For impoverished Agariyas in the Little Rann of Kutch, solar-powered pumps are bringing about tangible changes in their quality of life
Ahmedabad: Vijuben Raisinghbhai, a salt worker working in the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) region in Gujarat, recalls working overtime under the burning May sun to ensure that the salt produced by her is transported from the desert before the rains pour and transform this salt laden white land into a wetland.
Though 55-year-old Vijuben has been working in these salt pans for ages now, she says that the previous season (October to June) was very special for her and her 12-member family.
Even as the price of salt paid to salt workers, declined from Rs190 per tonne last year to Rs160 per tonne this year, Vijuben’s hopes are pinned on a new solar pump which she had installed in the last season.
As per her calculations, she has earned up to Rs60,000 mainly because of savings on the cost of expensive diesel. This is about three times what she earned the previous season by producing about 600 tonnes of salt.
She looks skywards to explain the change.
“Now it’s like a sun of gold. Earlier I needed about 1,000-1,200 litres of diesel for producing 600 tonnes. This year I consumed only 500 litres of diesel thanks to the new solar pump, which replaces diesel in the day time. It has also increased the yield by about 100-150 tonnes as I use solar pumps for a longer time during the day without worrying about fuel cost," said Vijuben.
Moreover, she can also run a television set or light up our temporary home in the LRK, she said as she prepares to head to the desert once more now that the rain waters have receded and its time for a new salt making season.
A poor and marginalized community, the Agariyas have traditionally been the main salt producers of Gujarat. Their harsh working conditions can be depicted by the fact that when Agariyas are cremated their feet do not burn along with the body as they contain lots of salt.
This clean energy option, away from the grid-connected electricity, is however providing a breakthrough for hundreds of impoverished Agariyas in LRK, giving them better livelihood.
Vijuben is part of Ahmedabad based NGO–Self Employed Women’s Association’s (SEWA) initiative to install solar powered pumps in the desert. SEWA has floated a special purpose vehicle called Grassroot Trading Network for Women (GTNfW), a non-profit company registered under the Indian Companies Act, 1956 that has till date installed more than 225 solar powered pumps in the desert.
“The LRK is perhaps the first place in the world where solar pumps have been used for salt farming. We identified issue of costly diesel impacting their livelihood long ago but could not find a suitable alternative till recently. With solar panels becoming economical in last few years we did two pilot projects in the LRK in 2011-12 and got encouraging results. This year we plan to install 700 more pumps here," said Reemaben Nanavaty, head of SEWA.
The organization, founded in 1972, is a trade union of poor, self-employed women workers.
The organization has carried out field trials of solar pumps for about two years before going for full scale roll out in 2015-16. The cost of each solar pump kit, including four solar panels, an inverter and the submersible pump itself, comes to about Rs1.50 lakh and the Agariyas pay the amount saved on diesel as instalments.
SEWA aims to install as many as 15,000 solar pumps in the LRK over the next five-six years, covering most its members.
India is the third-largest salt producing country in the world (after the US and China) with an average annual production of about 268 lakh tonnes of salt produced in the country in 2014-15 lakh tones.
Gujarat produces about 70% of the country’s inland salt and the LRK is considered the world’s largest location for producing inland salt.
The process in the LRK involves using diesel pumps to draw brine out of the ground, and spread it in salt pans to enable the sun to evaporate the water and produce salt.
The LRK has dual characteristics—that of a wetland and a desert. From June to September the entire desert gets submerged with rainwater as well as sea-water due to ingression. During monsoon, fishing activity is carried out in some of these areas. The water evaporates form the surface by October, when the salt making season starts.
As many as 45,000 Agariyas’ (salt workers) produce salt from October to May and live in the desert for 8 months in temporary shelters.
While SEWA’s has installed maximum number of solar pumps in LRK, there are some others who have had success with similar initiatives.
Out of the debt trap
Sabras Processing and Marketing (Pvt.) Ltd, a producers’ company where Agariyas hold 74% equity, started a similar initiative in 2008 and its founder Rajesh Shah is considered to have pioneered the concept.
“The Agariyas have no access to institutional credit so they have to borrow money trader to pump out brine. This was like contract farming where traders used to exploit the workers by collecting salt at very low prices," according to Shah, managing director and founder of Sabras.
