Experts working on just transition to renewable energy believe that specific laws are needed to protect these communities
The parched brown of the land in Charanka village in north-west Gujarat, around 50 km from India’s border with Pakistan, seemed endless. In peak summer, during one of the worst droughts to hit the region in 30 years, it seems devoid of all life–even doughty bush plants have lost most leaves. Cyclone Vayu, that hit the Gujarat coast in June 2019, did little to revive the district of Patan.
This perhaps explains why the official website of the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited describes the 5,384 acres across which the Charanka solar park is spread as “unused” land. A project map available at the park’s office differs from this assessment–of the 5,417 acres, close to 2,000 acres are under cultivation, it showed. The rest, as per the map, is “government land”.
The solar park project launched in December 2010, has been functional since April 2012. It sits on what used to be the pasture for the region’s livestock herders, called maldharis. They have traditionally never owned the land where their animals graze but it is critical for their livelihood. The maldharis were once a nomadic community but some have opted to settle down.
These factors are not reflected in the state’s latest solar power policy of 2015 or the Gujarat Wind-Solar Hybrid Power Policy of 2018. The words “compensation” or “livelihoods” do not figure anywhere in the solar power policy.
Having lost access to the grazing lands, maldharis can no longer rear goats, sheep, cows or buffaloes. And the forest department denies them entry to other fertile patches in the region.
“As a result, the once self-sustaining and independent community has now been reduced to doing daily-wage labour in either agricultural fields in neighbouring villages or working as cleaners in the solar park,” said Anu Verma, the focal person in India for the South Asia Pastoralist Alliance, a network that advocates pro-pastoralist policies on commons lands, livestock, food and environment.
A switch to renewable energy is at the heart of India’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) commitment made at the Paris Agreement in 2015 which sought to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 deg C. One of the key commitments was to increase electricity generation from renewable sources to 40% of total energy generated in the country by 2030. India’s solar capacity has grown from 3,744 MW in 2014-15 to 28,181 MW as of March 2019, according to an annual report of the Central Electricity Authority of India.
The country, however, is likely to achieve this target a full decade ahead, according to a study by the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a US-based think-tank that analyses governance and energy. The cost of solar power has plummeted to Rs 2.44/kWh–in 2011, before the start of the solar revolution, the cost had reached Rs 12.76/kWh.
However, activists working with indigenous communities feel that the real cost of this power is not being taken into account, despite clear signs of emerging conflict, as IndiaSpend reported in March 2017. Solar energy is one of the most land-intensive sources of power and large tracts of arid and semi-arid are being covered by solar panels.
“Review of existing literature suggests that the average land requirement per MW of solar power installed capacity is in the range of 4-5 acres while the average land requirement for 1 MW of wind power is around 1 Ha (or 2.47 acres),” said a draft report by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). “Hence, the opportunity cost of land is estimated in terms of (agricultural income/acre) / (installed capacity/acre), i.e. (Rs/Acre)/(MW/Acre).”
Grasslands or not: the debate
Villagers allege that the solar parks encroach on their grassland but officials of the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited (GPCL) denied this. “GPCL follows prevailing rules, acts and regulation of land acquisition act in the state for solar park land,” said Rajendra Mistry, GPCL’s chief project officer and information officer. “As far as the Charanka solar project is concerned, GPCL has not taken gauchar land (grassland) for the park.”
There are two types of government land as per revenue records–government wasteland and grassland, Mistry pointed out. “GPCL has (only) taken government wasteland,” he said.
While the economic cost of land acquisition is being calculated for compensations to land-owning farmers, livelihood loss is being ignored, activists said. The draft report makes no mention of the social costs of generating renewable energy.
Solar parks do not need environmental impact assessments (EIA) before being commissioned, said the environment ministry in an August 2017 note. “MOEF&CC (Ministry of environment, forests & climate change) have clarified that the provision of EIA Notification, 2006 is not applicable to solar PV (photovoltaic) power projects,” said the office memorandum, adding that the disposal of PV cells will attract provisions of the Hazardous and Other Waste (Management and Trans-Boundary Movement) Rules, 2016.
The memorandum also added that the development of solar parks will attract provisions under the Water Act, 1974 and Air Act, 1981, both focussed on pollution.
The long-term impact of cutting off sunlight and rain from the land on which solar parks stand needs to be studied, and considered before large parks are commissioned, said experts. “There has been a large increase in solar parks around the world, which has led to significant land-use change,” said a report commissioned by the European Commission that looked into the impact of solar parks on microclimate and plant-soil processes. “However, the ecological implications of the land-use change caused by solar parks are poorly understood.”
The study showed up significant impact of solar projects on microclimate. “From spring to autumn, for example, soil under the panels was up to 5.2oC cooler, on average, than soil in the gap and control plots,” said the study. “Lower soil temperatures are likely to affect many important plant–soil processes, including productivity and decomposition.”
The study also found less moisture in the air below panels, meaning low evaporation of water from plants and thus, lower photosynthesis rates and fewer plants. But in hot regions these panels could boost plant growth. “Less solar radiation (which can stress plants) under panels in sunny regions, such as the European Mediterranean, could actually boost plant growth, for instance,” said the study.