Saving Punjab's groundwater, one agricultural pump at a time

19 Jun 2019
Ms Bigsna Gill

A scheme in Punjab delivers direct monetary benefit to farmers for using agricultural pumps more efficiently

Punjab groundwater
Free and unmetered power supply for agricultural consumers has led to inefficient use of electricity and groundwater.

Free electricity for irrigation has stimulated agricultural growth and rural economy in Punjab. However, this free and unmetered electricity supply has also led to inefficient use of electricity and groundwater. The depletion of groundwater table has wide ramifications, including making farmers vulnerable to production risks and the climate change. There is, hence, an urgent need to develop and implement a strategy that will be able to address electricity-groundwater-agriculture cross-sectoral issues while meeting consumer requirements in a judicious manner.

To this end, the Department of Power, Government of Punjab, is implementing the Paani Bachao Paise Kamao pilot scheme for Direct Benefit Transfers through Electricity (DBTE) to agriculture consumers in six agriculture feeder areas, with the objective of saving groundwater by reducing the amount of time agricultural pumps remain turned on. Under the scheme, farmers get monetary incentives to save electricity. The World Bank is supporting the Government of Punjab in implementing the scheme at three feeders in the Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur districts. With funding from Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), the Bank has appointed a consortium of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), IT Power India (ITPI), and Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), to provide field-level support for the implementation of the pilot, coordination with state departments, and engagement with farmers. The World Bank has also appointed the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) as the Independent Impact Evaluation Consultant. TERI Fellow, Bigsna Gill, who is involved in coordinating the project, reveals more:

Why is the Paani Bachao Paise Kamao scheme necessary and what does it involve?

The scheme has been launched considering Punjab’s groundwater crisis, and is right now at a pilot stage. The agriculture sector in Punjab consumes a major portion of groundwater and through this scheme we are trying to see how farmers can be motivated to improve their water-use practices. This is a state government scheme with the discom Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) as the implementation agency and the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) as the nodal body.

Under the pilot, the scheme is being implemented on six agriculture feeders. Of these, three feeders, namely Bambiwal-1 and Nawajipur in District Jalandhar and Dhanoya in District Hoshiarpur are under the purview of our assignment. There are 567 total agricultural connections in these areas, of which 174 have been enrolled in the scheme so far.

The scheme has been designed to incentivise farmers to improve their electricity and water use practices. Agricultural consumers are given a fixed electricity allocation (kWh/hp) for a two month billing cycle for paddy and non-paddy seasons. For electricity consumption measured from individual meters that is lower than the fixed allocation, the farmer will get Rs.4.00 per kWh. Excess consumption above the fixed allocation, however, would attract no charge. No bills are issued to the farmers and they are sent SMS about their savings bi-monthly and electricity consumption fortnightly. The incentive amount is transferred directly to their bank account. Farmers are encouraged to voluntarily enrol under the scheme, following which an Automated Meter Reading (AMR) system is installed at their agriculture pump (AP) connection. The AMR uses GPS technology to store and relay pump usage data to the discom for energy accounting and calculation of savings and incentives.

Another feature of the scheme, highly beneficial to farmers, is that electricity is supplied to these consumers during day-time hours. While electricity supply for agriculture connections is free, it is rostered, which means that not all agriculture consumers receive supply during the day. Due to this, farmers use auto-starters on their pumpsets, which automatically switch the pumps on and off according to electricity supply. This practice results in a lot of wastage of water, especially in case of night time supply, as farmers don’t monitor their pumpsets at night, and more water than the actual requirement tends to be extracted.

So if electricity is supplied to them during the day, it allows individual farmers to physically control how much water they use. They will know how much they are using and be mindful of switching the pump off.

What were the reasons behind using direct account transfer as a tool?

For disbursement of monetary incentives, direct transfers to beneficiary bank accounts are the safest and most efficient.

Will awareness and monetary incentive be enough to change old agricultural practices?

We are not just generating awareness but also actively hand-holding farmers in adopting various techniques and practices through the development of demonstration farms and by establishing linkages with relevant government departments to avail subsidies.

Punjab has a predominant paddy-wheat cropping pattern. This is a water-intensive combination. Through the 22 demo farms being set up, we are trying to promote certain short-duration rice varieties that take a shorter time to grow and therefore have a lower irrigation requirement. Efficient irrigation and water application practices will also be demonstrated in these demo farms. These practices include alternate wetting and drying, optimum puddling, plotting, drip irrigation, underground pipeline systems, etc. PAU is taking the lead on the agriculture aspects of the project. We are facilitating linkages between the farmer and government departments, so that the former can benefit from relevant subsidy schemes in agriculture.

What are the main challenges and learnings from the field?

Our main approach is to engage with farmers at the ground level through one-on-one interactions and focus group discussions. We have dedicated project staff in the field that is constantly working with farmers to bring them on board. However, since this scheme is also a largely behaviour change exercise, there has been some reluctance to join, due to prior experiences with the government and its schemes. Also, electricity is a contentious issue, and since it is supplied free of cost to AP consumers, they are highly wary of getting AMRs for their connections, as they fear they will be billed in future. We are addressing all concerns and doubts in their minds and continue to make efforts to increase the number of enrolments under the scheme. Over time, we have been successful in building trust with the farmer community in our project villages.

There are other process and systemic challenges that impact the rate of enrolments as well, but we are working with the relevant government departments and with PSPCL to resolve these. For example, one of the major barriers to enrolment is with regard to the registered ownership of the AP connection. Complications arise when the registered owner is deceased or land has been sold or the land owner has moved away and is not living in the village anymore. The process of transferring the connection in the name of the actual pump user takes time and has a complex procedure, which farmers find cumbersome to undertake. Based on best practices elsewhere, we have been able to suggest to PSPCL suitable amendments in the existing process that can help mitigate this challenge.

What is the long-term vision behind the project?

The short term objective is to get as many farmers enrolled as possible so that overall scheme design, energy accounting and water consumption measurement methodologies can be developed and tested for wider implementation. The long-term objective is to positively impact the groundwater levels in Punjab through efficient irrigation practices and a change in the prevalent water intensive cropping system.

Our main activities in this two-year project are based around getting maximum enrolment and identifying various process and scheme design concerns. The pilot is meant to understand the gaps, identify process barriers and work with the discom and the Punjab government in resolving them. Demonstration farms to show farmers water and energy-saving measures and alternative crops and crop patterns are also an important part of this project.

Energy conservation
Ground water