Nandurbar dumps clean solar energy, adopts costly grid power

The electric lights that illuminate the Sardar Sarovar Dam are faintly visible from Maniveli, a village with denuded hills on one side and deep waters of Narmada on the other. In Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district, life has never been easy in the villages affected by the hydroelectric project built in Gujarat.
Clean solar energy:- The electric lights that illuminate the Sardar Sarovar Dam are faintly visible from Maniveli, a village with denuded hills on one side and deep waters of Narmada on the other. [101Reporters]
Clean solar energy:- The electric lights that illuminate the Sardar Sarovar Dam are faintly visible from Maniveli, a village with denuded hills on one side and deep waters of Narmada on the other. [101Reporters]

Clean solar energy:- The electric lights that illuminate the Sardar Sarovar Dam are faintly visible from Maniveli, a village with denuded hills on one side and deep waters of Narmada on the other. In Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district, life has never been easy in the villages affected by the hydroelectric project built in Gujarat.

“Due to dam-induced flooding, we were moved to different places four times. We were settled in our present village 32 years ago, but electricity did not reach us. We could not go out at night; children could not even study,” said Natwar Bhai Tadvi (70), a tribal resident of Maniveli.

“If not for the solar lights installed eight years ago, we would have remained in the dark. Solar gave us hope in this atmosphere of despair,” added Natwar, while getting his two acres crop-ready for the upcoming rainy season.

The single solar panel installed in Natwar’s house powers two LED bulbs, thus reducing dependence on kerosene lamps. It was installed under a special action plan launched by the Tribal Development Department and Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited in 2012 to power unelectrified villages.

Even access to potable water is difficult at Maniveli, with most of its area (padas) located far away on the mountains. For Romila Tadvi (40) of Chapadipada, fetching water from the Sardar Sarovar Reservoir is a tedious morning task. Like her, all residents of Chapadipada have to climb up and down a steep hill every day to bring water.

According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16), 52.12% of the tribal population in Nandurbar was multidimensionally poor. In the 2023 NITI Aayog report, 33.17% of the 65% tribal population in the district was multidimensionally poor.  

Both Natwar and Romila want a solar pump for irrigation and potable water, but they do not know how to access it. They are unaware of the Mukhyamantri Saur Krushi Pump Yojana, which provides 95% subsidised solar pumps for irrigation.

Agriculture sector takes up 32% of the total electricity consumption in Maharashtra. According to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra, 2022-23, one lakh solar agricultural pumps have been commissioned under the Saur Krushi Pump Yojana from 2018-19 to June 2022. It said that 45.86 lakh agricultural pumps were energised in the state till March 31, 2022.

As per the report, under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM), two lakh solar pumps have been sanctioned for the state, out of which 36,381 (23,396 of 3HP, 10,188 of 5HP and 2,797 of 7.5HP) have been installed by December 2022.  Projects with 548 MW capacity have been commissioned under the Mukhyamantri Saur Krishi Vahini Yojana until 2022-23.

The fading solar dream

In the second week of April, the temperature in the bare Satpura hills of Nandurbar has touched 42 degree Celsius. At Genda, in the foothills of Satpura, Leela Pawara (38) and her sister-in-law Urmila Pawar (35) are picking mahua. In this season, mahua and mangoes are their main sources of income.

Asked why she was not doing this work in the morning, Leela replied that the entire morning was spent fetching water from the river. A hand pump with a solar submersible motor is installed in front of Leela's house, but it does not fetch water.

During a field trip to Genda last year, 101Reporters saw people using solar pumps for irrigation. However, that has changed now. “We got solar pumps around five years ago. When grid electricity came here two years ago, people stopped using solar,” said Romal Pawara (40) of Genda.

According to Romal, the solar pumps had five years of warranty from the vendor company. Despite this, when farmers faced technical issues, it was not rectified. As repairs have to be done by users once the warranty expires, people gradually stopped using solar pumps. Digging of private borewells is not allowed in this forest area, so people have to depend on borewells provided by the government with solar pump schemes. However, most of them are dry due to groundwater depletion.

In a study titled Socio-economic vulnerability to climate change — Index development and mapping for districts in Maharashtra, IndiaNandurbar has been identified as vulnerable to drought and changing rainfall patterns, and most sensitive to extreme temperatures affecting crop production.  

Mangesh Pawara (23) runs a small grocery shop at Adikodi Pada in Bilgaon of Dhadgaon block. The area has a solar dual pump for potable water and another solar pump for irrigation. “The panchayat installed them, but within a few days, both stopped working. The panchayat did not consider the need to repair them, while the residents could not afford the cost of repair,” Mangesh told 101Reporters.

