Earth Day 2018: Solar-powered irrigation can boost rural development, but also poses risks

- Avinash Kishore

Irrigation is one of the most effective means for boosting agricultural production, but powering the withdrawal of groundwater can be an expensive and polluting process. Solar panels provide a cleaner energy source for pumping groundwater than traditional diesel-based pumps, and their cost has rapidly fallen in recent years—exciting policymakers in South Asia about their promise as a viable and sustainable tool for rural development.

To mark Earth Day 2018 (April 22), here is a look at what our research reveals about the solar pumps and sustainable agriculture: In the Indian state of Bihar, the pumps have been an effective means for boosting wheat yields that is cheaper than diesel pumps. But appropriately implementing this technology does not come without challenges.

Encouraging the adoption of solar pumps in diverse conditions across South Asia calls for tailored approaches that leverage the benefits of the technology without creating negative impacts like market distortions or the depletion of natural resources.

Installing solar pumps has very high capital costs that most farmers in the region cannot afford. Once installed, however, solar panels provide energy for free, so that over a pump’s life-cycle, energy from a solar pump works out to be cheaper than that from a diesel pump. To address this barrier to entry, governments in South Asia are offering high capital subsidies on solar pumps.

These subsidies have been successful in increasing the use of solar pumps, but also create market distortions that limit their broader viability. If solar pumps are a viable technology, policymakers should shift their focus from subsidizing the upfront costs of buying to finding innovative ways to finance the purchases. IFPRI has worked closely with a private firm experimenting with different technological and financial innovations that hold great promise to make solar pumps an affordable purchase, even for smallholder and women farmers. But as long as heavy subsidies for solar pumps exist, such promising innovations have little chance of succeeding.

The nature of the costs of owning and maintaining solar pumps also has potentially negative impacts for the sustainable management of groundwater. Since farmers invest heavily and it costs almost nothing to maintain and use a solar-powered pump, the incentive is to pump as much water for irrigation as possible and to increase crop yields as much as possible. If solar pumps are promoted aggressively in water-scarce areas of South Asia, they can aggravate existing groundwater depletion problems.

Many state governments in India are trying to address this issue by bundling a subsidy on solar pumps with subsidized micro-irrigation systems that boost efficient water use. But this effort alone won’t suffice: Using water efficiently does not necessarily inhibit its overuse.

Instead, farmers need an incentive to save the energy produced by their solar panels for something other than pumping groundwater. Net-metering solar panels measure how much power is used out of the total produced. This technology can provide farmers the option of selling surplus electricity back to the grid—an incentive to conserve solar power, and with that, water. This approach may be the only way to make solar pumps a sustainable option in water-scarce areas.

In the Eastern Gangetic Plains of Bangladesh, India, and Nepal Teraii, governments should promote solar pumps through financial and business process innovations to make them financially viable for the greatest number of people. In the rest of South Asia, where groundwater is scarce, solar pumps should be promoted only with available net-metering. And in canal commands that regulate irrigation systems, small solar pumps connected to water storage structures can promote more efficient use of water and support high-value agriculture through better water control.

While not a panacea, solar pumps equipped with the appropriate technologies and supportive policies can help farmers across South Asia manage water more responsibly, and should be a part of any sustainable agriculture strategy.

Avinash Kishore is a Research Fellow in IFPRI's South Asia Office in New Delhi.

The blog was originally posted on

GFPR 2018 India Launch: India’s Time to Focus on Farmers

Against the backdrop of rising concerns over farm distress in India, and a farmers’ protest movement demanding policy succor, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) launched the latest 2018 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) at a policy dialogue held in New Delhi, India, Friday.

Archana Singh / IFPRI

The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog Vice-chairperson and the chief guest, Rajiv Kumar, echoing the theme of this year’s report, admitted that the global trade can be a double-edged sword, which has its benefits as well as disadvantages. “How do we address this challenge of meeting local needs and requirements with increasing global trade?” Kumar said addressing farm distress with the right policies is now a priority for the Indian government. “We in the NITI Aayog and the government have decided it is finally time we must focus only and only on farmers and farmers’ distress…that’s a real issue which is beginning to haunt us... and (the issue is) so amazingly complex.”