An architect-turned-social entrepreneur, Shah did not get much success initially.
“The pumps that we initially got from Taiwan were basically ideal for irrigation. Here we were dealing with salt water, very high temperature conditions and deep water levels. After a lot of experimenting, we got the design right in 2010-11," he said.
Sabras installed 27 solar pumps and Shah says talks are on with the state government’s industries department to install 1,000 more in the region.
Another firm JP Solar Energy Solution, run by a young entrepreneur, has installed over 50 solar pumps. He claims his model to be the most economical of all. A son of a salt trader, 25-year-old Jaimin Parikh is promoting solar pumps by selling them directly to the salt makers.
A mechanical engineer, Parikh conducted a survey few years ago during which he found out that diesel worth of as much as Rs22 crore was used in the LRK region every season, causing a lot of pollution.
Each solar pump today saves 2.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, according to Anurag Bhatnagar, CEO of GTNfW.
The solar pump kits installed in LRK consist of two horse power motor, powered by 4-5 solar panels of 250 watts.
“Before the solar pump, I barely saved ₹ 10,000 per season owing to high interest rates by the traders. Today, even after paying the instalment, I managed to save about ₹ 25,000," said Vijuben.
Since most of the salt workers are not literate or do not have much understanding of finance, the traders used to exploit them, said Shah of Sabras.
“Earlier they had to pay their entire produce to the salt trader who gave them loan. In some cases, the debt burden was passed through generations and an Agariya could never get rid of it. Today, with solar pumps, they are free to sell anyone who gives them a good deal," said Nanvaty of Sewa.
Also using solar reduces other costs including wear and tear and cost of lubricants which goes as high as Rs15,000 for pumps run only on diesel.
SEWA and Sabras have also worked on direct market linkages for better price discovery.
More than 100 Agariyas in LRK today, according to Bhatnagar, have stopped using diesel altogether this has further added their savings. “So much so that many have started buying two wheelers," he said.
It isn’t only producers’ companies like SEWA and Sabras or proprietors like Parikh who are trying to make a difference by using the sun’s energy.
Shashwat Cleantech Pvt Ltd, an Ahmedabad clean technology start-up founded in 2008 has installed about 45 solar pumps in LRK in last two years.
Karan Dangayach, managing director of the company said traditionally diesel pumps in LRK were designed to run on direct current (DC) technology.
“The water is very hard and every two years the Agariyas had to replace their pumps as a result. We started designing AC (alternating current) pumps that lowered cost. The pollution level has gone down also as a lot of diesel pilferage is avoided," said Dangayach.
Pinch of salt
Even though today solar pumps have changed the lives of Agariyas, the producers in the end get only less than 2% of the final price paid by the domestic users. The reason for this exploitation by traders and others is that salt making is considered illegal as it falls in a protected sanctuary area that is the only natural abode for the Asiatic Wild Ass.
Hence, availing funds for solar pumps is also not easy.
Bhatnagar of GTNfW said they got a loan from private sector lender ICICI Bank for installing 200 odd pumps after being turned down by various public sector banks. This loan was given for purchasing equipment and not for salt production activity, he points out.
“All the leases for salt pans in LRK have lapsed since 2005. Today it is a disputed area," said Nanavaty of SEWA.
For the 700 odd pumps to be installed in the current year, GTNfW has secured a loan of Rs9 crore from SEWA Bank.
A state government official said that while the forest department sees all the activity in LRK as illegal, the industries department and salt commissioner’s office recognize the salt making activity here.
“Also the government has launched educational and other schemes for Agariyas here. The Wild Ass population has increased from 700 to over 5000 in last 30 years. The government is finding tough to come up with an amicable solution here," he added.
Parikh of JP Solar Energy Solutions is planning to rent out solar power pumps to Agariyas this year due to constraints and lack of government support.
Meanwhile, Shashwat Cleantech has started its own finance scheme for the Agariyas.
Dangayach, whose company has installed as many as 1000 solar pumps for state government for irrigation purpose, said such a government initiative in the LRK is the need of the hour.
Dangayach seems undeterred by these hurdles as he says he will continue replacing diesel pumps with solar in the LRK.