for farmers to conserve energy and water, curtail grid power subsidies that burden DISCOMs, reduce carbon footprint of irrigation and offer farmers a new risk-free income source. Gujarat DISCOMs accepted the proposition but felt challenged by the logistical hassle of buying small amounts of power from numerous farmers. The Dhundi Saur Urja Utpadak Sahakari Mandali (DSUUSM), the world’s first solar irrigation cooperative, was created to demonstrate an institutional pathway to meet this challenge.

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