Land conflicts on the horizon as India pursues a clean energy future

  • With large-scale renewable energy projects planned across India, land conflicts are a potential problem emerging from the push.
  • Research groups say that such clean energy projects, mainly wind and solar, are already leading to conflicts and India’s pursuit of an ambitious target of 450 gigawatts by 2030, such conflicts are bound to grow further.
  • Researchers, lawyers and those closely following the renewable sector and land issues stress that while there is overall support for renewable power, it should be implemented in a way that avoids conflict and ensures justice for communities and the environment.

The record low tariff achieved by renewable energy projects in India, over the last few years, has been fuelling the clean energy sector in the country, but what it may also be triggering are land conflicts.

Many renewable power projects – whether solar or wind – require vast tracts of land and the experience of communities in India shows that the land identified for those projects is often either the common land used by the communities or the land that authorities identify as ‘wasteland’.

Experts point out that the selection of such land pockets is leading to conflicts as the rights of the communities, over such common land, are not identified. It is also damaging the environment as the land, often claimed as ‘wasteland’, is usually a non-forested but important biodiversity habitat.

Pranab Ranjan Choudhury, who is the convener of the Centre for Land Governance, a think-tank working on land issues, said that “though solar projects are not bad, the way the mega-projects are being aggressively promoted, can have disastrous consequences.”

“At the places, where such projects are being planned – whether it is the common land or private – there are multiple existing users and uses. No land is lying waste or idle but has immense ecological value and local dependence. But if the authorities continue allotting such land without a comprehensive social and environmental impact assessment, we are inviting risks,” Choudhury told Mongabay-India.

He highlighted that “in some instances, we have seen the land was transferred when people thought of getting higher lease rent but they soon realised that their survival was at stake as they were not able to grow anything.”

Choudhury stressed that the concern is that an “overzealous state government is stepping quite too often in favour of industry and to mediate the acquisition” and thus the least “we need to do is the carry out comprehensive socio-environmental impact assessment and seek alternative sites rather than taking up fertile agricultural land.”

A 2019 study had held the total land footprint needed to meet India’s 2022 renewable energy target of installing 175 gigawatts ranges from 55,000-125,000 square kilometres – that’s about the size of Tamil Nadu on the higher end. However, a “development scenario that would meet the full goals by siting on converted lands would avert the displacement of 50,621 square kilometres of agricultural land, 11,607 square kilometres of the forest, and 1,315 square kilometres of other natural lands.”

While India’s target for 2022 is installing 175 GW of renewable power, mainly solar and wind, the target was recently stretched to 450 GW by 2030.

The study by researchers from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) had also held that the impacts to agricultural and natural habitats can be further reduced if rooftop solar energy goals of 40 GW by 2022 are met as it would avert the conversion of an additional 5,089 square kilometres of agricultural land, 331 square kilometres of forest, and 32 square kilometres of other natural lands.

However, this scenario is unlikely given that India’s progress in rooftop solar has been extremely poor and the country has been largely focusing on mega solar and wind parks, which in turn can potentially lead to conflicts.

Read more: Mega renewable energy park in Kutch could have potentially adverse environmental impact

Land conflicts are already growing

At present, India has an installed capacity of 96.9 GW of renewable energy and going forward the thrust is on large-scale wind and solar parks to cover the target of 175 GW by the end of 2022.

For instance, Land Conflict Watch (LCW), a research group, recorded five conflicts related to wind and solar park projects across India affecting a total of 5,095 hectares of land, 2,036 people, and an investment of over Rs. 90.89 billion (Rs. 9,089 crore). This number, however, may only be a conservative estimate as many land conflicts are yet to be recorded.

For instance, one of the projects identified by the LCW is the 15 megawatt (MW) solar power plant being set up at Mikir Bamuni Grant and Lalung village in Assam. Farmers have been protesting against the alleged forced eviction from their lands. The farmers were allegedly beaten for their protests and they complain that some were even jailed on false pretexts.

In several cases, the land that is being diverted for solar power projects is considered wasteland by the government even as it is important for the local communities. Photo by Jitendra Parihar (Thomson Reuters Foundation)/Flickr.
In several cases, the land that is being diverted for solar power projects is considered wasteland by the government even as it is important for the local communities. Photo by Jitendra Parihar (Thomson Reuters Foundation)/Flickr.

In April 2021, a fact-finding committee, consisting of environmentalists and researchers from the Delhi Solidarity Group collective, investigated the impacts of the plant. They came out with a report, “The Anatomy of a Solar Land Grab” giving details of human rights violations, and environmental and social impacts of the project. The villagers have been protesting against the takeover of their lands and have been demanding their lands must not be alienated from them as they are the occupancy tenants and cultivating the lands for generations.

While the locals allege forceful eviction and their crops being destroyed, the company leading the project claims the due process of law was followed while acquiring the land.

Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, the founding partner at Land Conflict Watch, said that their “research has shown that there are several ongoing land conflicts across India that involve renewable energy projects including solar power.”

“If such projects are continued to be pushed without giving thought to the rights of the local communities involved then either they may end up as cases in the court or could certainly lead to severe opposition on the ground,” he said.

Read more: Wind-solar parks: Conflicts galore but India wants more

More land conflict on the horizon

In the backdrop of brewing land conflicts, the government, meanwhile, is continuing with large-scale solar and wind projects.

In November 2020, the Indian government’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) made public a concept note on “Development of wind parks/wind-solar hybrid parks” identifying about 10,800 square kilometres of land across seven states to develop wind parks or wind-solar hybrid parks totalling about 54,000 MW.

The proposed policy was, however, silent over concerns related to the environment, land and communities even though it may land up impacting projects worth billions of rupees.

In fact, the study by the TNC and the CSTEP had suggested that it is possible to meet renewable energy targets with less socio-ecological impact by siting the projects on lower impact lands ensuring that the clean energy transition is just for the environment as well as the communities involved. Subsequently, the TNC, the CSTEP, Vasudha Foundation, and Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) collaborated to create a tool, SiteRight, that can help select locations for solar and wind projects while avoiding adverse impacts on the environment and people.

Environmental lawyer Rahul Choudhary said, “There is no opposition against solar power projects but one key issue that is emerging is that it requires a huge amount of land – which is often the cause of most conflicts in India.”

“There are several cases in the recent past that have landed in the courts where the land allotted for such projects was being used by the communities. The policymakers only need to ensure that the land identifies that such projects do not challenge the rights of the communities and are not harming the environment. Otherwise, it is no secret that benefits of green energy projects outweigh negatives by a wide margin,” Choudhary told Mongabay-India.

His words of caution are crucial because, with COVID-19 resulting in a serious impact on India’s economy, the federal government has been pushing for mining, infrastructure and energy for economic recovery.

The renewable energy sector is poised for growth with the consistent push from the federal government while it pursues clean energy targets and thus, experts say it becomes crucial that the government does not ignore the emerging concerns.

Read more: A new tool to site renewable power projects to avoid conflicts


Banner image: Wind power is another important component of India’s renewable programme but the availability is restricted by location. Photo by Ninara/Flickr.

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