Off the grid

They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button! we don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’
Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.
– Edward Lear, ‘The Jumblies’

A few years ago, living off the grid seemed like going to sea in a sieve. But soon, with electricity getting less and less reliable in our cities, and solar power getting cheaper and better every year, it will be the safe and sensible thing to do.


Our farm is a kilometre from the forest as the crow flies or as the elephant stomps. The nearest villages do have electricity, and we were told that we could have it if we paid for the extra poles to bring it to our land. Of course a large sum of money would also change hands under the table. One of the considerations for us in deciding whether to be on the grid was the fear of electrocuting elephants or other creatures by bringing high tension wires across the land. (The elephants have also influenced several other decisions, including the design of our house and the unlined well.) Given how windy our neck of the woods is (you have to literally hold on to your hair most of the year), wind power seemed indicated. But windmills are notorious for killing birds, and also there are studies that suggest that extensive wind farms are distorting the weather patterns.

We talked to a lot of people and finally decided that we’d give solar a try. Once we took this decision, our architect Shobi – also a dear friend – designed one half of the roof with embedded solar panels. Selco, an organisation that’s doing brilliant work in the field, advised us on how many panels we’d need and together we all designed our electrical system. The most important electrical gadget was of course the borewell pump. A friend told us that Grundfos was the preferred water pump of Auroville farms, and we found they had a submersible helical pump that would work at great depths, on AC or DC, solar, wind, diesel or any blessed fuel under the sun. It was almost unique in the Indian market (at least at that time) in not having a ‘starting current’. That is, it didn’t need a surge of high power to get started. This was important because we didn’t have to put in extra panels just to cover the surge.

The problem was that no one seemed to know the whole picture – Selco knew their panel and Grundfos knew their pump and Shobi knew her roof, but no one knew how they’d all fit together. Anyway, Jumblie-like, we went ahead. First the panels were fixed on the specially designed stand which had been grouted in the roof.


Then, on the big day, the two teams – electrical and plumbing – arrived together. The panel wiring was connected.


Then the submersible pump was fixed to the special pipe and submersed.


It was heavy going, shoving it down nearly 300 ft into the bore. The switch was flipped. The tension was unbearable… was it going to work? was that a gurgle?


It is! It’s a blooming miracle!

Four years later I still can’t get over the bounty of our borewell. We use the water sparingly, only for domestic use and for our young trees. We don’t grow an irrigated crop. And now we are thinking about a rainwater harvesting system. We plan to have it in place before the monsoon next year. Because groundwater is a gift from the past and also from the future. It’s helped us through the first few years, and now it’s time to give it back and live on the water of the present.


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