Small pumps, those that have a capacity of less than 1 or 1.5 horsepower (HP), are proving to be quite effective these days. They should have been effective all these years as well.
Small pumps offer several advantages. In the first place, the investment needed to acquire them is much smaller — between ₹5,000 and ₹15,000 against double that for the more conventional and commonly available 5-8 HP pumps. Second, because they are lighter, they are more portable and can be carried on the back or on a cycle to serve several land parcels. Third, the water discharge rate is such that it does not cause topsoil erosion.
Fourth, small capacity electric pumps can be run on domestic single-phase connections available far more easily even in poorly electrified areas, than the 3-phase high-tension connections needed for larger pumps. Fifth, they tend to be applied typically for growing vegetable or flower crops, which yield much greater income per drop of water. Sixth, because they can operate only with relatively lower heads, they cause much lower depletion of water levels in aquifers, hence retarding its contamination with dissolved iron, arsenic, fluorides or other salts. Thus, small pumps tend to be more environmentally sustainable.
Small pumps can become powerful weapons to fight poverty and raise incomes in even the most remote parts of the country.
Lessons from neglect
Finally, if one helps the small holders with larger subsidy to enable them to acquire low-discharge solar powered pumps, the small pumps can become powerful weapons to fight poverty and raise incomes in even the most remote parts of the country. With constantly falling costs of solar power, this offers a huge promise. Why then have they been neglected? What lesson does this neglect show us?
Diesel powered or electric pumps are used in agriculture primarily as water extraction mechanisms for bringing water from aquifers to the surface. This became increasingly necessary in the southern, northern and western parts of peninsular India from about 1970. Till that period, irrigation was largely based on dug wells. Deep drilling technology made huge inroads after the severe droughts of 1971-73 ravaged most of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
And with that, the spread of groundwater irrigation started its exponential growth to the point where it now reaches over 20 million well and pump combinations. But the point is, this is mostly a mainland India phenomenon in lands tilled by traditional farming communities comprising caste Hindus.
In 1987, when I undertook my fieldwork in Mehsana in Gujarat, farmers told me that the submersible motor had to be lowered by an average of 25 feet every second year.
As aquifers began emptying out, tube wells reached further and further into the belly of mother earth. In 1987, when I undertook my fieldwork in Mehsana in Gujarat, farmers told me that the submersible motor had to be lowered by an average of 25 feet every second year. With increasing head, the power required for pumps kept on rising and demand for more and more powerful pumps dominated the market. Hence the pump market essentially shifted to catering to these high head applications. The story repeated itself in most areas where farming occurred on the back of groundwater irrigation.
Assam and most of the undulating, hilly and mountainous terrains inhabited by tribal folk had always experienced a different set of circumstances. Assam had a relaxed land situation until the unwelcome guests form Bangladesh started large-scale migration. Most of the rural denizens tend to be complacent and satisfied with their lifestyle rather than ambitiously trying to intensify their farm operations. The widely prevalent free grazing after the Sali crop is harvested validates this assessment. Most native farmers of Assam continue to enjoy a reasonably large land holding even now.
Only the immigrant, whether legal or otherwise, encroached and squatted on small pieces of lands in the flood plains or forest lands and were forced to till more intensively, even using manual treadle pumps in densely populated Dhubri-Mankachar area. On the whole, the abundant rain and easy availability of surface water made farming based on retained moisture or surface water possible. Floods and water logging rather than water scarcity has always haunted Assam. The native Assam farmers have taken to growing second crops only in more recent times — since about the mid-1990s. As such demand for pumps optimally suited for them did not arise.
Most of Assam's rural denizens tend to be complacent and satisfied with their lifestyle rather than ambitiously trying to intensify their farm operations. The widely prevalent free grazing after the Sali crop is harvested validates this assessment.
The situation in tribal lands was dissimilar only in terms of resource conditions. These regions had relatively more accessible flowing water offering possibility of good harvests in low lands. But the stock peasantry here was not as well versed in the art of farming nor as enterprising in their attitude as they were descendants of simple children of nature, who believed that their abundant forest resources could provide for their needs. Hunting is a huge draw even now in most of the tribal lands and gathering of things like fuel wood, cocoons, mahua, chironji and many other non-timber forest produce supports more tribal livelihoods than crops grown on their poor quality lands.
Low groundwater utilisation
Groundwater utilisation has been much lower in most of the tribal lands in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Since these are primarily areas of darkness with no electricity to drive their pumps and since infrastructure is so poorly developed that diesel needs to be purchased from distant towns poorly connected with the villages, most farmers in interior parts of these regions never thought of irrigation. Again, the few who did went in for deep wells and large capacity pumps.
As the pressure on land has mounted, communication improved and infrastructure developed, the realization that they must use their land resources more intensively started dawning on the farmers in Assam as well as in the tribal regions. But fact remained that they were new to irrigated agriculture, had limited experience of growing crops for markets rather than for home consumption and had little investible surpluses. Their capacity to innovate and take chances was limited.
Depending on government largesse
So, they followed the simplest route — try to get what they could from the government. Most government schemes like the Million Well Scheme or the Shallow Tubewell programs offered large capacity pumps on a subsidy and this is what the farmers got. And this is what even the small holders saw, shaping their mindset accordingly.
So, a strong pull from mainland India for high-capacity pumps caused a supply shift to large pumps and a weak recognition and articulation of their special need resulted in need of farmers from these regions not getting converted into demand for small pumps. This is how the development of small pumps, that are suited for the resource conditions of tribal lands and for Assam valley, never got the attention they deserved.
Realism prompts me to say that it is perhaps optimistic to think that the government machinery will think about or even pay heed to the situation faced by the voiceless poor farmers.
The single-most important lesson this provides is that someone needs to constantly think of the most appropriate technology for any resource condition, particularly that of the poor folk. And after doing the thinking, to initiate action, try out solutions and popularise them among possible users. They say advocating with the government is necessary for large-scale adaption of such technologies. Realism prompts me to say that it is perhaps optimistic to think that the government machinery will think about or even pay heed to the situation faced by the voiceless poor farmers and come up with solutions for them.
Making the government listen to the needs of the poor is a very uncertain proposition as compared to popularising the appropriate technology directly among the poor.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is Programme Director at Tata Trusts. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.