When walking around Modhera, the signs of relative prosperity are unmistakable. A canal built on the river Narmada, an automobile factory unit near the village, and now solar energy that powers the village and its main tourist attraction, the sun temple. Modhera is India’s first round-the-clock solar village, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October.
Later that month, United Nations chief Antonio Gueterres visited the village hailing it as a “new temple of the sun based on solar energy”.
The announcement of Modhera’s newfound status brought a windfall for its residents who have made a killing by selling land for new developments, such as hotels, restaurants and shopping complexes.
Dressed in a white dhoti, kurta and a shawl loosely draped around his shoulders on a cold January morning, Babubhai Patel sits with his neighbours and friends at a tea stall on the chokdi (crossroads) in Modhera. Once an ordinary village resident, Patel is a rich man – he sold his 1.5 bigha land (one acre) for Rs 1.73 crore for a hotel.
But less than 10 km away, Modhera’s neighbours in Sujanpura have little to celebrate.
“Humari karodo ki zameen bech di, yahan ka pashupalak beghar ban gaya” (they sold our land worth crores, the cattle herders here have become homeless), said Vishnubhai Desai, former deputy sarpanch of Sujanpura. He is referring to the takeover of a part of ’s traditional and designated gauchar, or grazing land, despite people’s opposition, to build the solar plant that powers Modhera.
The villagers of Sujanpura are Maldharis, or traditional pastoralists, with each family owning at least a few cattle. Since the construction of the solar power plant, residents said that families spend at least Rs 200-Rs 300 a day to buy hay for their livestock, which was earlier freely available in the commons. Many have even had to sell their livestock to cope, and distraught by losses, one cattle herder said he felt driven to suicide.
When told that the people of Sujanpura feel shortchanged, Mehsana District Collector Udit Agarwal said, “I wouldn’t say shortchanged. At the end of it, it is public good being done. Even villagers of that particular gram panchayat have benefited [in the form of solar panels]. A lot of times we have to make decisions in the larger public interest.”
But this is not the story of just one renewable energy project. Land, forest and community rights conflicts around renewable energy projects are becoming increasingly common in India, said Priya Pillai, a researcher doing her PhD on the socio-economic impacts of renewable energy. Some other examples include the impact of the Pavagada solar park in Karnataka, the opposition to the Andhra Lake wind farm in Maharashtra and to a wind energy plant in Kutch, Gujarat.
“There is no regulatory framework in our country for renewables projects. If one is to set up a solar or wind plant [less than 25 megawatts], there is nothing which says that a social or environmental impact assessment needs to be done. In the absence of such a framework, there have been a lot of violations of people’s land rights,” said Pillai.
“The whole carbon footprint of large scale solar and wind energy projects is not zero. We now see what destruction coal has caused, but we are yet to see the impact of these large scale renewables. A ‘just energy transition’ is not pulling out capital from one sector and putting it in another, it has to be done thoughtfully.”
Attention to these conflicts becomes important as India has major renewable energy goals. In 2021, the country announced it will have 500 gigawatts of non-fossil fuel energy capacity by 2030, and will meet 50% of its requirement through renewable energy. This was later changed to ‘50% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030’ and will amount to less than the 500 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity but yet, it is an ambitious goal. At the moment, India’s installed capacity of fossil fuels dominates at 57.5% compared to non-fossil fuels at 42.5%. India fell short of achieving its solar energy target of 100 gigawatts by 2022, achieving 63 gigawatts.
In Gujarat, the state’s installed power capacity increased by 31 gigawatts in the last two decades, and the generation capacity of solar energy increased by 7.18 gigawatts, the Chief Minister Office’s website reads. Gujarat is home to Asia’s largest solar energy park in Charanka (Banaskantha) and also boasts of 61% of India’s residential rooftop solar power.
IndiaSpend looked at land records, court documents and spoke to people on the ground to piece together what happened in Modhera and Sujanpura.
Electricity from coal
Developed at a cost of Rs 69 crore, the solar project in Modhera involves installation of 1,177 rooftop solar modules on residential buildings and 316 modules on government buildings, a 6-megawatt solar power plant and a 15-megawatt-hour Battery Energy Storage System. The tender for the integrated Modhera project was floated in February 2020 and the project was inaugurated in October, ahead of Gujarat assembly elections in December.
Now Modhera no longer depends on conventional sources of electricity and the solar project has also reduced household electricity bills by 60%-100%, claims a brochure of the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited, the nodal agency for the project.
Bipin Patel, with whom the prime minister spoke in his Mann ki Baat radio programme in October, said that his power bill had indeed come down to a maximum of Rs 100- Rs 200 in the summer and is surplus in many months due to his rooftop solar installation.
Modhera also has a Battery Energy Storage System to store power produced by a 6-megawatt ground mounted solar power plant. Both of these are constructed on a part of Sujanpura’s prime grazing land.
