The Sun Rises in the West

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

AS THE sun rises over Kanpura village, bordering the craggy outcrop of Alwar city, an amazing transformation takes place in Arjun Singh’s 12-bigha field. his newly-installed solar water pump hums to life, activating the drip irrigation network in the field. there is no gushing forth of water, only silent drops wetting the soil.

Singh, 53, is the first farmer in his village to have installed the solar pump and drip irrigation system. “Four years ago, I suffered huge losses and was about to give up farming. Now, the solar water pump and drip irrigation has helped cut costs and the yield has doubled too,” says Singh. he now makes enough to educate his two sons, who, not surprisingly, are studying Agricultural Sciences.

In Rajasthan, where acute shortage of water, coupled with erratic or no electricity supply, makes agriculture even more toilsome, solar pumps and drip irrigation have turned out to be major boons. A 3 hp diesel pump consumes fuel worth Rs 80,000 a year, to irrigate a 0.5 hectare (8-bigha) field. the same pump running on electricity will set the farmer back by Rs 15,000. In contrast, installing a solar pump only requires a one-time investment of Rs 70,000. the 86 percent government subsidy has enabled around 2,000 farmers in Rajasthan to afford these pumps, which has an otherwise prohibitive price tag of Rs 4.5 lakh.

“Every alternate week, the electricity supply comes at night. We would have to water the field at night,” says Singh. “I have a 9 to 5 job now. When the sun goes down, my work is over.”

Although solar water pumps are cost-effective, there is a flipside: free power could lead to indiscriminate usage, depleting the groundwater table. this, in a place like Rajasthan, can have staggering long-term implications. In parts of Alwar, the groundwater table has plunged to 150 feet, from 60 feet around 30 years ago.

“The most optimum use of solar pumps can take place only if farmers integrate it with drip irrigation systems,” says Nidhi Prabha Tewari, from the International Water Management Institute.

Drip irrigation, a simple but powerful technique developed in the 1960s by Israel, uses a network of pipes laid in the field to ensure targeted irrigation, literally drop by drop. A 3 hp pump used in conventional irrigation dispenses more than 2 lakh litres of water in a day. With drip irrigation, it comes down to 70,000 litres.

Farmers attest to a higher yield with drip. “this is because drip irrigation provides a constant flow of water to the plants, and it allows much-needed air to flow around the roots of the plants, which get choked with water otherwise,” says Vishal Sharma, an agronomist working with Jain Irrigations.

Singh rattles off other benefits of drip irrigation, “We can mix fertilisers with the water; and it keeps unwanted weeds out.” In Bansur village in Alwar, the combination of drip, solar pump and sprinklers has led to such a surge in wheat production that the state government had to build a new granary.

But if this technology is a gamechanger, why haven’t enough farmers taken to it? “For most farmers, seeing is believing,” says Arjun Sharma of Jain Irrigations. “only after they see a neighbour’s field prospering do they start showing interest.”

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