New Delhi: Despite using 28 million electric and diesel pumps, access to reliable irrigation is a key hurdle for the Indian farmer and 53% of the country’s net sown area remains unirrigated, said a study on the potential of solar powered irrigation released on Thursday.

“The government must target marginal farmers who are deprived of electric pumps with small solar pumps and a 30% subsidy can make these pumps attractive for small farmers," said the study titled Adopting Solar for Irrigation by the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

“Access to irrigation is the most important enabler to enhance productivity and income of farmers, but it continues to be iniquitous across farm size groups and geographies," Amitabh Kant, CEO of government think tank NITI Aayog said while releasing the report.

He added that solar pumps “hold the potential to enhance irrigation access, advance low-carbon agriculture, reduce the burden of electricity subsidies by the government, and improve the resilience of farmers against a changing climate." A sample survey of 1,600 farmers in Uttar Pradesh—home to the largest number of farmers in India where 81% of the net sown area is irrigated—showed that about half of them either rented borewells or purchased water from large land owning farmers. Only 41% of marginal farmers with less than a hectare of land in the state owned borewells, the study found.

Over 60% said low or falling water tables were a source of dissatisfaction. 

India has set a target of installing 1 million solar pumps by 2022 but till November 2017, only 1,42,000 pumps were installed, over half of them in just four states—Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. 

To meet the target, India needs to raise deployment by five times, the study said. A solar pump costs Rs1-5 lakh. While none of the surveyed farmers were using solar pumps, about 27% were aware of it, the study found.

However, about 75% of the farmers were willing to purchase solar pumps if prices were competitive, the study said, adding, “in areas with a dominance of diesel pumps for renting or selling water, solar based water-as-a-service model could have a payback of two to four years."

CEEW said a 30% capital subsidy would entail spending 135 billion by the government, twice its annual budget on renewable energy. As a way out, the study recommended restricting high capital subsidy to small and marginal farmers, while facilitating long term loans with interest subsidies for large farmers.

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