- Lack of access to solar power in project-affected villages brings out striking similarities between the handling of solar and fossil fuel-based energy systems.
- In Pavagada, Karnataka, jobs at the solar park provide regular incomes, but the absence of diversified livelihood options highlight future economic risks.
- Farmers are content with a steady income from leasing land, but some rue the loss of cultural identity. The change in family fortunes has not provided better lives across the demography.
“If only we had better access to water, this town would have developed long ago,” said Pavagada resident Girish R., sharing the hilly town’s travails with a half-a-century-long drought. Located 160 kilometres north of Bengaluru, Pavagada taluk in Karnataka’s Tumakuru district, with a population of about 250,000, was declared drought-hit 54 times in the last 60 years.
The sun was never kind on Pavagada, sending its temperatures soaring to about 40 degrees or more during peak summer. Farmers depended on dry crops like castor, pulses, groundnuts, certain millets and some fruit trees and irrigated only during the monsoon. The average annual rainfall – an insufficient 600 millimetres – kept the farmers’ income perennially modest.
In 2015, Pavagada was chosen as the location for Karnataka’s most ambitious solar power project.
Named Shakti Sthala, it was envisioned as India’s biggest solar park and the world’s second-biggest in terms of capacity, at 2,050 megawatts (MW). Features including a high average solar radiation of 5.35 kWh (kilowatt-hour) per square metre per day, availability of flat land and elevated plateau regions surrounded by rocky hills, made Pavagada the ideal choice for a solar park of that magnitude. The project, operational since 2018, was also touted as the most innovative model, with 13,000 acres of land leased from farmers for 28 years at an annual lease amount of Rs. 21,000 per acre for the first five years, with a five per cent increase every two years.
Pavagada Solar Park, about 160 km from Bengaluru, spreads across 13,000 acres. Maps by Technology for Wildlife.
A Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Ltd (KSPDCL), a joint venture between Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd (KREDL) and Solar Energy Corporation of India Ltd (SECI), was constituted to acquire the land and obtain approvals. The KSPDCL, then, awarded contracts for the solar power capacity to 10 companies through a ‘plug and play’ model. The land was acquired in five villages — Thirumani, Vallur, Balasamudra, Rayacharlu and Kyathaganacharlu — falling under the Thirumani Gram Panchayat. Of the total 2,050 MW capacity, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) installed 600 MW of solar PV capacity, while SECI and KREDL set up installations of 200 MW and 1,250 MW, respectively. N. Amarnath, General Manager, KSPDCL, told Mongabay-India that the SPV pursued a lease model to avoid delays in land procurement and protect the landowners’ interests. “The farmers get monetary benefits and continue to be stakeholders while we operate the park on their land,” he said.
With around 30 percent literacy and close to 50 percent of its households earning below Rs. 20,000 per month (as per the socioeconomic survey on two project-affected villages, Thirumani and Rayacharlu), Pavagada was considered one of the state’s most backward taluks. It was identified with caste-based violence and the growth of left-wing extremism in the 1970s; most of the land and wealth stayed with upper-caste landlords while the marginal farmers and the landless Dalits remained poor. A technologically advanced mega solar park with farmers as stakeholders had the potential to set right its history of social injustice. Six years since the solar park, various socioeconomic studies on its impact, however, reveal the contrary.
Was leasing land a way to bypass the land acquisition process?
The lease model, on paper, is fair and just. But conversations with the villagers make one wonder if they had significant leverage during procurement of their land. Balasamudra resident K.S Chakkariah said, “Balaram, the (then) MD of KREDL, was a resident of Pavagada and he told us Pavagada resembled a wasteland with barely any scope for agriculture. He said the solar park would benefit us.” The then energy minister D.K. Shivakumar told the villagers that if they did not move ahead with the proposal, Mallikarjun Kharge (another Indian National Congress leader) would take the scheme to his constituency, Kalaburgi.
Bhargavi Rao of Environment Support Group, who is one of the principal investigators of the Harvard-Kennedy School-supported project Governance of Sociotechnical Transformations, said, leasing land, instead of purchasing it, was one way of bypassing various rules and laws attached to land acquisition and an easier, quicker way to execute a mega solar park. “If they were to buy land, a proper process of land acquisition as per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (which included preparation, public hearing and publication of the social impact assessment study) needed to be executed,” she said. “Even today, people affected by the project don’t have copies of the lease agreement. So, how people-centric was the process?”
Amarnath, however, affirmed due diligence in the land-leasing process. “We had plenty of support staff to educate the people and explain the agreement to them. All landowners should have the principal agreement. They should have collected it,” he said. The KSPDCL has made the annual updating of land records mandatory after each pay-out to ensure that the farmers’ ties with their land are maintained.
The villagers Mongabay-India spoke to said none of them was briefed on the park’s impact on their land or on the decommissioning procedures at the end of the lease term. The Environment Impact Assessment done by Knight Frank in two villages, Thirumani and Rayacharlu, shows that during the focus group discussions with the stakeholders on varied aspects of the park, held in Thirumani, not more than 10 to 12 villagers (of a population of about 2,000) attended.
“People were so excited about the prospect of an annual income from the land that they forgot to negotiate on even the most basic things, like power for their homes,” organic farmer Mahesh, who refused to part with his land, said. “Since I had many fruit trees on my land, they offered me a huge compensation, of Rs. 2.5 crore (Rs. 25 million), to just cut them down,” he said.