According to the GFPR, the rise of anti-globalization politics and policies around the world poses threats to progress in efforts to end global hunger and malnutrition. The Delhi report launch and policy dialogue were held in partnership with premier Indian research institutions, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS), and ICAR- National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research (ICAR-NIAP).

IFPRI director-general, Shenggen Fan, in his keynote address, highlighted some of the themes included in this year’s report: the impact of global integration and disintegration on trade, migration, investment and knowledge-sharing. “We don’t want a trade war,” Fan said, adding, “trade war will hurt all, particularly poor and hungry people.” Fan pointed out that nearly 850 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition globally, while 35 million are at risk of famine. He suggested enactment of strong policies to leverage benefits of globalization while minimizing risks to ensure progress towards meeting Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and poverty by 2030.

Providing an overview of the report’s regional analysis from South Asia, IFPRI-SAO director, PK Joshi, said, “There’s a paradox in South Asia—we are the fastest growing economy and region in the world, but are facing the challenge of triple malnourishment: food insecurity, undernourishment and obesity.” Joshi also cautioned against the rising threat of climate change and its impact on food systems.

Another panelist, Mahendra Dev, director and vice chancellor, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), and IFPRI Board vice chairman, emphasized on the importance of food systems approach in analysis of hunger and malnutrition, and pointed out that global trade has more benefits than risks. “India will benefit more from globalization than protectionist policies. India can and should take the high road against protectionism as it needs the global trade and financial capital for high growth.”

Between 1985 and 2007, trade grew twice as fast as GDP, however, since 2012 GDP and trade have grown at the same rate, said Dev, arguing that recent protectionist measures announced by the United States may lead to a further reduction in trade growth.

Drawing from her own experience as an agriculture science student, panelist Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, senior adviser and head of agriculture for South Asia, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), India, said the current educational system focuses on agricultural productivity and yields but not on farmers’ incomes, leading to an imbalance in the way success is measured in the farm sector. “Green revolution’s focus was more on the farm, the new ambition is to focus on farmers, and doubling their incomes,” said Mehta-Bhatt.

Real-time data, as pointed out in the report, can help in real-time governance, and measurement of the income gap for farmers, which is critical to improving their incomes, she added.

But, policy-making, disconnected from politics, has little meaning. “When you talk of policy and forget politics, it will have very little implication to society,” said session chairperson, Trilochan Mohapatra, secretary, Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) and director general, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). He expressed concerns regarding some of the structural deficiencies, which impact food security in the country. “Is the subsidized foodgrain (through public distribution system) not reaching the end user? Why does hunger exist? Why are we not able to reach the unreached?”

In his concluding remarks, Kumar from NITI Aayog said, “Thirty-eight per cent of our children are undernourished... and 60 million tonnes of foodgrains are being stocked somewhere while farmers are throwing away their produce.” We need to introspect deeply, and create non-farm employment, following China’s path out of agrarian crisis. “For the next few years, we need to concentrate on curbing hunger and malnutrition, and make sure that our farmers come up to the same level as their urban counterparts,” he added.

This blog was originally posted on

International Women’s Day: Self-help groups aid communication, empowerment in India

To mark International Women’s Day—with the theme “Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives”—IFPRI is examining the role of rural women activists in bringing change to nutrition and food systems worldwide. This is the second of two posts—read the first here.

Women’s groups are increasingly becoming vehicles for social, political, and economic empowerment around the world. In India, self-help groups (SHGs) are the most visible of these, receiving support from NGOs, the government, and even the private sector. Each SHG typically consists of 10-20 poor women who live near each other, meet regularly, and save small amounts of money in a common account.

Alejandra Arrieta/IFPRI
Women attend a event organized by a self-help group in the village of Basaniya in Madhya Pradesh, India, to discuss recent training sessions in nutrition.

