Lighting up the fields: How electricity can help irrigation

Over the years, inaccurate estimations of electricity consumption have led to untargeted approaches being applied to optimise power sector

By Charmi Mehta
Published: Tuesday 03 March 2020
Fields in Nashik, Maharashtra. Source: Wikipedia

“The entire idea of agriculture has changed now. We (farmers) are burdened with water shortage, climatic inconsistencies and slashed electricity subsidies. Even then, our fields are only our responsibility,” said Ashok Patil, a farmer from Shirol taluka of Kolhapur district.

Patil has been cultivating sugarcane for over four decades now.

In most developing nations across the world, agriculture continues to be the dominant source of livelihood. But it often comes at the cost of state resources.

The critical position held by agriculture in the economy requires us to take a deeper look into the major drivers of this sector and the medium of growth.

In terms of growth rate, agriculture had been largely stagnant between 1990 and 2000s. Most of the growth in the past decade has been attributed to improved irrigation and dissemination on innovative farming techniques. Groundwater irrigation is now driven by electricity — a feat made possible by dedicated focus on rural electrification.

According to a 1997 definition by the Union power ministry, a village is deemed to be electrified — if basic infrastructure such as a distribution transformers and distribution lines are in place; electricity is provided to public places; and at least 10 per cent of village households are electrified.

Over the years, inaccurate estimations of electricity consumption have led to untargeted approaches being applied to optimise the power sector. This resulted in problems such as unmetered consumption, incomplete separation of feeders and aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses.

With respect to agriculture, cultivation methods have remained largely traditional in areas with irregular electricity supply, which lead to wastage of resources.

In the power ecosystem, the distribution segments are the most financially and operationally unsustainable — largely due to cash crunch, payment delays and high debt backlogs.

This forced the government to issue bailout packages in the last 15 years, mostly to finance subsidised electricity. Rural areas suffer poor quality or irregular water supply, which prevents the agricultural sector from employing innovative techniques. This requires adequate and timely electricity.

Even today, flood irrigation is in practice as drip irrigation requires electricity. Drip irrigation can save over 45 per cent of electricity consumption as compared to flood methods deployed in trials by the agriculture ministry in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

In Songav village, Satara district of Maharashtra got electricity connections for the first time in April 2018. Neighbouring Kolhapur is now 100% electrified. Sugarcane cultivation is the mainstay of the rural economy there.

I studied the linkages between the crop and inputs (electricity, water and fertilisers) to assess how farmers were coping with sporadic supply of electricity.  

The cost of sugarcane cultivation is the highest in Maharashtra — Rs. 1.47 lakh/hectare. It was Rs. 78,549/ha in Uttar Pradesh and Rs. 97,411/ha in Karnataka.

It is, thereby, known that cultivating cane has only gotten more expensive. Multiple reports have pointed to crops drying up every year due to unavailability of irrigation water.

Jagdish, a farmer in Kolhapur, and who recently switched to drip irrigation, said: “Earlier, we practised flood irrigation. It consumed over 2 lakh litres of water to irrigate one-acre field. Now, we have installed drip systems, which consume only 12,000 litres of water for the same landholding. But installing the latter costs Rs. 50,000 per acre and requires eight hours of continuous electricity. In the flood system, water was piped into the field for days.”

Drip irrigation is done through a network of pipes that run through the field in a grid fashion. It releases measured quantities of water at intervals with the help of a central pump. Groundwater is pumped, stored in wells and utilised for irrigating fields.

“Farmers understand the value of water conservation. I spent Rs. 82,000 per acre to install Kolhapur’s first sprinkler irrigation system, in my field. They help save water, lower surface temperature that reduces pest incidence. The only problem is fluctuating electricity,” said Chougunda Patil. He was unable to show how the sprinklers worked due to power outage when I visited his field.

study by Prayas Energy Group highlighted the extensive and complex linkages between agriculture and electricity.

According to the study, electricity supply cannot be viewed solely from a DISCOM perspective. Continuous and subsidised electricity supply can go a long way in supporting sustainable farming techniques, which help conserve water and enable the move towards modernised agricultural techniques.

The key lies in implementing appropriate cropping patterns, which will automatically reduce electricity consumption, and doing away with unmetered agricultural consumption of electricity, which results in estimation inaccuracies.

At the same time, subsidising electricity for agriculture cannot be used to cover up for the general inefficiencies of the power sector. Maharashtra reported a 4 per cent increase in AT&C losses — 18.8 per cent in December 2016 to 22.79 per cent in December 2017, indicating that even new schemes like UDAY and SAUBHAGYA are unable to tackle this problem.

Additionally, ‘Electrification’ by definition includes households and not fields, thus making it a lengthier process for farmers to connect their fields to a nearby power source. The time is opportune to explore renewable energy in rural areas, in a localised fashion with small scale plants that can cater to the agricultural needs of a few villages.

Countries like Brazil have, for a long time now, produced surplus bio-energy from ethanol — a by-product of cane.

Further, in the case of sugarcane, the modernisation of sugar industry will come a full circle when the crop’s potential as an ‘Energy Crop’ is fully realised.

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