“You should come here during the monsoon to see how big our gauchar [grazing land] was,” reminisces Nanu Rabari, 60, as she breaks pods of Prosopis juliflora, called gando bawal (mad tree) in Gujarat, to feed her only milking buffalo. Rabari is a resident of Charanka, a sleepy village near the India-Pakistan border that garnered worldwide attention 10 years ago for housing India’s first and Asia’s then-largest solar park.
The Gujarat Solar Park in Charanka village of Gujarat’s Patan district came with promises of jobs and development but apart from Rabari’s grazing land, it took away the main water sources of this already-parched village.
Thirty-six companies operate in the Gujarat Solar Park, spread across 5,384 acres (2,178.82 hectares), producing 730 megawatts of solar power. Further, projects of 20 megawatts are under implementation including a 15 megawatts project which is being opposed by the villagers.
The solar park was launched on December 30, 2010, and was commissioned on December 31, 2011. A bumpy road lined with open drains marks the entry to Charanka, a stark contrast to the visuals of a “world-class” project that the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited advertises.
“If the government was really concerned about us, they should have given us a canal, not a solar park. We have no use for it … neither it feeds our animals nor us,” Nanu, who cultivated fodder on a two-acre plot of government wasteland that has now been taken over by the GSP, told Mongabay-India.
“Irrigation would have meant a better crop and less spending on buying fodder,” she said.
Nanu, who has seven daughters, had to sell off her 150 sheep and a camel three years ago because in place of her green gauchar now stands a monoculture of grey solar panels.
Her family income comes from varied means – a daughter who gets a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,000 as an ASHA worker, another daughter working as a frontline worker for an NGO gets Rs 3,500 every month, the milk from the buffalo which pays only for the cost of fodder, and a small shack that she runs selling biscuits, chips and candies. “Since the schools have shut down in the pandemic, there is no income from that [the shack] either,” she rued.
Her daughter, 22-year-old Matu Rabari went to the district headquarter Patan, 130 km, away to study. “There is a hostel for Rabari girls there so I was able to study up to graduation hoping that I would get a job back home in the solar park,” Matu, now a graduate, said. “But there is no job for girls here. Earlier, we would go to cut grass one or two times in a month and get Rs 300 but even that option is not there anymore.” The jobs at the companies are available through sub-contractors.
In this way, the solar park, say the locals, has brought in dual misery for women. Not only did they not get any jobs in the companies, but also have reduced employment opportunities in agriculture. “Earlier, the landless would earn a bit by working on others’ farms but with the land going into the park, even that possibility has reduced,” Matu told Mongabay-India.
Charanka was a chorad (vast pastureland) before the solar park came. According to Neeta Pandya of Maldhari Rural Action Group, an Ahmedabad based non-profit working for pastoralists, Maldharis (pastoralists) believed in the idea of commons and never owned large chunks of land, something they are paying for now.
“Many of them, when they heard about the Gujarat Solar Park, sold off their livestock to buy tractors, which did earn them money during the construction phase of the park. But what followed was distress migration,” said Pandya while pointing that of the 160 Maldhari families in Charanka, only about 10 have livestock now.
When the Gujarat Solar Park was dedicated to the country in April 2012, Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, declared that a ‘Surya Tirth’ and a picnic spot on the lines of the Modhera sun temple will be built in Charanka. “Gujarat Solar Park would be the new sun temple, creating 30,000 jobs including in the manufacturing of solar panels,” he announced.
“Modiji also promised a school from Class 8 to Class 12, a hospital, drinking water and free electricity to the village, none of the above in the list is checked till now,” said Sumersinh Jadeja, the Sarpanch (village head) of Charanka.
Jadeja emphasised that “the companies who had set up the plant here in 2011-’12 are still selling power at the rate of Rs 15 per unit so a plant is earning Rs 75,000 on every one megawatt of power produced per day”.
“With that kind of profit, the little they could do was build some facilities for the village,” Jadeja told Mongabay-India while pointing towards the solar park. “The Gujarat Power Corporation Limited says that they have transferred Rs 50 lakhs for corporate social responsibility to the Collector’s office in Patan. Nothing has come our way till date though.”
The promises of free electricity, drinking water, transport and schools – which the residents have been waiting for – were made verbally. But there seem to be no written records to hold anyone accountable. The people of the village though, have been keeping track of all the promises made and not met.
Sami Ben (name changed), a resident of Charanka, said “there is an electric line from the park to the village but instead of free electricity, the bills have only gone up in recent years. From Rs 500- Rs 1,000 earlier, it is Rs 2,500 now”.
