Increase in farm area and replacement of diesel with sun are major benefits. Source: AKRS)

Solar irrigation pumps owned by entrepreneurs who sell water to farmers at affordable rates provide sustainable energy at a cheap price

AGRICULTURE IN Bihar has languished primarily because of high input costs, especially that of energy due to inadequate grid electricity supply and a high price of diesel.

Rural electrification through grid supply is not happening in Bihar due to lack of public investment. Also, the existing groundwater markets are neither increasing irrigation nor achieving equity. So, there is a need for an alternative.

The Bihar government launched a scheme for solar irrigation in 2008—Bihar Saur Kranti Sinchai Yojana—as a solution to the lack of adequate electricity for irrigation.

Under this scheme, two KWp solar panels were used to energise small pumps. These were provided to small farmers. This did not succeed because the pumps were too small to irrigate all the lands of the farmers situated in various non-contiguous fragments. Also, there was not enough water in the shallow aquifer for these pumps to be operable throughout the winter and summer seasons.

Combining the insights from studies done on the subject, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) proposed a new tweak for the Bihar Saur Kranti Sinchai Yojana to improve both its operationality and the equity of irrigation. The IWMI has not only proposed an alternative involving solar-powered irrigation and competitive groundwater markets but also implemented a pilot to demonstrate the suitability of this policy.

This model of solar-powered irrigation involves entrepreneurs who make partial investment in installing deep borewells and sell water to farmers

The IWMI, in association with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, has implemented a solar-powered irrigation pilot on an entrepreneurship model in Chak Haji village in Samastipur district in Bihar from the winter sowing season of 2016 to test the viability of this new policy. This involves the introduction of Solar Irrigation Service Providers (S-ISP) who would make some investment in installing solar-powered deep tubewells, the rest being provided as a grant by IWMI. This water would be sold to farmers. The S-ISPs would be chosen in such a way that their command areas overlap so as to avoid the creation of monopolies wherein big farmers earn rent to the detriment of the smallholders.

Average returns for vegetable cultivation in Chak Haji turns out to be Rs 79,179 per ha for one crop. Source AKRSP

The unconfined aquifer in Chak Haji does not have enough water for providing irrigation through shallow borewells and ponds for three cropping seasons to all the agricultural land. So, the confined aquifer has been tapped through deep borewells to extend and diversify agriculture in the village. Six irrigation systems consisting of 5HP submersible water pumps in borewells have been installed. They tap into the confined aquifer powered by solar photovoltaic panels of 5 KWp and cater to a command area of about 12 ha and 100 farmers each through an underground pipeline that is about 300 m long.

Competitive Solar Irrigation Service Markets in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin

A study was done to evaluate the operation of this pilot in Chak Haji village of Samastipur district in Bihar. The alternative policy pushed as a part of this pilot seeks to create a competitive water market offering irrigation service at an affordable price to pump-less farmers. It aims to crowd out diesel tubewells as well as expand the irrigated area, promote intensification and diversification of the farming system. The idea is to improve utilisation of solar pump capital, allow small farmers to irrigate their plots by buying water from an S-ISP close to each plot and incentivise S-ISP entrepreneurs to contribute to capital investment.

The pumps tap into confined aquifer and irrigate around 12 ha each through a 100 metre long underground pipeline

The study clearly shows that all these objectives have been met and the pilot has a very high internal rate of return and tax revenue potential. Therefore, the policy can be adopted on a large scale because of its excellent economic efficiency, environmental sustainability and equity features, not only in Bihar but in the entire Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna basin which has similar characteristics as that of Samastipur.

The water users had two main complaints to make regarding the operation of the system. First, the last mile connectivity from the pipeline to the farms through collapsible pipes causes a considerable loss of water, time and energy. Second, vegetable cultivation often requires water in the evenings and this is not possible as the solar pump system cannot operate in the evenings.

New employment has been created under the project. Source: IWMIHowever, before scaling up this pilot as a policy intervention for catalysing competitive solar irrigation service markets on a large scale there are a few critical points that need to be addressed. First and foremost, the capital cost is much higher than what it should be.

There have been many other instances of such overcharging by solar equipment suppliers and in some cases, governments have cancelled the tendering process due to this.

For large scale implementation, a proper market study should be done and the solar panels and other accessories sourced from Tier 1 companies at competitive prices, given the fact that bulk purchases are being made. The S-ISPs can themselves be trained to acquire and assemble the systems once quality parts are sourced.

This will create a pool of talent to do the implementation locally and take care of future service requirements.

For large-scale implementation, Android-based mobile data collection applications should be designed and linked to a cloud-based Management Information System for authentic data collection and real-time insights into the operation of the system. All plots should be geo-tagged and their areas properly noted and all farmers given identity numbers. There is considerable leasing in and out of land and for proper tracking of water use, agricultural production, economic efficiency and equity outcomes, technological recourse must be had.

The internal rate of return of the pilot is very high and there is a leeway for making higher investments 

Proper market survey will bring down the capital cost of the solar pump system considerably, so, in future, the underground pipeline system should be made more extensive. This will help cover most farmers in the command area. Provisions should be made for distributed storage in staged tanks to cater to a small cluster of farm plots. These can be filled up during the day by the farmers to be used in the evenings.

This article, first published on India Water Portal, is based on the evaluation report ‘Catalysing Competitive Solar Irrigation Service Markets’ by the authors of a solar-powered irrigation project sponsored by the International Water Management Institute – Tata Water Policy Research Programme and Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research Programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems and executed by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme.

The full report is here