India shines in renewables, concerns remain in the shadows

The Pavagada project has become a success story being emulated by other states
Last Updated : 11 December 2022, 03:53 IST

Follow Us :


Forsaken for decades, Pavagada farmers had lived as an afterthought until the Karnataka government saw, in its fertile grounds, an opportunity to become a top solar energy producer.

“The solar park brought roads and electricity to the villages that were forgotten by everyone. Leaders and officials who once avoided this place are visiting the park. No one has talked to us though. What happened to us after giving the land for the project is a different matter,” says Jayarama Reddy, a farmer from Vallur village.

The Pavagada project has become a success story being emulated by other states.

Today, about 55 plants, of various capacities, have come up in the country. Of them, Bhadla (Rajasthan), Rewa (MP), Charanka (Gujarat), Kamuthi (TN) and three others in Andhra Pradesh are listed as big projects. Mega solar parks have grown since December 2014, after the Centre came up with a policy to support such projects.

Despite having the fifth-largest coal reserves in the world, India embraced renewable energy (RE) much earlier than some developed countries. Data from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) shows that Rajasthan leads the country with 20,009 MW of installed RE capacity as of September 30, 2022. It is followed by Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

The Union government has set a target of achieving 450 GW installed RE capacity by the end of 2030. Last month, the Ministry of Renewable Energy announced that the country’s cumulative installed RE capacity reached 118.08 GW.

Even as it battles multiple factors hindering human development, India has made rapid progress in adopting RE. A 2022 study said that 3.4 crore people in India are deprived of one of the following: Nutrition, cooking fuel, sanitation and housing.

Access to electricity can help address this issue of multidimensional poverty. India’s decision to adopt RE instead of choosing the easy path of fossil fuels warrants the support of developed economies, which often pressurise developing countries to shoulder the responsibility of clean energy transitions.

These transitions come with their own costs. While the intent behind setting up these projects is welcome, farmers are yet to be recognised as stakeholders in India's transition as their participation ends with signing an agreement to lease or sell their land.

Over the last few years, farmers have risen up, protesting dispossession. From the vehement opposition seen in Kerala because of a project’s encroachment on rural commons to similar opposition to a 1500 MW project in Rajasthan last year, there is growing resistance to mega projects.

“Cases filed by Nedan (Jaisalmer district) were dismissed by Rajasthan High Court. This is because the renewable energy narrative is built in such a way that anyone opposing it is seen as ignorant. Why should the poor people in rural hinterlands pay the price for producing green power, most of which is consumed by cities,” an activist said.

The RE sector has also received a high amount of investment from both domestic and foreign sources. Earlier this year, research reports said India received $1.6 billion FDI in 2021-22 for non-conventional energy projects. This has pushed states to seek out more land for such projects.

Tamil Nadu, which is leading with half of its energy coming from renewable sources, has set even bigger targets for the coming years. Other states, especially those in western and southern India, are catching up fast.

In Karnataka alone, investments worth Rs 61,227 crore are expected in the RE sector in the near future. Government orders have already been issued for the establishment of 2.83 GW capacity for wind and solar energy projects, out of 9.2GW capacity proposals received at a conference in May, says Additional Chief Secretary for Energy G Kumar Naik.

"The solar energy potential in Karnataka is estimated at 24,700 MW. However, the actual potential for solar is significantly higher. So, the state has targeted adding 10 GW RE projects during the policy period 2022-27," Naik added.

The pace of setting up such massive projects is not without consequences. Experts and environmentalists have cautioned that the lack of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and socio-economic assessment of mega solar PV and wind projects will end up displacing people. This is a major problem in villages where communities lack access to alternative sources of income.

Such an impact is evident in the five villages of Pavagada whose farmers gave 13,000 acres for the solar project. In 2016, the government of Karnataka began leasing land from farmers. The lease per acre annually was Rs 21,000 initially. It has now increased to Rs 24,000.

The arrangement, however, has benefited only the big landowners, leaving the small and marginal farmers in economic distress. Those who gave more than 10 acres have become money lenders, building commercial spaces to rent out to personnel coming from Andhra Pradesh to work in the solar park.

Officials have cited these “positive” impacts. However, the dispossession and deprivation that small and marginal have suffered have been overlooked. In fact, 39 per cent of cultivators in the five villagers affected by the project owned less than 2.5 acres of land, according to the 2011 census.

A number of marginal farmers who DH spoke to expressed the hassle they go through to find alternative jobs.