Drinking water supply has been another unfulfilled promise, she added. “The government supply is once in five-seven days when we fill our 500 or 1,000-litre tanks,” said Sami Ben. “If more is needed, we have to buy water tankers at the rate of Rs. 1,000 per tanker from the nearby Fangli village. Water was always scarce here but with the company coming in, we expected at least clean drinking water.”
The one parab (a public drinking water stall) by PLG Photovoltaic Private Limited, with no pipeline attached, stands testimony to the remarkable absence of any Corporate Social Responsibility scheme in the village.
A Gujarat Power Corporation Limited official, when asked about water supply promises, said they had planned to install an RO system for the village but the forest department had already installed one. “So we put it on hold. We realised that the Panchayat [local administration] has not been able to maintain that system and it is lying as waste,” he told Mongabay-India on conditions of anonymity. “So, we did not go ahead about installing a new system.”
Another promise – a school till class 12 – also remains unfulfilled so far. The only school in Charanka is till Class 8 and for lack of transport (three buses a day from Charanka to Santalpur was part of the promise) to Santalpur town that is 20-km away, most children, especially girls, are forced to drop out of higher education.
Anjali (name changed), could not study beyond Class 8 because, in the Rajput community, to which she belongs, she alleged girls are not allowed to go out of the village alone. “If only the company had fulfilled their promise of building a school till class 12, my dream of further education would not have shattered,” she told Mongabay-India.
“I have not seen any written record of the above promises. However, we have placed a tender for an ambulance and a fire brigade for the village. The facility will soon be here,” said the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited official.
The Gujarat Solar Park is built on 5,384 acres (2,178.82 hectares) of “unused” land, says the website of the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, a claim easily disputed. A map of the Gujarat Solar Park, available with Mongabay-India, shows that about 1,900 acres (768 hectares) of private land were acquired from the village, 207 acres (84 hectares) were grazing land while the rest was government wasteland. But about half the families in Charanka did earn a big buck from the Gujarat Solar Park by selling off their land.
In 2011, Gujarat Power Corporation Limited paid a rate of Rs 6,90,000 per acre of land, said Shambhu Dan Ghadvi, secretary of the Charanka Dairy Cooperative. However, not every landholder got lucky. For instance, Lilabhai Rabari owned 10 acres of land. Some people approached him in 2010 and told him to sell it off or the government will acquire it anyway.
“I got only Rs 4,00,000 for my land [less than 50,000 per acre for 10 acres] on which I grew fodder and castor,” Lilabhai told Mongabay-India. “The money eventually got used in meeting household expenses.”
Jadeja says that the value of land in Charanka till 2006 was not more than Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 per acre but suddenly, in 2009, a lot of outsiders, including businessmen from Ahmedabad started coming to buy land in the village.
“The illiterate villagers were told that since this land is saline, they will never be able to earn much out of it,” he said. “They told people to sell off land or the government will acquire it anyway. I myself sold off 10 acres at Rs 40,000 per acre because I had to pay my father’s hospital bills.”
Mero Rabari from nearby Rozu village said his brother was one such middleman who earned out of these land deals. “In 2011, he bought land from villagers at Rs 1,00,000 for an acre and resold it at double or triple the price,” said Mero. “But that money ended soon as he bought a vehicle, travelled and finished it all. Now, he works as a labourer in somebody else’s fields.”
Some others alleged that sudden money led to the villagers buying cars even as there are no roads to drive them on. Some people, who did not have a pucca house, made one while some others bought land in nearby areas.
However, in terms of livelihood, the villagers did not benefit in the long run. Against the 30,000 jobs from the park, announced at the time of the inauguration, today only about 60 people from the village are employed as security guards, technicians or in grass cutting and panel washing.
The security guards are unsatisfied with an income ranging from Rs 7,000- Rs 12,000 per month, which is without a provident fund and comes with 12 hours’ shift as against the government stipulated eight hours. The security agencies hired by companies have sub-contracted the job to people in Charanka who in order to eke out their own income, do not pay the security guards properly, creating rifts among people in the village.
Meghraj Rabari, who washes panels in a plant of Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, gets Rs 0.17 per panel. “I wash panels at the 5 megawatts plant, which means washing more than 20,000 panels thrice a month to get an income of about Rs 10,000.”
A study by Ryan Stock from the Northern Michigan University, states that most of the 1,000 people permanently employed in the Gujarat Solar Park are “non-local males with advanced degrees and technical skill-sets”. Stock’s paper outlines injustice and inequality through electricity and water infrastructures at the Gujarat Solar Park.