To better understand how SHGs work and how to make their programs more effective, we are working with one of India’s largest NGOs, PRADAN, to examine the impact of layering nutrition-sensitive interventions on their existing agricultural-livelihoods program platform. The four-year research effort is called Women Improving Nutrition through Group-based Strategies (WINGS).

Our study is ongoing, but some early results, based on data from a 2015 survey in five states, indicate SHGs likely do help empower women by enhancing their mobility, building their self-confidence, and providing them with more powerful social networks.

SHGs reduce the cost of delivering information to poor women who might be unaware of public benefits or be excluded from government services such as agricultural extension and information services. For instance, if an SHG actively promotes specific health- and nutrition-related programs, that can increase demand and produce better coordination with community health workers. These groups can also help expand social networks and the communication within them—facilitating the flow of useful information.

Increasing women’s mobility also boosts this information flow. To attend group meetings, women must leave their homes, even if only within their own village. Regular interactions with fellow group members and with external facilitators may also help them grow more adept at communicating. Often, the experience of belonging to a group and interacting regularly with women with similar perspectives can in itself boost self-confidence. Family members (mostly husbands) of women in SHGs may also feel more confident about the ability of these women to engage with the world outside the homestead, perhaps even traveling outside the village with the group.

SHGs also appear to raise members’ political participation and enhance public accountability. Attending the groups’ regular meetings may make women more likely to attend village council meetings. Speaking in a collective voice, along with enhanced self-confidence, gives them a further boost to advance issues and demand their rights be respected. In some states, SHG members now play an active role in monitoring and improving government programs, including the midday meal school feeding program and the Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS). They help to prepare the midday meal, prepare fortified take-home rations under ICDS, and monitor teacher absenteeism. This helps improve the delivery of services and provider accountability.

Our analysis thus far supports the hypotheses above. We find that, compared to non-SHG members, SHG members are more likely to know and interact with other women, even those outside their locality, attend village meetings, have a voter’s card, vote, and vote according to their own choice. SHG members are not only significantly more likely to know about certain public entitlements, particularly those targeting households, they are also more likely to use the programs they know about. Thus, even if these programs are well-known, SHG members may be more able to translate that information into action, either because of their individual empowerment (through increased mobility, for example), or because of the collective strength of the group.

SHGs also appear to empower women by increasing their knowledge of agricultural practices. Providing agricultural extension services through women’s groups offers an opportunity to overcome the inefficiency and limited reach of India’s public extension system, which typically targets men.

Under India’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), state and local governments have partnered with NGOs to introduce programs in sustainable agriculture, livestock rearing, and fisheries through SHGs. These programs provide information on crops, improved practices and government subsidy schemes for inputs, access to crop loans, and better access to markets. Groups are encouraged to pool inputs and outputs to achieve economies of scale, and may function as registered farmer-producer organizations that contract with buyers and sellers.

Have these programs resulted in SHG members adopting better farming practices? Our preliminary results suggest that, while SHG women are more likely to have received information on a range of agricultural practices, they are not necessarily more likely than non-members to have put that information into practice. Although SHG membership is associated with increased decision-making in agriculture, and has reduced empowerment gaps within households, we find limited evidence of SHG membership impact on production diversity or market orientation. Thus, even as SHGs provide expertise and help women start to play a more active role in household decision-making, barriers still exist to putting this agricultural knowledge into practice.
Group-based programs have potential to transform women’s lives, but income constraints, social norms, and traditions still present formidable barriers to women’s full participation in agriculture. While evidence on direct income effects of SHG membership is limited, there is some to suggest that these groups improve women’s economic empowerment—and that NGOs such as PRADAN are likely to yield dividends on this front. SHG membership may also more gradually change social norms and traditions, particularly those that keep women from participating in agriculture.

Such processes take time. But at the present moment, the coverage and reach of the SHG platform is unparalleled and its manifold strengths should be put to work where possible. To do so effectively, more research is required on the long-term impacts of SHG membership and on how to better leverage the group platform. We are hopeful that a continued focus on the capabilities of self-help groups will bring about important changes for women, and that our multi-year impact evaluation will yield valuable insights into these research questions.

