Salt of the Earth, Courtesy of the Sun
By powering their pumps with solar energy instead of diesel, Indian salt farmers are investing in their own brighter futures.
In the remote, sun-cracked desert of India’s westernmost state, Gujarat, tens of thousands of farmers work to harvest one of the country’s most essential commodities: salt. And there’s certainly a lot of it. Nearly 76 percent of all the country’s salt comes from Gujarat, and a large share of it is harvested in a small region near the Arabian Sea called the Little Rann of Kutch, which remains largely disconnected from India’s electrical grid.
Here, as many as 43,000 salt pan worker families—locally called agariyas—spend long, hot days pumping brackish salt water from shallow wells with the aid of diesel-powered pumps. Over the course of the salt-making season, they carefully move the water from pan to pan in order to achieve the right alkalinity, ensuring that the salt crystallizes into a precursor to industry or food-grade salt. After eight months of hard work, residual snow-white salt crystals are raked, gathered, and sold. But despite the monumental labor—and monumental output—from the region’s concentrated industry, most of the agariyas still live in abject poverty. Though there are compounding factors at play, one stands out: the exorbitant price of fuel for their pumps.
For decades, the agariyas have shouldered the cost of that diesel, often spending more than 40 percent of their annual revenue for the season’s production. This expenditure doesn’t constitute a capital investment; it amounts to an economically crippling burden. “They work long hours yet get low returns,” says Reemaben Nanavaty, the director of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the largest union of women workers in the so-called unorganized sector of India’s economy.
To tackle the issue, SEWA partnered with NRDC to create a solution that harnesses the same powerful force crystallizing all the salt in that brackish water: the strong Indian sunshine. That is, solar power.
As a native of Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s sweltering metropolis, Nanavaty knows that if there’s one thing more abundant than the salt beneath the agariyas’ feet, it’s the sun over their heads. Given that the price of photovoltaic solar panels has fallen so precipitously in India, it only made sense, she thought, to explore the idea of replacing salt pan workers’ dirty and expensive pumps with sun-powered versions that were far more energy efficient and cost efficient.
In 2013, Nanavaty contacted Anjali Jaiswal, director of NRDC’s India program, to see if the organization was interested in partnering on a pilot project that would do exactly that. Jaiswal didn’t hesitate. “I already knew about Reemaben’s admirable work,” Jaiswal says. “When I asked her how we could help, she answered by saying that this idea, if done right, could be of incredible benefit to the workers out in the salt flats. But for that to happen, it needed to be more than just a short-term project; it needed to be turned into long-term policy. We shared her vision and wanted to help see it through.”
The pilot program, initiated later that year, was designed to calculate the different kinds of savings that might be achieved over time by fueling pumps with a blend of diesel and solar power—or even by supplanting the former with the latter entirely. The results were striking: By switching over to a hybrid system, the typical salt pan worker would be able to increase his or her annual net income by a staggering 94 percent. Assuming that a worker had purchased the system with a loan that charged 12 percent interest, this worker would be able to pay back the loan in its entirety in just a little over three years, further increasing his or her net pay.
Of course, those weren’t the only benefits. According to NRDC and SEWA’s estimates, replacing half of the agariyas’ diesel pumps with solar and the other half with solar-diesel hybrid pumps could spare the climate as many as 115,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—the equivalent of nearly 25,000 cars being taken off the road.
Those who took part in the pilot program reported other benefits, too. Compared with the old diesel pumps, the new solar-powered equipment was shown to be much more reliable and less likely to break down and allowed farmers to greatly increase the amount of salt harvested. And the impacts on the women’s lives were immeasurable—helping to shift long-standing barriers to financial and social independence.
Bhavnaben Koli, a third-generation salt farmer, was one of the first participants in the SEWA solar pilot project. She had relied solely on a mechanical diesel pump prior to 2013. Since the swap, the fuel savings have allowed Koli to invest in a small flour mill, which generates additional income. “Thanks to solar, my son is studying in a private school,” says Koli. Longtime SEWA member Gauriben Zinzaria, who now has two solar pumps as well as a small flour mill in the village of Nava Kuda, is also able to send her children to school more regularly, as she can now afford to leave them behind at home with an elderly family member rather than having them work during the salt-producing season. Zinzaria can also afford to travel home, more than five kilometers from the Little Rann of Kutch, more frequently.
“Salt farmers who have been using solar pumps have started using these savings to provide better food to their families, to replace the thatched roofs of their homes with permanent roofs, and to send their children to middle schools and high schools,” Nanavaty observes. They’ve also been able to gain access to traditionally exclusionary financial systems when applying for their small loans. The project’s mission is really as wide as the range of needs that affect all of India’s poor: educational opportunity, gender equity, food security, disaster relief, vocational training, and access to energy, to name just a few.
SEWA has spent decades addressing these sorts of systemic issues to improve the lives of the group’s nearly two million members—poor, rural women who hold jobs largely outside the parameters of the country’s regulatory system. These individuals represent 93 percent of India’s labor force but have few workplace protections, limited access to the marketplace or financial institutions, and almost no organized political power. It’s why even relatively small projects, like providing solar-powered pumps to the agariyas, can be transformative for entire communities.
As Nanavaty first envisioned, SEWA has built on the success of the project’s pilot and, as of 2018, distributed more than 1,000 additional solar pumps to its members. Each of these members will realize the benefits outlined above, as well as the benefit of a purchasing plan that leverages long-term savings against up-front costs. This allows workers to make the investment without experiencing much economic burden. The social and financial merits of the project have attracted commercial banks, and the International Finance Corporation was instrumental in designing financial solutions that helped commercials banks extend loans to the salt farmers.
The ultimate goal, Nanavaty says, is to replace 15,000 diesel pumps with solar pumps—which amounts to all of SEWA’s salt pan worker members—and scale it for salt farming in the entire region. As a next step in the partnership, NRDC is working on village-level clean energy plans. Rippling even further, the success of this work can serve as a model for locally driven climate solutions, Jaiswal says—in Little Rann of Kutch, across NRDC’s India program, and around the world.
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