Grazing land access
The villagers claim that the Gujarat Solar Park is entirely built on their grazing land. But according to government records, the notified gauchar area, is just 207 acres (84 hectares).
“The location of the gauchar has not been clearly marked by the District Inspector Land Record office,” said Raghav Dan Ghadvi, former Sarpanch of Charanka. “The present Survey number of the gauchar, No 152, stands enclosed in the Gujarat Solar Park, making it difficult for the Maldharis to access.”
With the village’s grazing land enclosed inside the park, the residents are now demanding that an independent piece of land that is closer to the village and also has two water bodies be given for gauchar.
However, on record, since the land is marked as owned by Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, it cannot be transferred for gauchar. “On the village’s request, we sent a letter to the Patan collector applying for change of land use but were told that it is not possible,” said the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited official.
On the ground, the boundaries between wasteland and grassland are not stark, says Siddhartha Dhabi, a PhD scholar at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. “The term ‘wasteland’ is a British legacy for the land from which they could not generate revenue for the Queen back then,” Dhabi, who is working on the ecological impact of renewable energy with reference to windmills in Kachchh, told Mongabay-India. “Unfortunately, even the government of independent India retained this term, rendering a land crucial for livestock grazing as waste and now acquiring it for all sorts of projects.”
Mongabay-India contacted Supreet Singh Gulati, the Patan Collector, and Rajendra Mistry, who is the Chief Project Officer of Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, but did not get a response.
As one goes down the road from Charanka towards Fangli, the village after the boundary of the GSP, the lush fields tell a different story from the wilted castor crop of Charanka. The Kutch branch canal of the Narmada dam network comes to Fangli from where it is diverted towards Patanka, another village.
According to the people of Charanka, they believe the canal was diverted as its alignment clashed with the solar park. “The canal was supposed to come to Charanka when the plan was approved in 2005,” claimed Bharat Dan Ghadvi, a resident of Charanka. “Not just us, seven villages after Charanka also missed out on this precious water supply, all due to the park.”
Representatives from the village have appealed to the state government for a pipeline from the canal to fill their water bodies. Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited said that the feasibility studies for the pipeline project are underway. “The work order for the Kutch Branch canal came in 2005 but the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited met with topographical challenges in taking it ahead at Charanka. The undulating topography here varied from nine metres to 30 metres. Gravity does not permit lifting water from nine metres back to 30 metres therefore the designers thought of diverting the canal,” VP Kapadia, director of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited told Mongabay-India.
The Charanka village had five water bodies, one inside the village and four on the government wasteland that has now been taken over by the park. The 30-acre Saiyania bandh was enclosed inside the park boundary.
“Now that there is a tall boundary wall on three sides, the animals cannot drink at it,” Viram Kanthad Rabari, who spearheaded the movement to save the gauchar last year, told Mongabay-India while showing the area. “The land that they are calling grazing land now was earlier cultivable land where people grew cumin by lifting water through pumps from Saiyania. Only gando bawal grows here now.”
The Gujarat Power Corporation Limited official, however, claimed that Saiyania was just a khet talaouri (small pond) to store rainwater when the Gujarat Solar Park came. “The park being close to the Rann, dust-laden winds blow all the time and we frequently need to wash the panels for optimal power production,” he said. “We dug the pond deeper and developed it into the large reservoir that it is today.”
“The Gujarat Solar Park likely requires an estimated 64 cubic metres of water to clean solar arrays every two weeks, a substantial amount of water resources in this parched landscape,” says Ryan Stock in his paper.
Viram alleged that Dana Band, the second pond was filled up by Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, and another solar project came on it (one of the 36 companies). Two more ponds are situated on the land where the 15 megawatts (another project) is proposed.
“According to a Gujarat High Court order of February 17, the government is supposed to maintain water bodies and not destroy them in the name of industrialisation,” said Raghav Dan, former Sarpanch of Charanka. “All we are asking the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited is to let this gauchar and pond be so that the villagers have some respite.”
“Roughly 94% of India’s solar parks under development in agrarian spaces will be exposed to medium-to-high levels of water risk in the near future, further imperilling the future vitality of solar energy and dryland agriculture,” said Stock’s paper.
The Gujarat Power Corporation Limited employee that Mongabay-India spoke to responded that they want to preserve and maintain the pond and had asked the Charanka Panchayat to give a written representation but have received nothing so far.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.