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Pavagada solar plant shines, but at what cost?

Last year, BJP and Congress quarrelled over who was responsible for establishing Asia’s largest Solar Plant at Pavagada Taluk in Tumkur district of Karnataka. BJP claimed the largest solar park was in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, which is now controlled by the party. Meanwhile, Congress said it was responsible for developing the largest solar park at Pavagada.  D K Shivakumar, Karnataka Congress Chief drew attention to the fact that Pavagada solar park has an installed capacity of 2050 MW unlike the 750 MW at Rewa.

Shakti Sthal, as the solar park at Pavagada is called, is spread over an astonishing 13,000 acres, which till a few years ago was  agricultural land. Besides it was a region that supported pastoralism. Pavagada has been identified as drought hit over the past five decades. Vast tracts in five villages of this taluk are now slapped with solar panels, all of which was developed over the past 5-6 years. This transformation of agricultural and pastoral land into this veritable ‘sea of glass’ is eulogised as the way forward in a world affected by climate change, for the people who lost their farming land, they appear not to have gained in power and strength. They gave up their land, which was uncultivable due to drought, in hopes of a better future. And most seem to not have benefited from this giving – on lease.

The Pavagada park is an outcome of “Karnataka Solar Policy 2014-2021” and “Nava Karnataka Nirmana” campaign. While the former aims at transitioning to clean energy from largely fossil dependent sources of power generation, the latter was a campaign to build a new Karnataka by attracting huge investments, such as at Pavagada. Besides, the Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy had also launched a “Development of Solar Parks and Ultra Mega Solar Power Projects” Scheme which is a key part of an ambitious target – of achieving renewable power generation of 450 GW by 2030 with deployment of 175 GW by 2022.

The people of Pavagada were promised jobs, schools for their kids, improved amenities to access water, motorable roads, etc. From a recent field visit to the villages of Nagalamadike and Thirumani, and interactions with local people and officials, it is evident that these promises are far from delivered.  Hopes of securing a job in the solar park, in addition to earning rent on farm land leased, was one of the biggest drivers that made farmers give up their lands, what they felt was the way out to sustain their living. However, most are disheartened that their employment is restricted to offers of being security personnel, and in cleaning panels or keeping shrubbery and the grass down.  Construction work is  largely undertaken by huge numbers of male labour imported from states like Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, etc. These migrant workers have very little bargaining power, and work long hours for wages that are better than what they get back home. This is also delivering a  severe blow to the bargaining power of local labourers, who are largely not preferred.

The undulating terrain of this semi-arid region  allowed for the carving of water harvesting structures which arrested flow of surface runoff when it rained. This helped recharge wells, and thus supported drinking water needs of humans and animals. But there has been no rain in decades.  And  the area has also been leveled for the solar park. This has resulted in  the destruction of minor, yet significant, water harvesting systems. Thus making water security an even greater challenge than during drought prone times when the little rain that came found its way to little ponds and lakes. The landless poor are worst affected. In their families women bear the burden of now having to walk much longer distances to secure water. The unavailability of water, and also grazing pastures, has had  a toll on the lives of pastoralists, who are now forced to sell  their herds to survive.

As one drives and walks around in the region, massive tracts of recently cultivated lands, and also commons, are being taken over by  Prosopis julifora, locally known as Ballaari Jaali. This is a clear sign of the death of grazing. Once grazing stops, this weed takes over and substantially changes the ecology of the region. As a consequence, the biodiversity of the area has been seriously affected. Wild growth in the Pavagada region constitutes an open scrub type jungle. Black bucks, leopards, porcupines, wild boars are commonly found in nearby forest patches, such as Jayamangali Black Buck Reserve. But the wildlife was not limited to just these reserves, and would roam about farming land and grazing pastures. But with the emergence of solar parks, which are fenced using barbed wires, free movement is restricted and is resulting in fragmentation of habitats for wild animals. Such habitat deprivation, results in loss of migratory routes of wildlife. This has a devastating impact on wildlife populations which are already suffering due to the absence of pastures and water bodies, and are adversely affected by radiation from the contiguous solar panels. Local people report that numbers of even commonly seen birds, like sparrows and pigeons, have  decreased.

