Feature story

Sunshiny way

Renewable energy solutions at the village level are powering up the lives of poor farmers in four Indian states

Jauna Majhi uses words such as ‘contented’ and ‘confident’ to describe how she feels about being a farmer. That makes her different from the majority of Indians dependent on agriculture for a living, and there’s a good monetary reason for it. The 36-year-old earns in excess of 100,000 annually by cultivating green chillies, bitter gourd, cauliflower and other vegetables on her quarter-acre plot in Gaduan village in Odisha’s Keonjhar district.

Ms Majhi’s happy state of mind is relatively new. Farming, for long the mainstay of Gaduan’s women, used to involve weeks of hard labour with very little reward to show for it. Earnings were poor because the land could be used for the cultivation of only one crop during the kharif season (when sowing is done ahead of the monsoon for an autumn harvest). “We had to put in backbreaking labour and the harvested crops earned us meagre incomes, barely enough to sustain ourselves through the year,” says Ms Majhi.

Things started looking up for Ms Majhi in December 2018 when she and nine other members of the Biswa Marang Buru self-help group (SHG) decided to pool in money for a tilt at renewable energy. With the backing of a welcome supporter, the women installed a 3HP solar pump and that proved to be a gamechanger.

The solar water pump ensured better water supply to irrigate the fields. Where earlier they could grow crops for only two to three months during the kharif season, now the women have the water to grow horticultural crops for nearly 10 months of the year. The increase in yield has led to consequent improvements in income levels. In 2020, the earnings of Ms Majhi and her SHG collectively stood at 457,000.

A CInI staffer interacts with farmers in Kumbhalgarh (in Rajasthan) who have pooled resources to install a solar water pump

Renewables for a better life

The solar water pump idea that brought about this dramatic change in the lives of Gadaun’s women is part of the Tata Trusts’ decentralised renewable energy (DRE) initiative. The programme banks on off-grid renewable energy solutions to enhance incomes and the quality of life of rural communities.

DRE systems are characterised by small energy-generation units that deliver energy to individuals or small groups of customers. Environmentally, socio-ethically and economically sustainable, these systems supplement the grid power in villages with solutions than can be customised. The DRE way helps democratise energy access, reduce inequality and make communities self-sufficient.

Implemented by the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI), an associate organisation of the Trusts, the DRE project has been rolled out across Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra and Gujarat as part of the broader Lakhpati Kisan programme. Loosely translated as a farmer who earns 100,000 a year, Lakhpati Kisan has done sterling work in lifting tribal and other underprivileged communities out of abject poverty through agriculture-based livelihood interventions. Besides the four states, the project has been implemented in Rajasthan too.

“DRE acts as a ‘plug in’ within the existing value chain through the replacement or transformation of energy systems,” explains Ayan Deb, an area manager with the Trusts. “For instance, we look at replacing diesel pumps with solar-powered ones. The programme helps reduce recurring costs on diesel and electricity and farmers save valuable time as well.”

CInI promotes the concept of agriculture production cluster, wherein pre-production, production and post-harvest to marketing are undertaken in clusters of contiguous villages. The DRE solutions act as a crucial accelerator and gap filler within the existing value chain and helps the villages to turn ‘Lakhpati’.

To accelerate the adoption of DRE solutions, CInI has developed ‘sustain plus’, a platform to catalyse social, economic and environmental impact. It endeavours to scale DRE solutions and strengthen livelihoods for rural and tribal communities.

The main deal for sustain plus is replicating known solutions on the ground and at scale. “We spur collective action with a clear focus on capital aggregation, allocation, programme management and knowledge sharing across organisations and geographies. The focus is to scale up known technology solutions through innovative financial modeling and bringing in technology service providers to carry on services post installation,” says Mr Deb.

Solar serves every purpose

The DRE range covers a gamut of rural applications. The solar pumps that have made life easier for Ms Majhi and her SHG is one of the farm solutions in its basket. Solar energy is also used to create other applications, such as for vaccination refrigerators and carriers, cold storages, lighting and solar-powered drinking water.

Solar-powered cold storages — which reduce post-harvest losses and help secure better prices for produce — have proved to be a winner for farmers in Jharkhand and Gujarat, while sewing machines that run on solar have enabled many women in the programme to become self-employed tailors.

‘Waste to energy’ is another innovative solution promoted under the programme. The project, which has been an income generator for women in Maharashtra’s Igatpuri-Trimbakeswar subdistrict, involves collecting biogas slurry from individual farmers and, from it, producing phosphate-rich organic manure to replace the standard chemical fertilisers. Better for the soil and cheaper for farmers, this organic fertiliser push can become a bigger success if implemented on a larger scale.

Sughanlal Soren has played the part of influencer in his village
Sughanlal Soren has played the part of influencer in his village

For self and village

For the residents of Chanaro village in Jharkhand’s Hazaribag district, a good profit was not a term easily associated with livestock rearing. Despite being just 20km from the district headquarters, livestock farmers here had a hard time finding veterinary support and medicines when their animals fell sick.

Sughanlal Soren, a resident of Chanaro, burned a hole in his pocket when he called a veterinarian to treat his cattle. It proved to be a wake-up call for the 45-year-old, who decided to shift track and become a livestock service provider with solar by his side. “This has helped me look after my own livestock as well as serve the needs of the villagers,” he says.

Mr Soren decided to install a solar-powered vaccination chamber, a decentralised renewable energy solution promoted by CInI under the ‘sustain plus’ initiative. The vaccination chamber ensures the right temperature for Mr Soren to stock the livestock medicines and vaccines needed in Chanaro and nearby villages.

Investing in the solar-powered solutions has provided Mr Soren with a steady income. And the ready availability of medicines has encouraged Chanaro’s villagers to take up livestock farming to boost their income from farming.

While DRE comes with a host of benefits, there are challenges in scaling up. Harnessing solar power for rural development involves high capital investments. A solar water pump with capacity ranging between 3HP and 5HP is priced between 200,000 and 300,000, which puts it well beyond the reach of small farmers. That means arranging for finances from outside sources.

CInI has stepped in with support by devising financial models that make it affordable for beneficiaries. In the mix are grants, loans and available government subsidies, with loan products tailormade for those in need of money to go solar.

The greater goal is to foster an ecosystem that ensures the long-term sustainability of the solar solutions. And this goes beyond technical and financial aid to include ways and means of maintaining the equipment. The last is important because lack of service personnel for repair and maintenance was a stumbling block preventing villagers from taking the greener route.

One challenge that CInI has converted into a livelihood opportunity involves technology service providers. Local youth have been trained for the job, mainly for the upkeep of the solar equipment. This has turned out to be a win-win for the larger community. Youth from villages have found gainful employment and a steady source of income while the villagers who have installed solar solutions are assured of quality maintenance and service.

Villagers in Rajasthan inspect plans for a solar pump based water supply scheme

The DRE promise, ultimately, is about getting farmers and others in the five states where the initiative is being implemented to make the switch to solar. As Ms Majhi has discovered, there is a sunnier side to life.