Surging diesel prices may be squeezing farmers across India’s vast hinterlands, but they’re also kindling the nation’s knack for improvisation. Frugal workarounds, or hacks in modern parlance, are celebrated in Indian culture and known colloquially as jugaad. And if the innovativeness of farmers like Sarvesh Kumar Verma is anything to go by, this can-do attitude could pose a threat to demand for the nation’s most widely used petroleum product.
Frustrated over rising diesel prices, the rice and potato grower decided to hunt for an alternative. Verma found what he was looking for in his kitchen: a canister of liquefied petroleum gas used for cooking. After tinkering with the diesel-fueled pump that irrigates his fields in Uttar Pradesh state, he soon had it running smoothly on LPG, cutting his energy costs by about a third. “The best part is that there is no smoke,” the 40-year-old farmer said. “I’m now helping some other farmers in my village to switch their pumps to LPG.”
Verma’s exasperation was driven by diesel prices bloated by a fivefold jump in federal government taxes over the last five years. The retail price of the fuel in Kolkata and other Indian cities has surged this year, even as the coronavirus pummeled the economy. It’s now 20% higher than in mid-2014 when Brent crude was fetching more than $100 a barrel. While no one is predicting the imminent demise of diesel in India, LPG is one of several energy sources that look set to chip away at the dominance of the fuel that accounts for around 40% of the country’s oil consumption.
In agriculture — which accounts for about 13% of India’s diesel consumption — solar power and compressed natural gas are other potential substitutes. Small-scale solar with battery storage may be the best option for Indian farmers in the long run, while switching to CNG would be trickier as it’s not as available as LPG, said Vandana Hari, founder of consultancy Vanda Insights in Singapore.