Neha Kumar and Agnes Quisumbing are Senior Research Fellows and Kalyani Raghunathan is an Associate Research Fellow in IFPRI's Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division. This blog was originally posted on

Precision geospatial analysis highlights development gaps – now we need precision solutions

Two new studies published in the journal Nature map recent progress made on improving child health and education across Africa at a level of detail that provides a powerful new tool for improving development outcomes in Africa. The studies find that many areas—particularly around major cities—have made tremendous progress in improving both child health and educational outcomes. But the study also highlights stark inequalities across the continent, and the findings show no single country is likely to completely end childhood malnutrition within its borders by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) deadline of 2030.

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan writes in a Nature commentary piece accompanying the release of these studies: “Such fine-grained insight brings tremendous responsibility to act. It shows governments, international agencies and donors exactly where to direct resources and support.”

Maps from a study in Nature show the prevalence of moderate and severe stunting in Africa in 2010 and 2015 at a granular, 5 x 5 km level. Such mapping capabilities suggest a path to "precision development," the author writes, allowing better targeting of resources to address problems on the local level.

The way the studies drill down to these smaller local levels, deeper than previous efforts, demonstrates how localized problems can persist even within larger areas of progress. Now, we must figure out ways to apply this information to create precise interventions that address these inequalities.

The idea that there can be tremendous spatial variability (as well as variations over time) in development outcomes has been a subject of discussion in the development community for several years now. But almost any level of subnational disaggregation is often deemed too large for precision-focused targeting. Now that the capacity exists to perform the precise level of analysis highlighted in this Nature article, there is a path to begin discussions about what precision public health or precision development might look like.

At the same time, local government boundaries, especially those that signal financial and administrative power, are often well above these smaller geospatial analytic boundaries in many countries. Financial allocations and administrative decisions are made at province or region or district levels in many governments, while these studies map outcomes across the continent in standard 5x5 square kilometer areas. Using this data to consider how to apply it to financing or administrative support decisions is the next task for development practitioners.

As the maps in these studies show, precision public health will be necessary to achieve the global goals to end hunger and poverty by 2030, but the execution of it requires tremendous capability and commitment at local administrative levels.
These studies also show us outcomes, but don’t tell us how the combination of determinants are playing out. We will need more disaggegated data on the coverage of various types of programs, interventions, and services. This would help sharpen both the targeting of actions and the monitoring of changes in coverage and outcomes. Locally-focused diagnostic work is essential in order to accelerate the progress made and reach every last household, mother, and child in ways that reshape the conditions that support better child growth and educational attainment throughout life.

For decades, we have known that investments in nutrition can fuel better educational outcomes later in life, and that the educational attainment of women is crucial not only to their individual health and wellbeing, but also for that of their children and their society. These outcomes are intricately connected, and addressing them together can provide tremendous spillover benefits.

Purnima Menon is a Senior Research Fellow with IFPRI's Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division, based in New Delhi. This blog was originally posted on

MSP hike: Not a viable policy option

Farmers in India do not get remunerative prices for their crops even as consumers complain of high and rising food prices. A year of good production often turns out to be terrible for farmers because of the price crash. In his budget speech, the finance minister proposed raising the minimum support prices (MSP) to 1.5 times the cost of production, to ensure remunerative prices to farmers and reduce the price risk they face.  The finance minister, however, did not clarify what cost of production will be considered for setting MSP. In an earlier article, Ramesh Chand, member of the NITI Aayog, had suggested a 50% margin over the A2+FL cost, which includes all paid-out costs and the imputed cost of family labour (FL). If so, MSP is already more than 1.5 times this cost for five of the six Rabi crops for which support prices are announced. Safflower is the only exception. Among Kharif crops, MSP was more than 1.5 times the A2+FL cost for bajra, tur and urad.

