“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 km north of Bengaluru, Pavagada taluk in Karnataka’s Tumakuru district, with a population of about 2,50,000, 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 Celsius 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 mm – 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. Features including a high average solar radiation of 5.35 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.

A Special Purpose Vehicle, the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Ltd, a joint venture between Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd and Solar Energy Corporation of India Ltd, was constituted to acquire the land and obtain approvals. The Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Ltd, 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 megawatts capacity, National Thermal Power Corporation installed 600 megawatts of solar PV capacity, while Solar Energy Corporation of India Ltd and Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd set up installations of 200 megawatts and 1,250 megawatts, respectively.

N Amarnath, general manager, Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Ltd, told Mongabay-India that the Special Purpose Vehicle 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% literacy and close to 50% 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.


Lease model

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 KS Chakkariah said, “Balaram, the [then] managing director of Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd, 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 DK 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 do not 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 Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Ltd 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.”

Villagers disgruntled

At Chakkariah’s small grocery shop attached to his huge, colourful home built with compensation from the land, there has been a power outage for a few hours. Offering us black coffee since the milk in the refrigerator was spoilt, Chakkariah said not negotiating for solar power in the villages was a mistake. “They produce electricity on our land and send it elsewhere,” he said.

Villagers said they had power cuts every other day, stretching up to eight to 10 hours sometimes. This “energy poverty” in villages that produce power is a paradox India is getting increasingly familiar with. Researcher Priya Pillai, who works on the socio-ecological impact of various energy systems, said there were striking similarities between the handling of solar and fossil fuel-based energy systems.

“In Singrauli [in Madhya Pradesh], which produces 10% of India’s coal-based energy, the villages do not have access to power,” Pillai said. “If electricity is distributed in villages that produce it, villagers will be more open to these systems.”

Producing electricity in villages that get diverted to cities or grids is inequitable distribution and an energy justice concern that needs to be addressed while transitioning to clean energy, she emphasised.

Amarnath, however, maintained that the entire state benefited from solar power generated at Pavagada, including its residents, albeit indirectly, through the grid. “If they were to be given only solar power, what will they do in the evenings and during the off-season when the power generation is low?” he asked.

A woman buys vegetables under torchlight in Thirumani village, Pavagada. Villages that leased land to the solar park face regular power cuts. Photo credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/ Mongabay

Ahead of the inception of the solar park, promises were made to the farmers – of better drainage systems, better schools and hospitals, none of which gets a mention in the agreement, the residents said. Inadequate infrastructure remains an unaddressed grievance. While the roads along the solar park are well-laid with street lights on either side, the roads that snake through the villages, some pothole-ridden, others unpaved, tell a different story.

Electricity pylons buzz like large bumblebees across the villages. A transmitter station has come up next to the Swami Vivekananda Private Aided School in the nearby Nagalamadike village. One of the teachers expressed concern that proximity to transmitters could cause health problems in children.

Villagers alleged that Corporate Social Responsibility funds and annual local area improvement funds from companies that needed to be spent in the project-affected villages are being utilised elsewhere. Amarnath, however, assured that local area development projects worth Rs 57 crore have been approved by the government, with Rs 23 crore already disbursed. “Work on providing RO water, strengthening basic infrastructure in schools and hospitals, a pre-university college in Thirumani are all part of the project,” he said.

Electricity pylons along a road through the Pavagada Solar Park. Photo credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/ Mongabay

Larger economic issues

On our way to Rayacharlu, we meet Thirumani resident Amarendra, on a fallow farm grazing his two buffaloes. Having handed over 32 acres of land, he is yet to get a job in the park as was promised. He says jobs are allocated through contractors who give preferential treatment to people they know. Ashok is an ITI graduate who was offered a job, to cut grass in the solar park, which he refused.

Many farmers said very few from the villages had entered jobs in the park, most of them engaged in daily-wage work like cutting grass or washing of the solar panels. So far, the best the villagers have got out of the agreement is employment as security guards or mechanics.

Despite Amarnath’s claim that more than 50% of landowners who handed over land are women, not one woman is employed in the companies. Even the technicians are mostly migrant men. Countering allegations that most of the better jobs had gone to migrants, Amarnath said 80% of the openings were filled by the villagers. According to him, the youth have been trained in skill development under the Suryamitra Scheme while the villagers maintained that even those trained youths had been denied technical jobs. Farmers including Akkalappa of Rayacharlu alleged that the companies had a “distrust” for locals and were denying them technical jobs.

A shortage in quality jobs for young men is eroding the villages’ social fabric, according to Akkalappa. While there is only one licensed bar in Pavagada, small dhabas that started to cater to the needs of workers during the inception of the park now sell alcohol on the sly. “Alcoholism is certainly on the rise,” said Mahesh. He said annual religious and harvest-related events have stopped and new-found affluence made villagers “less social and interactive”.

A worker walks to an alcohol vend in Nagalamadike village, Pavagada. Photo credit: Abhishek N Chinnappa/ Mongabay

Obbalapathi (32), a security guard at one of the nearby solar parks, was engaged in a game of pagade (a traditional game of dice) with a middle-aged man, Rajendra, under a tree at the village square in Kyathaganacherlu when we met him. He has had “a lot of free time” since handing over his land on a lease. The income has kept him financially secure. Pursuing a more comfortable life, in exchange for land, however, has set off palpable gender parity.

While many men idled under trees or enjoyed a drink during the day, most women continue to work on daily wages in nearby farms and in Anantapur, in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. The change in family fortunes has not translated to better lives across the demography. Gopala who works on a nearby farm has an annual income of Rs 42,000, generated from her leased two-acre land, but it is insufficient to run her household.

Jobs at the park provide regular incomes but studies underline economic risks involved in long-term dependence on models that fail to provide diversified livelihood options. The fears make a case for alternative models of development, including ones that ensure that the land is, at once, cultivable and generating electricity. Pine Gate Renewables facility in southwestern Oregon is a good example that solar farms could encourage pollinators like bees and butterflies if flowers are grown around the panels helping farmlands nearby.

First of a two-part series on socio-economic and ecological issues related to mega solar parks as part of the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s Renewable Energy in India: Entrepreneurship, Innovations and Challenges Story Grants for 2021.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.