The residents once again had to fetch drinking water from the river, while they cultivated only rain-fed crops. “Till the time the pump was running, we used to grow two crops. Now we even have to pay for animal fodder. There is a crisis… Two of my cows died due to lack of fodder,” he added.

Troubled waters

In her local Pawari language, Sunita Ramesh Pawara (32) of Swarya Digar summed up the issue typical of all the households here. “The only problem is the problem of water. If the family is big, more water is required. Our domestic animals and the fields also need water, but there is no water.”

Sunita had tried to extract water from the government hand pump by using the three solar panels installed for lighting purposes. She bought a submersible pump at her own expense to connect it to the hand pump, but the three panels were not enough to run the pump, at least seven were needed.  

At Chikhali and Moongbari villages, where migration for work is high, only Sanjay Pawara (25) had a solar pump initially. Within two to three years, others got their solar pumps and the water level plummeted. Now Sanjay has got an electric motor installed.

“Every day, there is a glitch in the solar system. Moreover, a solar pump cannot draw water from a depth of more than 200 ft, so I had to switch to grid power,” claimed Dinesh Pawara (28) of Moongbari, while harvesting peanuts with his family. For irrigating three acres, around Rs 15,000 has to be spent annually on electricity bill, which is a huge amount for small farmers like Dinesh.

In case of motor failure in a dual pump, the cost of repair comes to Rs 30,000 to 35,000. If the panel is faulty, it costs Rs 8,000 to 10,000. Malfunctioning high mast lamps can be replaced at the panchayat's expense. However, in case of severe malfunction, the panchayat does not pay attention to the complaints.

Solar panels and high mast lamps in the Satpura hills tell a lot about the perpetual energy’s penetration. However, unaware of the benefits of low-cost clean energy, the poor tribals are shifting to grid electricity. Falling groundwater table, technical issues and distrust in solar efficiency aid the shift. 

Not only in remote hilly areas, solar dual pumps are not working even in Dhadgaon town. Sanjay Gandhi tribal settlement of Dhadgaon faces severe water shortage. “The municipal council does not supply us with water. Three dual solar pumps for drinking water are present here, but no water comes out of them due to low water availability,” said Minish Pawara (23), a resident.

At Pipalkhunta, Jal Jeevan Mission and Ground Water Survey and Development Agency have installed a 1HP solar dual pump with a 5,000 litre tank to supply potable water to around 20 families. This was the only functional solar pump that 101Reporters found in the areas visited in Dhadgaon block and Akkalkuwa block's Molgi region.

Efforts to reach Nandurbar District Council and Maharashtra Energy Department seeking data on the total number of solar pumps installed in Nandurbar for drinking water and agriculture, the number of the functional pumps, and the reason for non-functioning were not successful.

The technical side

The place where a solar dual pump is installed under the Mukhyamantri Saur Krushi Pump Yojana is surveyed by three agencies — the Ground Water Survey Department, vendor company and representatives of Mahaurja (discom) — keeping in mind whether groundwater will be available throughout the year. Yet, most of the pumps run dry.

Over a dozen solar providers have launched services in Nandurbar to cater to the demand within the last three years. Maharashtra government plans to create 25,000 jobs in the solar sector by 2050.  

Rajput Solar provides solar panel installation and technical services. Its director Nandu Rajput said that solar has expanded widely in the district’s hilly areas in the last three years, with around 4,000 pumps installed under the government schemes. “A pump may malfunction due to depleting groundwater, motor blockage, or battery or starter problem, but tribals do not know how to register complaints online. The hilly area also makes it difficult to provide service. Small problems can be resolved at the panchayat level, but that does not happen,” Nandu detailed.

Prasad Kulkarni, director, Gram Oorja, a Pune-based organisation that works on solar energy in tribal and rural areas, told 101Reporters that technical support should ideally be available at the local level, which will also provide local employment.

Maharashtra has the potential to generate up to 1.5 million units per year through solar photovoltaic systems and up to 2.5 million units per year through solar thermal systems. There are 250 to 300 days of clear sunshine. An average of 4 to 6 kWh/ m2 of radiation is available per day. Dhulia, Jalgaon and Nandurbar districts receive more radiation, at about 6 kWh/m2 per day.

Ashwin Gambhir, research fellow, Prayas Energy Institute, writes in an article that the Maharashtra government is working towards a 9,000 MW distributed solar capacity dedicated to supplying reliable daytime electricity to agriculture, which would be the largest in India.    

As of now, damaged and unused solar panels dumped on rooftops or in a corner of the house is a recurring sight in Nandurbar district. A strong technical service network with a local focus should be the first line of action to bring back the solar shine. 101Reporters/SP