In 2016, Gitaram Kadam bought a 12 acre farm in his native Nhavare village in Maharashtra to practise organic farming. But his organic dream soon stood shattered—erratic electricity supply in his village made it difficult to use the farming equipment to practise farming.
Born in a farming family, Kadam was a first generation mechanical engineer. Like all the youth of the Nhavare, he started working in nearby urban centres. Then, in 2016, he bought land in his village to pursue farming.
“My village Nhavare, like most villages, suffered with load shedding and unpredictable power cuts, for up to 16 hours a day,” said Kadam. “So the only time left for villagers to utilise power supply, for farming tools, was during nights or odd hours, which made it nearly impossible to conduct any agricultural activity in the village.”
Kadam then got other youngsters from his village together. These were the youth who had been a part of an organisation Kadam started in 2001–the Gramin Tantradnyan Sanstha translated as “rural technical society”, this organisation aimed at developing skills of youth for daily needs of village life. Through the society, they piloted seven hybrid wind and solar plants in their village using a locally made turbine. Once set and working, these community initiatives solved all the electricity related problems in his village. With the intention to make the village self-reliant on reusable energy, he started a food processing system in the village that is run entirely on clean energy .
In 2021, India achieved the installed capacity of 100 GW of renewable power but the majority of that – about 78% – is due to large-scale wind and solar power projects. While India continues to race towards its renewable energy target of 175 GW for 2022, about 27 states in the country are yet to reach even halfway towards their respective targets, according to a report by global think tank Ember. They would need a big step up to meet these by the end of the year, the report mentions.
Large-scale renewable energy projects often come with several ecological and social costs, which is why scientists and conservationists have often highlighted community level initiatives as an alternative to large-scale renewable energy projects. Such community based energy systems have existed in the country since the 1950s, but these were mostly micro hydropower projects. In recent years, these projects are gaining prominence in off-grid micro renewables, mini- or micro- grid projects, which utilises one or several renewable energies like solar, hydro, wind and biomass to generate electricity, and stand-alone solar systems like solar lamps and street lights.
“India has barely scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of distributed small-scale renewable energy,” said Ashish Fernandes, CEO at Climate Risk Horizon, a Bengaluru-based organisation working on the impact of the climate crisis on financial systems. “Transitioning away from fossil fuels will necessarily mean building a lot of renewable energy, both utility scale and distributed, so it is not something that can be neglected, particularly as large scale centralised renewable energy has implications in terms of land requirements and transmission infrastructure.”
Fernandes continued, “Decentralised renewable energy reduces the need for transmission infrastructure and can address the land conflict issue as well.”
The situation before
In India, a village is considered electrified if it possesses basic electrical infrastructure and 10% of its homes have access to power. However, nearly one-fifth of India’s rural households (around 31 million) still remain in acute darkness. While Kadam’s state Maharashtra is one of the top performing states in rural electrification, it faces issues in maintaining regular supply or re-electrifying, noted a media report published in 2021. Load shedding and power outages have been so frequent that they make the term “electrified village” a mere technicality.
This lack of electricity put the villagers in Nhavare in an unreliable and vicious cycle. Most of the electricity supplied to agriculture was being used for pumping water for irrigation, most of which was groundwater. The villagers used to grow legumes, sorghum and millets in their farm before, Kadam told us.
As Kadam explained, “Since younger residents of the village left to pursue careers in urban centres, often older farmers from the village would have to wake up at midnight [the time when electricity would be reliable] to use their technical appliances that were used in the fields. It also forced them to use traditional fuels like kerosene and fuelwood, for lighting and cooking purposes. So, they were paying for electricity as well for other power sources like kerosene.”
The lack of reliable electricity also affected productivity since the use of technologies such as sprinkler or drip irrigation became unreliable and affected the wages of the farmers. “Their crop schedule used to get affected, which delayed the harvest and unseasonal rains added to the damage,” Kadam noted. “This would account for Rs 30,000- Rs 35,000 (USD 364-424) loss in crops per acre.”
Harnessing clean energy
Using his two decade experience as a mechanical engineer, in 2016, Kadam built a hybrid model of wind and solar power plant. “There were certain months when winds were good in the village and the remaining months when sunlights was strong enough for solar energy,” Kadam explained.
He gathered technical advice from his friend and roped in students from engineering background to work on the model. Compared to diesel based solutions, Kadam felt that renewable sources were more sustainable and cost-effective. After the first model became successful,his organisation created six more over four years and set them in different areas of the village.
“Some parts of the plant we sourced locally, others we procured, such as magnets, copper, and steel components,” Kadam added. Each plant (solar and wind combined) generated power of 5 kilowatt and was set up at the cost of around INR 6 lakhs. They self-funded the amount.
While India has had a policy focus on setting up large scale renewable energy production, how communities benefit by plugging into these complex systems or hosting such production has not been established as much.
But for Kadam, his locally created innovative model worked perfectly for the needs of his village. Along with the electricity provided by distribution companies, this electricity from renewable energy is used for residential purposes and irrigation for no maintenance cost by the villagers. Moreover, it is also helping entrepreneurş.
Kadam simultaneously started Anandghana Industries, a food processing unit in his village. Anandghana manufactures 12 types of vegetable, fruit, and grain powders, such as dehydrated garlic powder, dehydrated lemon powder, dehydrated beetroot powder, sorghum flakes, amongst others. The industry runs completely on the renewable energy that solar dries the vegetables and supplies them to processing units. The products are then packaged and processed and supplied to nearby towns such as Pune.
At present, over 400 farmers regularly supply to the industry, many of whom are women farmers. As part of the network, each farmer is bound by some rules, such as growing their produce using natural farming techniques. The income that the farmers are now making is twice the market value, which on average, rounds up to Rs 10,000-15,000 (USD 120-USD 180) per month.
“So when a farmer doesn’t get minimum prices for his vegetables, he can put those products for drying and earn a much better price,” Kadam stated. “So in a way it is a market chain extension that can help them earn enhanced livelihood empowering local farmers,” he added.
The households in Nhavare have also planned more entrepreneurial activities for the future, benefitting from renewable energy. An assured supply of electricity, Kadam noted, creates opportunities for entrepreneurial activities which can take place within the household, such as rice-milling and production of oil from oilseeds. Other ancillary industries, such as the repair and welding of agriculture implements like ploughs and tractors may become possible.
While Kadam is now an organic farmer that he always aspired to be, he wants to do more. He now advocates that his model is replicated in other villages and towns and benefits local people. “I want to make the model intellectual property rights free and ensure that it is easily accessible and replicable to benefit the farming community,” he noted.
Picture caption 1 – Gitaram Kadam with the solar panel he helped set up. Credits: Gramin Tantradnyan Sanstha