“Every morning, the power generated from the ground mounted solar panels is first provided to the batteries and only after the Battery Energy Storage System is charged up to 70% do we send the excess power to the grid,” explained Vikram Singh Jhala, site in-charge with Mahindra Teqo, one of the contractors of the project. “This ensures Modhera has power drawn from its own panels in the day and through THE Battery Energy Storage System at night. Once the batteries are charged, we can give backup to Modhera for up to 36 hours,” said Jhala.
Nagji Rabari’s family has still not received solar panels.
“There are around 1,700 homes in Modhera but around 250-300 homes are yet to get solar panels,” explained Modhera’s Sarpanch Bobby Thakur. “In some cases, people did not have the account or metre in their names; in others, they had kutcha (unstable) roofs. Some were eligible but even then officials said the scheme was complete.”
“If they call it a solar village, everyone should benefit. They should do another survey and check how many houses are pending,” said Bobby Thakur.
A Gujarat Power Corporation Limited official, who requested anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media, told IndiaSpend that there is no plan to extend the scheme at the moment. IndiaSpend wrote to Gujarat Power Corporation Limited with detailed questions about some Modhera residents not having received solar panels. This story will be updated when they respond.
Loss of commons
Sujanpura has 41.2 hectares of grazing land divided between 10 plots. Of this, 12 hectares (from two plots) was taken up for the Modhera solar project as the other plots are smaller.
Despite losing 12 hectares, Sujanpura has 29.2 hectare grazing land on record.
“In one of the plots, the cemetery and land reserved for village housing has been erroneously marked as gauchar. In the other plots, some land is barren, one has a pond, some have a river flowing and some are being used by villagers for housing or farming,” explained Sarpanch Solanki.
But the use of common land for any other purpose is not allowed, the encroachers are to be evicted and lands restored to the village, a Supreme Court judgement makes clear.
“Villagers are not necessarily a homogenous group. The encroachers’ social profile needs to be checked. Are these the most influential people of the village or the most vulnerable?” asked Geetanjoy Sahu, associate professor at the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. He pointed out that a 2011 Supreme Court judgement says that both these groups of people should be evicted from common land and land restored to the village. But when this order is implemented, “the vulnerable are paying the price, because for the influential people, losing some land doesn’t matter,” he explained. He suggested a distinction be made at the village level to understand why the encroachment happened before eviction.
In return for their 12-hectare grazing land, which villagers said is the best quality for grazing, and the largest contiguous plots, villagers were given seven smaller parcels of land for grazing. Five of the seven land parcels are in Modhera, about 5 km away, too far for Sujanpura residents to take their cattle everyday. A sixth is in neighbouring Chhatasna village.
The seventh, the second largest of the seven plots, is in Sujanpura itself, and was earlier used by Vinaji Thakur for farming. Originally allotted to his ancestors by the government, it was, in official records returned to the government, according to Sujanpura sarpanch Ramesh Solanki. Thakur’s family continued farming castor on the land, only to find out one day that it had been redesignated as grazing land for the villagers, Vinaji Thakur said.
“The land was converted to gauchar without any intimation,” explained Vinaji Thakur.
Villagers do not use the land for grazing as they believe the government obtained it unethically.
“The government did something wrong. The government will give away my land tomorrow. Everyone knows this is Vinuji’s land. Nobody will go there for grazing, there is humanity among people,” Vishnubhai Desai, the former deputy sarpanch of Sujanpura, told IndiaSpend.
The sarpanch of Sujanpura Ramesh Solanki explained that when government land is allotted to a family for cultivation, it is done on certain terms and conditions. If the terms are violated, the land is taken back by the government, which is the case with Thakur’s family.
Some residents do go to Chhatasna for grazing but most were unaware that they have been officially allotted a small land parcel (0.4 hectare) there.
Villagers claim that they were neither asked nor told about the solar project officially and that the government did not seek permission from the gram sabha or panchayat for taking away their best grazing land. Villagers said they do not want alternative land in another village but instead they want their old land back.
Officials from the Mehsana District Collector’s office maintain that the process of taking over the gauchar and allotting alternatives has been undertaken as per the law.
Dinesh Rabari, director of the Maldhari Rural Action Group which works for pastoralists said that they had tried to help the people of Sujanpura around 2020 when the project was going to come up but there was confusion among villagers and no consensus regarding fighting the land acquisition for the project.
Anil Desai and Vinaji Thakur filed a petition in the Ahmedabad High Court in 2020 to oppose the land allotment but nothing has happened so far.
The solar power plant has also cut off around 20-25 villagers’ access to their own fields on the other side of the power plant, forcing them to take a much longer route, the sarpanch of the village estimates.
“The route to my farm went from being two minutes to 2 km. I used to cross the gauchar to reach my farm but since we are not allowed to enter the solar plant anymore, I have to take the longer route,” said Pankaj Rabari.
