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Farmers who have benefitted from Dhundi.

 

 

Anand, the Gujarat town that gave India its dairy cooperative movement, has now spawned in village Dhundi, the world’s first solar cooperative that produces Solar Power as a Remunerative Crop (SPaRC). When compared to other models promoting solar irrigation in India, the SPaRC model, which has successfully completed two years in operation, offers multiple benefits: control groundwater overexploitation, reduce the subsidy burden on power distribution company (or DISCOM), curtail carbon footprint of agriculture, and help double farmer incomes! Below is an excerpt from our interview with Pravin Parmar, a founding member of the cooperative:

 

Dhundi is now a global brand! What’s the story behind the Sahkari  Mandali (Co-operative)?

Dhundi Saur Urja Utpadak Sahakari Mandali (DSUUSM) was formed in June 2015 with 6 farmer members, supported by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) to acquire solar irrigation pumps. These pumps were formed into a micro-grid which the cooperative was created to manage on behalf of members. Madhya Gujarat Vij Company Limited (MGVCL), the local power utility, connected this microgrid to its 11-kV line at a single metered point and offered the cooperative a 25-year solar power purchase contract. In return, the cooperative members surrendered, in writing, their right to apply for subsidized grid power for 25 years!

 

That’s an exceptional phenomenon! Was there evident need?

Dhundi is a rare village in this part of the country, all 50 irrigation wells — except 1 — are mounted with diesel pumps. Land holdings here have up to 30 owners, living or dead, all of whom have to affix signatures to apply for electricity connections. Since this is not possible, we have given up on grid electricity for irrigation costing ₹0.60/unit and are resigned to using diesel pumps that deliver power at up to ₹16-20/unit, depending upon pumping head and efficiency. For us, therefore, solar pumps offering free daytime energy were Godsend!

 

Indeed. But, how did the villagers react? Wasn’t it difficult to get the founding members?

Of course, it was! Since no one in Dhundi had any prior experience with solar irrigation pumps, we were initially quite apprehensive about solar pumps – would they work as well as diesel/electric pumps; how would the discharge differ at different times of the day and in different months of the year; how much time would the solar pumps need to irrigate a bigha of land; what would it take to keep the pumps in running condition; what would happen in case of a breakdown; will MGVCL actually pay us for the power we evacuate etc. As a result, we were not willing to contribute more than ₹5,000/kWp to capital investment.

 

However, what we knew pretty well, was about the merits of collective action! We were not about making big profits, but rather circulating the benefits back to member-owners, and these benefits rippling out to the broader community. Six of us, backed by the sense of cooperation and initial assistance from the research organisations, hence piloted this idea. Now that other farmers have seen that our solar pumps deliver 50 percent more water than diesel pumps of similar capacity, and that we get paid for surplus power sold to the grid, ten new members have come forward to join DSUUSM and contributed ₹25,000/kWp towards capital investment. 

 

At the Dhundi office

 

 Incredible! Is there some kind of downside to this, what’s the catch?

 

(Laughs) Not really; DSUUSM has proved to be a boon for us! If not for it, the collapse of the tomato market would have left us much poorer. The major advantage diesel pump owners enjoyed was the ability to grow tomato which requires frequent watering. For a few years until 2014-15 winter, our farm incomes were dominated by the winter tomato crop which fetched very good prices for export to Pakistan. However, due to rising tensions, vegetable exports to Pakistan stopped all of a sudden; and tomato prices in Gujarat crashed in 2015-16 winter. Having suffered heavy losses, Dhundi farmers gave up on tomato and turned to rabi wheat in 2016-17, which fetched far lower income.

 

Thanks to the sale of irrigation and solar energy, and saving of diesel cost, members of our coop earned 46 percent higher net income in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16; and more than half of the members' farm income is derived from irrigation and energy sales. We have also benefited nearly 100 water buyers who would have paid ₹475,000 more for the irrigation we provided them, had they bought it from diesel pump owners. Researchers cite that our cooperative has made irrigation “environmentally benign”, saving some 21,000 kg of CO2 emissions. If that’s not Concern for Community, what is?!

 

 So, has the pilot been successful?

A cooperative is formed by joining together to accomplish a goal that cannot be done as well individually. Our cooperative is the only model of its kind with a fully working pilot in Dhundi. It is farmer-centric. It has no duality of ownership and management: farmers own solar panels, and our cooperative owns and manages the microgrid. Since farmers are full residual claimants, we have a stake in efficient management of solar generation and its use. Since power theft will directly reduce our incomes, we will control theft because being members of the same community, we are better placed to keep vigilance. To my understanding, that’s a success story of democracy in action.

 

Amazing! Finally, where do you see the cooperative heading from here?

Being an innovative experiment, our cooperative has had over 500 visitors till date. These have included farmers and their groups from far away villages in Gujarat and other states like Maharashtra and Kerala. Secretaries from state and central government, dignitaries from foreign countries and international aid agencies have visited Dhundi to understand the benefits of our coop and how to replicate this model. Attending to visitors takes a lot of our time; but it is a matter of great pride for us members and the entire village community that our village is receiving so much attention. Several newspaper and magazine articles and television reports have also given much visibility to our cooperative. We are grateful to MGVCL, IWMI-Tata Program and the CCAFS program for making our cooperative a reality.

 

The cooperative has made our village 'climate smart'. Many such solar cooperatives can contribute greatly to our Prime Minister's vision of doubling farmer incomes by 2022. Twelve villagers of Manjhkuva village, also of Anand district, have agreed to form a co-operative. Solar panels will be installed next week and they are waiting for a green nod for the power purchase. When cooperatives are the means, the future is green!