Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Women: India’s Rural Energy Pioneers

A UN project, in association with one of India’s leading clean energy companies, is training women salt farmers in Gujarat to work in the solar power industry and build a better life.
March 1, 2022
A woman working in the salt pans of the Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India. Credit: Wikimedia

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has found a new partner globally to drive the sustainability mission – women. Another important element common to the projects under this mission is employment, where women are encouraged to take up self-employment or become entrepreneurs. Today, these women-led success stories are spread globally, from green entrepreneurs of Russia-invaded Ukraine to Niger’s communities fighting internal displacement, regional instability and climate change.

In an interesting initiative in India, the environmental agency of the United Nations is working with one of India’s leading clean energy companies to train women working in Gujarat’s salt pans as solar panel technicians.

The project is noteworthy, as salt farming is pure hard work for anyone, especially women, who have to set up huts, dig wells and pump-up brine, which they sift through a series of pans, eventually crystallising salt. The whole process, apart from the pumping, is done completely by hand.

Operating diesel pumps to irrigate the salt pans is also expensive. To buy diesel, farmers borrow money at high interest rates. As salt traders fix the rates of salt in advance and at much lower rates than the market price, it drives farmers to never-ending debts. The situation becomes more miserable in the case of women. As these women generally work without a contract and draw meagre payment, the impact of the project can be mapped in terms of economy, health and others.

From Salt Pans to Solar Pumps

In 2012, SEWA introduced solar pumps to lower the production costs and provide a clean energy option to the salt pan workers in the Little Rann of Kutch, say reports. Since then, the women association has replaced more than 1,500 diesel pumps with hybrid solar pumps. This enabled salt farmers to increase their incomes by halving the expenditure on diesel and increasing salt production by approximately 15 percent, say news reports. It has also helped in reducing the carbon footprint of the value chain.

The project – a collaboration between the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), clean energy company Renew Power, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), and state of Gujarat – aims to give these women the skills to build a new, more rewarding and better paid career in the renewable energy industry.

At SEWA training centres and Renew Power facilities in Gujarat, about 1,000 women from the salt region are learning how to work as solar panel and solar pump technicians. They will also receive technical training from the Electronics Sector Skills Council of India, informs the United Nations.

“This programme will not only help in creating alternative livelihoods for our SEWA sisters, but also help to deal with the environmental challenges present in traditional sectors such as salt production,” says SEWA’s Reema Nanavati. On solar pumps replacing polluting diesel pumps that are often used, she says, “It will help achieve an appropriate shift towards environmental sustainability. And we look forward to expanding this programme to other regions of the country.”

The trained women could find employment beyond the salt pans, like in companies like Renew Power, one of the project partners. “We want to engage women’s interest in an industry that will not only grow and enable them to become clean energy leaders in India,” says Vaishali Sinha, the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer.

In addition to serving the environment, employment and women empowerment, the project supports efforts to achieve many Sustainable Development Goals, such as gender equality, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, and climate action.

With global climate funds being sought to expand the scope of such projects and finance similar developments over the next few years, the world is set to witness many such “green jobs” and sustainable entrepreneurship activities.

The potential to scale up the programme across the country is exciting for Atul Bagai, Head, UN Environment Programme, Country Office, India. “We are delighted to support these initiatives, alongside companies like Renew Power, and organisations like SEWA. They play an important role in tackling climate change, teaching women important skills, and providing employment,” he adds.