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'Intelligent' power rationing eases Indian state's irrigation woes

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 14 Apr 2014 10:21 GMT
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Farmers in India's Gujarat state have learned to value irrigation water thanks to a system that provides them with subsidised, rationed power for their pumps, storing spare water in tanks like these. PHOTO/IWMI
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A scheme to separate agricultural and domestic power supplies in Gujarat has been recognised by the United Nations for making irrigation more efficient and dramatically improving the Indian state’s farm productivity.

The $290 million rural rewiring project, named Jyotigram Yojana (JGY) or “village light scheme”, has been implemented in almost all of Gujarat’s 18,000 villages.

The mostly semi-arid, drought-prone state is industrialising rapidly, but nearly half the population still depend on agriculture. Since the late 1980s, groundwater aquifers have been seriously depleted.

A principal cause of that was highly subsidised electric power provided to farmers by the state utility. With electricity costing farmers next to nothing, they had no incentive to irrigate efficiently, and many diverted power intended for domestic use to pump extra water which they sold on at a profit.

Use of electric pumps in Gujarat increased by 585 percent between 1971 and 2001, compared with an increase of just 56 percent in the use of unsubsidised diesel pumps.

Electricity bills were mostly flat-rate, and the Gujarat Electricity Board was unable to hike prices because the state’s political leaders did not want to alienate farmers, a large constituency of voters. With no control over the amount of electricity used, the utility went bankrupt.

As a result there was no investment in the power grid, further worsening the supply for domestic users, public services and small-scale industries, especially in rural areas.

Gujarat’s solution was to split rural electricity feeder lines to supply farm pumps separately from household and commercial users.

The previously shared connection provided 16 hours of single-phase supply, intended for domestic use, and eight hours of higher-voltage, three-phase supply from which farmers could run their irrigation pumps.

In practice, many farmers illegally converted the single-phase supply to three-phase in order to pump water for longer and sell it on the informal market.

UN-WATER AWARD

Under the new system, introduced in 2003 and completed in 2006, non-farm customers receive a 24-hour three-phase supply that is metered, at unsubsidised rates.

Meanwhile, the agriculture feeder lines provide eight hours a day of uninterrupted, full-voltage power for farmers who operate tube wells.

The timing of this supply alternates weekly between high-cost peak daytime power and cheaper night-time power. This has reduced overall costs for the power utility, which is still required to provide a 75 percent subsidy to farmers, who pay 0.75 Indian rupees (1.25 US cents) for one unit of electricity.

The prize-winning power separation scheme was based on research by ITP, a Gujarat-based partnership between the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Sir Ratan Tata Trust.

The project received UN-Water’s “Water for Life” Best Practices Award on Mar. 21, the eve of World Water Day, in Tokyo. The global award recognises sustainable techniques in water-resource management.

 “(We) decided to select this practice for directly tackling the socioeconomic and environmental challenges related to the improvement of the energy-irrigation nexus ... and for its strong potential for replication,” said the Water for Life jury.  

The benefits of separating the power supplies have spread through the state, says Tushaar Shah, leader of the ITP.

“The high-quality, predictable and reliable power supply incentivised farmers to grow crops with high returns and cultivate all land they owned,” he said.

Large- and medium-scale farmers have switched from cereals to high-value crops like Bt cotton, tobacco, oilseed, spices, and fruit and flower orchards, maximising returns from every drop of water.

POOREST FARMERS LOSE OUT?

Agricultural growth in Gujarat has been steady at 8-10 percent for most of the last decade, more than double the national average, according to economists, although some point to other contributing factors such as private seed companies with new technologies, stronger marketing through contract farming, and the flourishing of dairy cooperatives with assured cold storage.

Meanwhile, the formerly indebted state power utility, benefiting from JGY and major energy-sector restructuring, is now selling surplus power to other states.

“What appealed to the jury about our research programme was (that) when (the) energy-groundwater irrigation nexus was not a big issue anywhere globally, we’ve been making a big deal of it since 12 years now,” Shah said in an interview.

“It is now proved that feeder segregation and ‘intelligent rationing’ of farm power supply can substantially cut groundwater and subsidised electricity wastage (and) boost agricultural growth,” he added. 

Nonetheless marginal farmers have found their water access cut by the JGY scheme. Because they cannot afford irrigation pumps, they do not qualify for subsidised power and must pay full rates for what they use.

Farmers who do have pumps are turning to more water-intensive crops, so most no longer have excess water to sell on to those without pumps. Scarcity has driven up prices on the informal market by 30-50 percent since JGY began, making the water too expensive for poorer farmers.

NEXT STEPS

Shah argued that further steps need to be taken to rationalise the use of power and minimise costs. He pointed out that India’s irrigation needs are highest for 30 to 40 days each year, roughly between November and February, and farmers need power most then.

Farmers would prefer a seasonally adjusted power supply, he said. Instead of the current eight-hour daily ration, more hours could be supplied during the high-demand period, with a limited supply of three or four hours the rest of the year.

Requirements also differ drastically between years with normal rainfall and drought years, he added. In dry years, farmers say they need 13 hours of irrigation daily, even during the monsoon, which is the sowing period.

Since 2012, feeder separation has been replicated to varying degrees in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, at a total investment of $3.5 billion.

“For separate feeder lines, a strong government is necessary, since farm power and irrigation are powerful political, vote bank-related issues,” Shah said. “Vigorous monitoring of power theft too is necessary; otherwise it defeats the very purpose of power rationing.”

Gujarat has taken legal action against more than 100,000 cases of power theft, he added.

Manipadma Jena is an environmental journalist based in India: http://twitter.com/ManipadmaJena 

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