The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected small and marginal farmers and daily wage earners. It has highlighted the need to invest in building a resilient farm economy. Decentralised renewable energy (DRE) has the potential to effectively bridge energy gaps, facilitate local value addition and strengthen food supply chains and communities’ resilience to climate and economic shocks.
Millions of farmers and daily wage earners locked down
On 24th March 2020, India imposed a nation-wide lockdown to curtail the pandemic caused by COVID-19. In a single stroke, it limited the movement of 1.3 billion people. These restrictions and the implementation of social distancing have disrupted livelihoods, food supply chains, and people’s access to basic commodities and services.
With about 91 per cent of the workforce in the informal sector, agricultural and migrant workers and other daily wage earners are among the worst hit. The virus has cut off the lifelines for many of India’s poorest and left them vulnerable to malnutrition and hunger. This crisis has highlighted the essential role and need for further investment in reliable, affordable, and locally run agricultural and energy infrastructure and services to support local employment and livelihoods.
The agriculture value chain is at the core of India’s economy. Though it makes up only about 15 per cent of GDP, 70 per cent of rural households depend on agriculture for sustenance. COVID-19 has disrupted activities across agriculture and food supply chains. The harvesting of rabi crops such as wheat and pulses was delayed. Agricultural workers and daily wage earners could not leave their villages to find work and have remained unemployed. This has left many of the rural poor without any source of income and no savings.
89 per cent of daily wage earners reported receiving no income during the first month of the lockdown period.
Whereas many other areas of the economy shut down completely, farmers on the frontline have kept the food supply chain running. Despite a severe shortage of labour, machinery and transport facilities, the harvesting of wheat and pulses has now resumed. On the other hand, market shutdowns and transportation restrictions have kept farmers from selling their produce. Growers of perishables such as fruits, vegetables and flowers have suffered from the lack of cold storage facilities at the farm level, forcing them to make a distress sale or let their crops rot. This has caused sizeable revenue loss to many farmers across states, but small and marginal farmers are among the most affected.
In late April, a staggering 20 per cent of farmers reported they would lack seeds and fertilisers to participate in the kharif sowing season. This would affect their livelihoods even in the next season. Clearly, a resilient farm economy is essential to protect the food and economic security of India’s precarious populations.
Oorja raised INR 1,00,000 (£ 1,000) during its COVID-19 emergency fundraiser. 78 farming families in 4 villages of Bahraich district, Uttar Pradesh each received 3 kg paddy seeds, 45 kg phosphate or urea fertilisers, and masks and soaps, benefiting over 500 people.
The agriculture-energy nexus
While the challenges facing India’s farmers are longstanding, the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the role of solutions that are inclusive, scalable and sustainable. The agriculture sector depends on a reliable energy supply to provide power for irrigation, food processing, cooling and heating, and other ‘productive’ applications. Decentralised renewable energy (DRE) sources already play a crucial role in complementing the country’s centralised energy systems, collectively supplying over 10 million people. The DRE industry also provides over 96,000 direct formal jobs.
Decentralised systems have provided essential services throughout the COVID-19 crisis, from powering remote health care centres to providing electricity in underserved areas. Central and local administrations have recognised the role of these renewable energy services and declared them ‘essential services’. In rural Jharkhand, mini-grid operator Mlinda has continued to provide 24×7 electricity services to homes and small businesses, even seeing a rise in energy demand. Similarly, Oorja has delivered irrigation services to marginal farmers in Uttar Pradesh on credit to protect their farm productivity. Oorja also raised emergency funds to provide farming families with agricultural inputs (seeds and fertilisers) to help them sow crops for the kharif season and secure their livelihoods in the difficult times ahead.
Among other agri-energy services, under its “Oonnati” service, Oorja installs and operates community-scale solar irrigation systems and sells water as a service. Each system provides water for 15-20 marginal farmers, creating 1 job in the local community for every 3 pumps deployed.
The pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities by disproportionately affecting the rural poor. It has also brought to light the role of DRE in crisis response and in underpinning rural livelihoods.
There is a need to increase investments in decentralised infrastructure and to extend affordable, reliable and environmentally sustainable energy supply to rural communities. Solar-powered irrigation systems are a cost-effective technology to boost agricultural productivity, but require innovative financing and distribution models to make them accessible. Cold storage facilities and decentralised primary and secondary food processing are needed to support small and marginal farmers in bringing their produce to markets. Off-grid renewable energy infrastructure must be coupled with pro-poor business models to support livelihoods and quality of life.
Sustainable energy solutions have the potential to effectively bridge energy gaps, facilitate local value addition, and create employment opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled workers. The present crisis calls for further investment in DRE, especially for vulnerable rural communities. This provides an opportunity to strengthen food supply chains and communities’ resilience to climate and economic shocks as we rebuild our societies to be more inclusive, just and sustainable.