The unrelenting heat of the summer afternoon sends us scurrying for cover under a large tree as we reach Dhundi village in Gujarat’s Kheda district. We are making our way to Udaysinh Chawda’s home.
It is a spacious thatched hut with mud walls and floors smeared with cow-dung. There are people winnowing and sifting grain, buffaloes chewing cud. Adjacent to the hut is a two-bigha field lush with bajra and maize crop. And conspicuous amid all the green are gleaming, evenly-spaced, ground-mounted solar panels. Chawda is a solar farmer. The blazing sun that’s making us wilt brings a smile to his face — to him it means power, copious water, and income.
Exactly two years after the launch of the world’s first solar irrigation cooperative here, the Dhundi Saur Urja Utpadak Sahakari Mandali or DSUUSM, nine famers, including Chawda, have become successful solar entrepreneurs: they harvest solar energy as they would a remunerative crop. They irrigate their fields using solar pumps, and they earn by selling surplus power to the Madhya Gujarat Vij Company Ltd., and by selling water to other farmers in the area.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which launched the project in 2016, is based in Anand, the home of famous cooperative brand Amul. The world’s first solar cooperative movement has transformed lives here — farmers buy water from these entrepreneurs at half the rate they paid when they used diesel pumps.
Out of the shadows
Chawda shows me around his field where 36 solar panels with a combined capacity of 10.8 kW are installed. The power generated can draw all the groundwater he needs, and he gets to sell the surplus. Everyday, Chawda sells up to 50 kWh of solar energy for approximately Rs. 7 per unit.
When Chawda invested Rs. 54,000 two years ago for solar panels, pumps and a micro-grid, it pinched his budget, but he was excited about the experiment, he says. And it has paid off. His income has jumped from Rs. 30,000 a year to Rs. 1,30,000 today, a cool Rs. 1 lakh more from selling electricity and water.
His mother, sitting on a cot, shows me a scar on her abdomen. “We would have had to borrow money for this operation if not for the cooperative,” she says.
Solar entrepreneur and DSUUSM Secretary, Parvin Parmar’s wife Daksha tells me that even a few years ago she would walk a kilometre every day to a canal to wash clothes and fill water pots from handpumps. “Now there’s always water at home,” she says. She even manages to watch her favourite television programme in the afternoons. The family has bought cows with the profits earned, and Daksha makes Rs. 500 to Rs. 600 a day selling milk to the Amul dairy cooperative.
I see long, black PVC and rubber pipes snaking from his farm to adjoining farms, taking water from Parmar’s borewell. He sells water for Rs. 250, half the amount that diesel-pump owners charge. “Of around 450 water buyers in the area, almost 50% now receive water at these affordable rates,” says Parmar. And diesel pumps in village have come down from 49 to 30.
Sunny side up
We follow the pipes to Ravjibhai’s farm. Ravjibhai says he has been buying water to irrigate his water-intensive wheat and rice fields for several years. “I used to pay Rs. 500 per bigha for one irrigation. Sometimes the diesel pump wouldn’t work and I would have no water at all.” The solar pump has been a boon. “It has greatly reduced the cost of irrigation, the crops get watered on time and my annual income is up by Rs. 30,000,” he says.
Tushaar Shah, senior fellow at IWMI, says the solar crop has turned Dhundi’s economy around in just two years, a success story that others are trying to replicate. A similar cooperative has come up in Mujkuva village in Anand.
The interesting thing is, as Gyan Prakash Rai, consultant at IWMI says, the Dhundi project is “a energy-water-livelihood solution rather than an energy substitute.”
There are 21 million diesel and electric pumps in India that can be replaced by solar pumps. “If these are connected to the grid, it would increase farmer incomes, reduce the subsidy burden on electricity distribution companies, curb over-use of ground water, and reduce carbon footprints,” says Shah. That’s quite a sunny picture.
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Of around 450 water buyers in the area, almost 50% now receive water at these affordable rates