Solar Pumps help Indian Women Salt Workers Escape from Poverty


This version of the article was originally published in Sustainable Energy For All on January 29, 2015.

Ahmedabad, India, 29 January, 2014 - Solar-powered water pumps provided under the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative are helping women working in the desert salt pans of western India to escape from poverty, replacing expensive and dirty diesel pumps with clean, cheap energy.

The project, in the Great Rann of Kutch desert in Gujarat state, cuts diesel consumption by around two-thirds, offering each salt worker an annual saving of 60,000 Indian Rupees (about US$1,000). It is being implemented by the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in partnership with SE4ALL, the World Bank and solar energy company Sun Edison.

Salt pan worker Divuben Rathod said she used to have to borrow money from salt traders to buy diesel, food and drinking water for the salt production season, living in tough desert conditions from October to May.

By using a solar pump supplied by SEWA under a pilot scheme, her net income from the salt she produces has more than doubled - even after repaying part of the cost of the pump.

"Now I don't take loans and I am able to send my children to school," she said.

This year SEWA will distribute 400 more solar pumps to its members, including 200 in partnership with Sun Edison, and aims to replace diesel pumps with solar pumps for all its 17,000 salt pan worker members over the coming decade.

The same group of women is already benefiting from a SEWA project to provide solar lights, demonstrating how access to clean energy is helping people who previously lived in chronic energy poverty to take control of their lives and thrive economically.

"SEWA is a strong partner of ours and we will continue to support their work in making a difference in the lives of the salt pan workers and their families," said Kandeh Yumkella, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sustainable Energy for All and Chief Executive Officer of the Vienna-based Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative.

Speaking at this month's official launch of SEWA's Solar Water Pumps project in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, Yumkella urged the world community to continue its efforts to eradicate energy poverty and support the work of organizations like SEWA, and said SE4ALL would continue to act as a catalyst for such partnerships.

"Energy issues are central to sustainable development," he said. "They are about equity and fairness. Access to sustainable energy can mean the difference between safety and fear, freedom and servitude, and life and death. Energy and access to energy services are directly linked to the economic and social wellbeing of women."

SEWA director Reemaben Nanavaty said the salt workers were trapped in poverty because of the high cost of diesel, which represents about 70 percent of their production costs. The innovative solar pump initiative will enable salt workers to increase their productivity, earn more money, gain economic independence and assure better health and education opportunities for their families.

"Today India is the third largest producer of salt in the world, with 75% of Indian production coming from Gujarat. Yet the salt workers -- many of them women -- who produce this salt still live in poverty," she said.

The solar pumps run during the day, but diesel is still used at night because the batteries needed to store the solar energy for night use are costly and need frequent maintenance. Dispensing with batteries also substantially reduces the up-front cost of the solar equipment.

Anita George, Senior Director of the World Bank Group's Global Practice on Energy and Extractive Industries, said SEWA was making a very valuable contribution to empowering women and helping them break out of energy poverty.

"As the World Bank group we are proud to work in partnership with SEWA, the private sector -- Sun Edison -- and the UN, our partners in Sustainable Energy for All," she said. "Addressing energy poverty in a sustainable way is a key factor in meeting the twin goals of the World Bank Group, of eradicating poverty and increasing shared prosperity."

SEWA director Nanavaty recalled the special significance of salt in Indian history, when a march led by Mahatma Gandhi to produce salt in defiance of a colonial salt tax triggered the wider Civil Disobedience Movement that ultimately led to independence. Just as Gandhi affirmed the right to use natural deposits of salt, she said, so the women of Gujarat were affirming their right to solar energy.

Gandhi's granddaughter Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, who was present at the ceremony, praised the solar pump project.

"Solar energy to produce salt takes us in the direction of sarvodaya, and that is why we must adopt it," she said, referring to Gandhi's political philosophy of 'progress for all'.

Another salt pan worker summed up what the solar pump means to her.

"It directly doubles my family income and means I can send my children to school," she said. "Since the solar pump starts and stops automatically at sunrise and sunset, I do not need to be constantly around the pump. So I can also do tailoring work, for which I bought a sewing machine this year."