Farmers in India are under pressure to sell their produce right after the harvest, which makes their supply inelastic. (AP).
Photo-Financial Express

For paddy, the largest Kharif crop, MSP was higher than 1.5 times the A2+FL cost of production in 2017-18 in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Punjab and Uttarakhand—states that contributed more than 70% of the total rice procured. Thus, 80% of the public procurement of food grains is from the states where MSP already provides more than 50% margin over the A2+FL costs. What about the role of MSP in crops that are not publicly procured? Our ongoing research shows that without procurement, MSP is useless for farmers when it exceeds the market price, and harmful, when it is below it. Take the example of chana and arhar whose MSPs have been more than the market price in only two out of 17 years since 2000. Farm harvest price data shows that pulse traders use the low MSP as a benchmark and offer farmers prices close to MSP. Farm harvest prices bunch unnaturally around MSP when it should be higher. In game theory parlance, low MSP becomes a Schelling point for tacit collusion among traders.

What if the government heeds the demands of farmer leaders and sets MSP at 1.5 times the total (C2) cost of production? MSPs of most crops, except wheat, will have to rise sharply. How will the public procurement of select food crops at such high MSPs affect India’s farmers and its agrarian economy? MSP at 1.5 times the C2 cost will be significantly higher than the market price of most crops. Procurement at high MSP will result in rapid build-up of large government stocks that would need to be sold at a loss. Supply will increase in response to high and assured prices. Without commensurate increase in demand, market prices will fall and the wedge between the market and support prices will increase. The government will have to procure more grains and sell them at higher losses.

The fiscal costs of such a spiral have probably not been fully accounted for. The proposed MSP policy is not only unviable, but it also amounts to virtual public takeover of India’s crop economy. Can alternatives like the Madhya Pradesh’s scheme of bridge pricing, called Bhavantar, work? Under Bhavantar, the government pays farmers the difference between the MSP and the modal market price, but does not procure grains itself. Bhavantar is less distortionary and it saves the government hassles of procuring, storing and offloading crops; but it may not work along expected lines.

Farmers in India are under pressure to sell their produce right after the harvest, which makes their supply inelastic. In contrast, traders can afford to strategically wait for the right time to buy. An old rule of public economics tells us that the government can decide whether to transfer subsidy to buyers or sellers, but it cannot dictate how the subsidy will be shared between them.

The party that is more desperate—in this case, farmers—will get a smaller share of the subsidy. A large share of Bhavantar payments will go to traders—even if the government transfers the money to farmers’ accounts. How large the share would be depends on the supply-demand dynamics of each crop and market. There are already news reports about complaints of collusion among traders in Madhya Pradesh, where Bhavantar is being pilot tested. With Bhavantar, farm harvest prices will be 1.5 times the C2 costs only if the MSP is set further higher. Rising subsidy bills is not the only problem with following the C2+50% rule. There will be many other negative effects of this policy.

*First, crops with MSP account for only 28% of the total value of agricultural output. High MSPs only for these crops will discourage the much-needed diversification to fruits, vegetables and other high-value commodities, resulting in high food prices and poor nutritional outcomes.

*Second, a grains-obsessed food policy discriminates against smallholders, who have the comparative advantage in producing labour-intensive high-value commodities. Diversification to high-value agriculture is the only way millions of India’s smallholders can earn a decent income off their farms.

*Third, raising incentives for rice production in water scarce areas, like Punjab and Haryana, is also environmentally unsustainable.

* Finally, only 6% farmers sold their produce at MSP in 2013. The bureaucratic costs of extending price support to all farmers of India will be prohibitive.

India’s food and agricultural policies are geared to protect consumers more than farmers. Ad hoc policies—like storage limits and bans on futures trading, ostensibly to protect consumers—increase uncertainty and discourage private investments in markets. Instead of resorting to distortionary subsidies and market stifling policies, the government should invest in market and storage infrastructure, deregulate primary wholesale markets, encourage inter-state trade, set fair, consistent and predictable international trade policies, and invest in research and extension to increase farm incomes and accelerate agricultural growth.

PK Joshi is director South Asia, Avinash Kishore is research fellow, IFPRI. Co-authored with Devesh Roy, CGIAR research programme on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). This piece was originally published in Financial Express.

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