Narayana Gowda, who has leased his one-acre land for the project, said the amount paid was too little. “Those making the decisions never spoke to us before taking up the project and have not tried to reach out since then to understand what has happened to us. My son has got a compensatory job in a solar farm with a monthly salary of Rs 14,000. It kept us from starving six years ago. Now, everything is costly. There are times when I find it difficult to pay my electricity bill,” said the 60-year-old, whose son works as a security guard at one of the solar projects.

The use of land for the solar project has also meant a decline in work for those without land. This is particularly a problem for women. While men were able to travel to Tumakuru and Bengaluru in search of work, women found themselves unable to travel to nearby villages. They have settled for jobs with paltry payments, in many cases, they suffer without work.

“Even the women in our houses are out of work. After the Covid lockdown, many men returned from Bengaluru. About 50 of them have no jobs,” says Ravi, another farmer.

Bhargavi Rao, senior fellow and trustee at Environment Support Group who has studied Pavagada solar project since the nascent stages, said there has been a deafening silence with regard to the environmental and social impacts of RE.

In the five villages, the negative impact of the solar project was clear, she explained. “The threat to food security, drop in nutrition level and degradation of the livelihood of small and marginal farmers is a major issue,” she adds.

However, there is hesitance in talking about the matter. “If you raise the matter, you will be ignored or silenced. Even experts hesitate because they will be excluded from many forums. This has become extremely worrying,” she says.

Soumya Dutta, a member of the executive board of Friends of Earth, tells DH that the government has overlooked one of the very few opportunities it had to revitalise the rural economy. By encouraging big corporate companies to set up mega RE projects, the government has ignored the potential to help farmers strengthen their incomes.

“RE projects, especially solar parks, require a huge amount of land. Instead of disposing or displacing the farmers, the government could have used the cooperative society model to finance farmers to set up small or medium-capacity solar parks. The RE development agencies of the respective governments could have helped in quality control by helping farmers connect with the right suppliers,” he says.

Noting that the Centre has acknowledged the importance of the rural economy through its Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahabhiyan scheme, Dutta explains that it is not too late to empower farmers to become participants in the transition towards RE.

“Revitalising the rural economy has multiple benefits. Once you put money in the hands of rural people, the entire country’s economy gets better. The government knows this but requires the will to act,” he says.


Such a view is backed by the fact of power consumption patterns in rural areas.

G Sundararajan, an environmentalist, noted that of the 360 taluks in Tamil Nadu, over 70 per cent required just 10 to 15 MW.

“Any additional requirement can be met from the central grid. The government should give more importance to rooftop and microgrid models and stop centralised production of renewable energy through large projects. Tamil Nadu is a pioneer in decentralising power production but is now lagging behind,” he said.

Environmental impact

Much less has been said about the environmental impacts of such massive projects. The blind rush has helped brush under the carpet the projects’ negative impacts. A study by 12 researchers from the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, for instance, shows that bird populations were two times lower in areas with wind turbines compared to nearby areas with similar environments.

While displacement due to disturbance, barrier effects and habitat loss may be the reason for such changes, the absence of an EIA study before the project was put into force, makes it difficult to assess what has been lost.

Dutta explains that exempting most solar and wind projects from EIA rules was a mistake.

“The lack of environmental oversight has allowed wind turbines to come up near the Desert National Park of Jaisalmer (Rajasthan), which houses the Great Indian Bustard. The government needs to wake up to the situation to ensure RE doesn’t damage the environment it is supposed to protect,” he added.

Officials fear that the EIA studies lead to delay or cancellation of projects.

As coal is a reliable, constant source of energy, India cannot afford to phase it out until storage and connectivity networks for RE develop.

Officials in Karnataka said that the state would not be able to phase out coal energy even if it was generating more power than required. Last year, the state made Rs 3000 crore by selling excess power.

“One-third of Karnataka’s energy needs are met by coal-based plants. While we hope to reduce the dependence, it is important to realise that unlike solar or wind power the coal thermal plants supply reliable and stable power, which is necessary for both domestic and commercial sectors,” he said.

The official noted that the transition needs to be just even if it is a little slower, citing the example of states in India’s northeast, where coal has been the backbone of the economy.

While India has surpassed many countries in achieving renewable energy targets, in this rush, it should factor in the costs of such projects on the country’s lives, livelihoods and land.

(With inputs from E T B Sivapriyan in Chennai.)

Published 10 December 2022, 18:08 IST

Follow us on :

Follow Us