Ironically, the Pavagada project was initiated on the claim that farmers would gain, as they wouldn’t lose land as it was being leased, not bought. State agencies which promoted the project continuously have underlined that leasing land for 28 years was done so the land can be returned to the farmer after that, and they could continue to cultivate as before, if they so preferred. But the land once diverted, is lost forever. Those farmers who refused to part with their lands, are now practically trapped as their farms are now stuck in between the lazor wired fenced solar park, making access an arduous task. As for farmers who have parted with their lands, they now realize that the  concrete splashed across their fields, will in three decades so substantially ruin the land, that it will never be possible to undertake cultivation again.

There also is the issue of waste management from solar parks, which appears to have been largely overlooked. The waste generated during installation of the solar panels is seen lying in heaps here and there. Local villagers can be seen trying to salvage anything of value from pieces of packaging wood, cardboard, plastic and broken glass. Much of it is also burned illegally, without any heed to toxic emissions. In 28 years when the solar park is decommissioned, it is frightening to imagine the  hazardous waste that will pile up here. This when it is well known that Photovoltaic Cells contain a host of toxic materials and the  lack of a plan to manage this waste is a disaster waiting to happen. This is particularly worrying in a region where people already suffer from fluorosis, and are struggling with the lack of access to clean and healthy drinking water.

There are worthier alternatives to relying on solar energy for our energy needs. For instance, the practise of agro-voltaics, where food is grown and solar energy harnessed, in the same field, is one approach. Certain crops, vegetables, medicinal plants can be grown successfully with solar panels. Intelligent designing will accommodate solar panels as shade providers, and also for  water retention, assisting  crops to grow more luxuriantly. It can even help reduce high rates of evapo-transpiration, besides providing cover from other extreme weather conditions like storms or hail. This could aid in lowering  temperatures at microclimatic levels. It may also be imagined that solar panels can be so designed that they allow for grazing below them. Examples from China show agro-voltaics are working for rural communities while also helping produce energy. Solar farms in the Gobi desert of China have successfully used this concept and transformed once deserted and barren land into swathes of green  crops. However, the ecological sustainability of converting arid ecosystems into green landscapes is also a matter of speculation that demands more systematic delineation.

Alternative sources of energy like solar is the way ahead but going forward in this realm requires a need to understand that mega power plants spanning thousands of acres, commissioned by converting habitable lands may not be the right way to do it. Solar plants can coexist with farming, animal rearing and other rural livelihoods. It just needs more dialogue and local people’s participation to suit the local landscapes, A one size fits all approach is disastrous. Solar panels can be the norm on rooftops of individual houses and on top of public buildings, schools, government offices. canal trenches etc. This might serve multiple purposes-government can meet their production targets while it incentivizes the household to earn an extra source of income by selling the power to the government besides increasing acceptance towards such locally produced clean energy. There is a need to understand and adopt decentralized generation and supply of renewable energy based on local needs, It can also facilitate expanding access to energy to areas that are still in dark.

The pace at which India is trying to become a harbinger of renewable energy is outstripping ideals of social justice. On one hand the idea of transitioning from polluting sources of energy to clean energy is propagated but on the other hand there is complete absence of transition in methods applied in implementing such projects. The story of Pavagada was an exercise in repeat that is typically practised when installing thermal power projects-illegal or forceful land grabbing followed by subsequent social and environmental fallout. Instead of greenwashing the commissioning of mega solar power plants the need is to adopt no-regret measures that promote social justice alongside meeting cleaner energy goals. The vision of making India a clean energy hub is welcome. But it is time to do a reality check, and adopt course corrections, to ensure Pavagada truly shines, with water, food, livelihood and energy security!

Shrestha Chowdhury works as a research associate with Environment Support Group, Bangalore.

This post first appeared on countercurrents.org

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