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Solar-powered irrigation units propel sustainable agriculture in Bahraich

In Bahraich District of Uttar Pradesh, an integrated solar powered irrigation system has brought new hope for sustainable agriculture and improved livelihoods. With climate change, the unpredictability of monsoons and cost of all inputs soaring, till two years ago farmers were finding it increasingly difficult to get the return they expected from cultivation of rice, wheat and traditional crops. Usha Rai filed this story after she recently visited the region

Today, there are 97 solar irrigation systems in Bahraich District benefitting 8,700 farmers and irrigating 1,872 acres. With a network of underground pipes and with farmers sharing the cost of power and water used, the effectiveness of group-based irrigation systems has been amply demonstrated. The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), which has been working with farmers and other marginalised groups, initiated the Low Carbon Agriculture Programme in 2020/2021, focusing on collective strength and group-based systems.

Athar Husain, the president of Unnat Sichai Solar Vikas Samiti, a collective of 17 small farmers of Imamnagar Village, Balbhaddrapur,  Bahraich, says they adopted innovative farming on 83 bighas (about 16.6 acres) and were happy with the results. Instead of depending on the rains for cultivating rice and other crops, they dug a bore well to supply water when required. In Bahraich, the water table is just 20 to 30 feet deep so water availability was not an issue.  With five solar irrigation units in Imamnagar, the diesel pump sets were discarded and there was an immediate saving of Rs 5 lakh in farming costs, says Husain.

This was of course in addition to the benefits to the environment because diesel pumps release a lot of toxins into the atmosphere and break down on and off. However, the farmers have to be disciplined and have to inform the solar power operator exactly when they need the water and for how many hours. For each unit of power consumed, the famer pays Rs 2. He can get 1000 litres of water for this amount.

On countering climate change, Husain says the nursery for paddy cultivation is prepared in June and 20 days later the saplings are transplanted in the field. Earlier, people waited anxiously for the rains. Now with solar power, should the rains fail, the solar irrigation system floods the fields and the crop cycle is observed. To conserve ground water, laser sprays, sprinklers, and drip irrigation is being used and the land remains soft and productive. This year, there was enough rain during transplantation of paddy and ground water was saved, said Sahjad Ali, another farmer who looks after 65 bighas of land, his own land as well as that of three brothers who are no longer farming. Due to savings with the new irrigation system and better yields, recently he has been able to buy four more bighas of land.

Four of the 17 farmers of the Unnat Samiti are women. Praveen, whose sons preferred working in Delhi and Mumbai instead of farming their own lands, has two acres of land of which one acre has been rented out for cultivation and she does forming on the other acre. With solar-powered irrigation and tractors, farming has become easier for women, she says. In winter she cultivates wheat and mustard. Her next crop is of maize and black gram (urad dal) and then vegetables such as onions, tomatoesand ladies finger. Vegetable farming is not as profitable as wheat, mustard, maize and pulses so Praveen is trying to enhance her earnings by putting up a green shed for vegetable seedlings.

Solar irrigation in Bahraich District.

With solar-powered irrigation and a focus on organic farming by Unnat Samiti, there has been an increase in the area under paddy.  Some farmers have got five quintals of rice on an acre.  However, the AKF which has been supporting and guiding the farmers of Bahraich for sustainable agriculture practices and has provided the funds for the network of irrigation pipes as well as the solar panel system, has been trying to wean them away from cultivation of paddy, sugarcane and water intensive crops to mustard, millets, pulses and other crops that require less water. Last year 30 farmers were motivated to grow millet and this year, 282 are cultivating millet.

Asked if the sharing of water by the 17 farmers of Unnat Samiti does not cause problems, Husain says to ensure harmony and smooth functioning of the Samiti, all members meet once a month. Water is distributed on a first come, first served basis. However, the group has also learnt to adjust if someone has an urgent need and wants to jump the queue for water. Over the past two years 64,000 units of solar power has been used and Rs 128,000 has been collected. Another Rs 15,000 is due to the Samiti. Of the amount collected, Rs 61,000 has been spent on construction of the pump house, pump operator fee, rent on land, repair and maintenance and Rs 36,000 deposited in the bank. An annual rent of Rs 1500 is given to the man on whose land the solar structure has been constructed. The pump operator too is paid a 20 per cent commission for sale of water.

Women look at the metre measuring water flow to their fields.

Under the Central Government’s Mission Amrit Sarovar Scheme, on each acre of land there should be a pond.  So, existing ponds have to be desilted and their percolation strengthened, or new ones have to be constructed so that rain water fills the ponds and recharges the underground aquifers. Last year AKF rejuvenated 16 ponds in Bahraich District.

Simultaneously, two self help groups (SHGs) of women in Bichhala Village of Chittaura Block and Nibiya Begumpur Village of Risia Block, also supported by AKF, are making organic fertilisers and pesticides from cow dung and urine and selling it to the farmers’ groups in Bahraich. They produce Mrida Sanjeevani, a biodynamic fertiliser to enhance soil fertility and crop yield; PaudhVerdhak to stimulate plant growth and Paudh Rakshak, a bio-pesticide.  In the entire district there is greater awareness of climate change and the need to save our soil and environment.  The women of the SHGs, while contributing to soil fertility and a cleaner environment, have taken their first baby steps to becoming entrepreneurs.

(The writer is a veteran journalist who has worked with The Times of India, The Indian Express and the Hindustan Times from Delhi. A recipient of the prestigious Chameli Devi Award, she was a pioneer in reporting on women’s issues, health, environment and development. She was assistant director of the Press Institute of India when it was in Delhi. This story has also appeared in the Sunday Guardian.)

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