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:

Photo: Greenpeace

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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This is interesting! How long does a diesel pump live? Its that different between the older 5HP ones and the newer Hondas and Chinese pumps?


Diesel Pumps helped a lot during the past 10 years it's a fact. But in these 10 years a lot of things have changed: diesel price not affordable, advanced technology, climate change, Indian farmers mindset, private and public organizations helping them providing them land rights and know how. The power grid is such an important factor, It's great that the govern can help such a poor community with almost free electricity but around 60% of India lives directly or indirectly in agriculture so they use a lot of energy for this diesel pumps which leads to major blackouts. Making them go into the crops at night to irrigate everything and taking the risk to meet some vipers or snakes. So this clearly isn't working. We need a secure and safe solution: climate and humans.


Any relevant local data on cost per m3 delivered by diesel pumps, including fuel and maintenance?


It looks like some Indian states are providing free electricity, others flat rate, other charge flat but dependent on horse power rating of the pump, and yet some others charge per actual usage...? Anybody has more information?

@ Ingo ,
Free electricity is rare, but yes flat rates are applicable at many places. I am very sure that none of the Indian states are charging actual cost of power, agricultural supply is heavily cross subsidized with commercial tariff, and many times governments are lenient in tariff dues recovery too.


A well thought out and timely challenge contest depicting reality on the ground! Of course, there is a great opportunity for a frugal innovation in irrigation arena, but the task is too tough for it to succeed at a mass scale in the wake of excessive subsidy driven environment when on one hand power is supplied free for agriculture purposes along with heavily subsidized agro-technological inputs, agriculture incomes are devoid of any taxes on the other. Unfortunately this multiple agriculture indulgence bonanza has benefited three classes- elite few in the power echelons who sit in authority seats, own major chunks of cultivable land and are in know of such schemes, traders of agro-equipments (business class) and a small percentage of commercial farms & industrial houses in contract farming as they are the major recipients of any form of subvention.

A vast majority of small landholders are left out in absence of right information backed by counselling, lack of hand-holding support and general tendency of people to copy one's neighbor rather than applying own mind. Unless the innovation addresses this systemic lacunae in Indian system by incorporating soft features like training and counselling, there are few chances to succeed on big scale! I believe, NGOs working with farmers can be of great help as some of them have performed exemplary roles in propagating new technology and techniques like SRI, Sustainable farming practices & GAP on a good scale in India.


@RajaJani Yes, competing with "free" or "super cheap" will always be hard, unfortunately until political realities change, there is not much to be done about that. But diesel pumps are vulnerable right now, aching to be replaced. So we should focus on that, no? Looks like we have a real chance there, and 10 million dirty pumps to be replaced sounds like a pretty promising market, too!

But we need to be able to do it without subsidies, just like you say. So our pump must be cheap enough, much cheaper than current ones.

Was there a lot of "counselling" when diesel pumps first entered the market in the 1970s? Or did farmers pretty much find out by themselves?


Cheaper and increasingly more powerful solar-powered water pumps can lift more than groundwater in parts of India. They will also lift farmers out of poverty by enabling them to better irrigate their crops more affordably, with less dependence on electric and diesel-powered pumps. Check this out -


Thanks for the link!


In 1970s in North India, with extensive irrigation canal network, actual command area of canals decreased significantly due to increased water requirement of HYV crops. Farmers using traditional methods of lifting ground water, like Persian wheels for irrigation were not able to grow these HYV crops as they were not able to provide sufficient water (5-6 irrigations) to exploit the yield potential of these HYV crops. Most “better-off” farmers invested in tube-well pumps powered mainly by diesel engines of 5-10 hp. The Government of India also expanded its rural electrification program significantly and farmers installed 3-10 hp electric motors driven pumps for pumping ground water from bored wells. To grow HYV crops farmers not owning tube-well pumps purchased water from neighbor farmers and normally payment was made after the sale of harvested crop. This was the beginning of custom hiring of farm equipment. Thus, the first and most important mechanization in India was ground water pumping using engine and electric motor driven irrigation pumps.


Very well said. Although i am a technician myself with some ideas for this pursuit, isnt it interesting to talk about the need of irrigation itself? one must note that ground water, like all natural resources is not free for exploitation. As described in the last lines of the blog 'a forced return to rain-fed agriculture', and combined with the HYV crops, arent we, the well fed leaders of population making a mistake, i.e. instead of solving the core problem of this excessive need of water due to HYV crops we find technologies to perpetuate the bad outcomes of the wrong direction?... Though i am stretching this discussion, i think one must give it some thought. A lot of farmers in india are demonstrating rain-fed agriculture as sustainable and profitable.
But ofcourse i dont mean that there is no need, just that we need to think and prevent from this technology elephant from toppling over itself, again and again.


Agreed. Fortunately at least in the target region, Bihar, water is still abundant through the Ganges delta. But groundwater abuse is rife elsewhere in India, and adding more pumping capacity is certainly an issue.

However ultimately, our objective is environmental: to reduce emissions (which RE pumps can deliver if they REPLACE diesel pumps) and put less stress on the ground water (which they also can deliver in that case, because they pump less water, distributes over more time).


The photo at top of this blog shows a perfect application for solar pumps - lift is very low and we can use as many floating pumps as needed, each powered by one or two solar panels. Solar would win on a total running and ownership cost.

It is a little bit on the big size but i am sure they could scale it down.


If the flow rate and depth of water or head pumped claims are true, then this is the solution for Bihar and pretty much anywhere all over the world !