Meet the diesel pump: King of India's fields, with a wobbly throne
In off-grid, rural India, diesel pumps are the tool of choice for irrigating farmers’ fields. In the 1970s, when the pumps became affordable, farmers enthusiastically adopted the new technology. It was a revolution in Indian agriculture because farmers no longer depended solely on unpredictable rains, or on proximity to irrigation canals. By pumping groundwater from borehole wells, farmers could greatly extend the area they could cultivate as well as their growing seasons.
The pumps singlehandedly lifted many families out of poverty. Even without government subsidies, farmers could purchase one and move from mere survival through subsistence agriculture to moderate prosperity through the sale of cash crops. Diesel pumps are proven technology, well-established and trusted by farmers; there are about nine million of them in use today.
The only serious contenders are grid-connected electric pumps. They are powerful, convenient and cheap to buy, and many Indian states provide subsidized or even free electricity to farmers. There are about 11 million electric pumps currently in use. Where cheap electricity is available rurally, electric pumps easily outperform diesel pumps on cost, and are nearly impossible to compete with. However, India’s electricity grid has become chronically overstretched by the country's rapid economic growth, rendering the electricity supply in many rural areas today poor or non-existent. In these areas, diesel remains king.
We can segment the diesel pump market into three main types:
Older Kirloskar and Bharat 5 horsepower (HP) pumps. Indian designed and made. They are fairly heavy (200kg+) and therefore often mounted on a cart and moved around by a horse or bull. They cost about 30,000 Indian Rupees (about 500 USD). Due to their popularity, they have a pretty good local service network, and many village mechanics can fix them.
Newer, smaller (2-3 HP) and cheaper Honda Pumps. Japanese designed and, Indian manufactured, they cost about 20,000 rupees (USD 330). These are small enough to be carried by one man, and have become popular in recent years. They are reliable, and there is a local service network.
Chinese pumps, which can sell for as little as 10,000 rupees (USD 165). Similar to the Hondas, and even more frugal in fuel consumption; many can also run on kerosene. However, their reliability is lacking: they are more prone to breakdowns, have shorter life spans, and are harder to repair locally because there is no good service network.
Most of the pumps used in Indian fields today fall into one of these categories. Wealthier farmers may own bigger pumps 7-12HP pumps used for large fields, but they are a much smaller market segment.
The chink in the diesel pump’s armor - Running cost
Diesel pumps are the heroes of India's agricultural revolution: trusted, proven, and inexpensive. But they have a glaring flaw: their running costs. Even in the first year, many farmers will spend more on diesel fuel than they spent on buying the pump itself. Older 5 HP pumps consume 1-2 liters per hour; newer, more efficient 2-3 HP pumps get by with 0.5-1 liter.
Pumps are needed most during the dry season, about 4 months of the year. Depending on the size of the plot, soil type, crops, the weather, how powerful his pump is, a Bihar farmer may run his diesel pump anywhere from 100 to 1200 hrs per year. The expense varies widely, but from field interviews we know that spending 50,000 - 75,000 rupees (840 - 1200 USD) per year on fuel is not atypical. Add to that the cost of diesel engine maintenance (filters, oil changes, repairs etc.) and a “cheap” diesel pump quickly gets rather expensive.
And fuel costs can only rise. Since the early 1990s, diesel prices have increased nearly tenfold, despite government subsidies: the current price is about 55 rupees, or 1 USD per liter. Prices of agricultural products, however, have remained stable. Every liter of water pumped from the ground must be recovered by selling produce, and the equation is becoming less favourable every year. The scales are further tipped by the government’s commitment to reducing diesel subsidies.
Unable to afford diesel for irrigation, and without a reliable electricity grid to use electric pumps, farmers are facing an “agricultural counterrevolution” - a forced return to rain-fed agriculture.
So while renewable energy powered pumps are still very much the David to Diesel’s goliath, their window of opportunity is growing. Our challenge is meant to push open that window open wider.
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