“Aise toh logon ko gaon chodna padega, gaanv khaali ho jayega. (At this rate, people will start leaving this village and it will become empty),” said Desai, the former deputy sarpanch.
The majority of the 1000-odd people in Sujanpura are from the Bakshi Panch community or Other Backward Castes. With just a primary school and only a few amenities, Sujanpura has always lived in the shadow of Modhera, Desai said.
IndiaSpend wrote to the Gujarat revenue department, Chief Secretary, Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, office of the prime minister and Gujarat Power Corporation Limited with questions on villagers’ challenges, allegations and district authorities’ action. This story will be updated when they respond.
Maphaji Thakur of Sujanpura is distraught at the loss of the pastoral land.
“I warned them that I will kill myself,” he said. A landless labourer, Thakur tills other people’s farms in exchange for a share of the harvest. He owns 15 cows, of which five produce milk. Now buying hay for his cattle costs him a minimum of Rs 300-Rs 400 a day.
Overall, agricultural income is meagre in Sujanpura as many people have small landholdings or grow a single crop such as cotton or erand (castor), said Anil Desai, Vishnubhai’s son. The main occupation is pastoralism; the 2020-’21 village cattle census says Sujanpura has 1,504 cattle.
“With 10 buffaloes, I have Rs 30,000- Rs 40,000 coming in from milk production whereas the cost of buying hay has gone up to Rs 60,000 a month,” said Gemarbhai Desai. He is also worried about the other fallouts of the loss of their traditional pasture. “Our lives have become harder since we lost the land, our children will have to move to cities… People will reduce their number of cattle, slowly the village will become empty.”
The change is already visible.
“I had nine cattle at first but I sold two. The space is gone, where should we bring hay from? That is why I reduced my number of cattle,” said Sunil Singh, a farm labourer.
Have residents of Sujanpura been relieved of their power bills at least?
“We were never supposed to get solar panels in Sujanpura. They were only meant for Modhera. It was only after we protested that we got solar panels,” said Anil Desai.
In the second phase of the project, Sujanpura received 101 solar panels for houses and neighbouring Samlanapura received 105. This has reduced power bills by 20%-25%, Sujanpura residents say.
But “whatever we are saving in power bills, we are losing in hay costs,” said Irshanbhai Nagjiji, another landless labourer.
Redesignating grazing land
The Bharatiya Janata Party, both at the Centre and in Gujarat, has been vocal about cow protection, but in 2018, the Gujarat government told the state assembly 2,754 villages in the state have no grazing land.
People of Modhera also told IndiaSpend that their village gave up 300 bigha of grazing land for a water treatment plant for the Narmada canal many years ago.
“It is happening a lot in Gujarat that the government is changing the objective for which land is reserved. How can you do that without people’s consent?,” asked Rabari of the NGO MARAG. “The Supreme Court judgement protecting commons like grazing land is not being followed rigorously. In such cases, people will leave pastoralism and will be forced to migrate. Migration affects children’s education, especially that of girl children who might be forced into labour. Besides, pastoralists’ income reduces a lot and they cannot continue their community’s unique rituals. Their independence and identity as a pastoralist is lost.”
District collectors have the authority to designate and regulate the use of grazing land, states the Gujarat grazing policy. Once a land is labelled as grazing land, the gram panchayat administrates that land. The land allocated for the solar plants is grazing land as per village records.
In India, a 2011 Supreme Court judgement is considered the cornerstone of land laws around village commons when the SC had ordered that all illegal encroachments on village commons be removed and lands be restored to the community.
In 2015, the Gujarat government came up with a policy which allowed the use of grazing land for other purposes if a government department purchases the same area of land from nearby private or government wasteland and hands it over to the district collector. The district collector then designates the new land as grazing land and hands it over to the gram panchayat. The policy does not specify the definition of ‘nearby’.
Based on this policy, and a demand by the Gujarat Energy and Petrochemicals Department, the Mehsana collector on January 15, 2020 ordered Sujanpura’s gauchar be redesignated as government wasteland. The land was then handed over to the energy department mentioned above, and thereon to Gujarat Power Corporation Limited , which constructed the Battery Energy Storage System and solar plant there.
Before moving the court, residents of Sujanpura had written a letter to the sarpanch on September 9, 2020 opposing the solar plant. The panchayat then passed a resolution against the plant on September 19, 2020, and demanded that it be moved elsewhere. Villagers also wrote letters to the Mamlatdar and district collector in the same month opposing the plant and asking that it be moved elsewhere. Two of the residents then filed a writ petition before the Gujarat High Court.
Vijay Nagesh, an Ahmedabad-based lawyer who represents the petitioners, said that according to various government circulars, for every 100 cattle, a village is supposed to have 16 hectare of grazing land.
Sujanpura sarpanch Ramesh Solanki told IndiaSpend that the Panchayat had no say in the reallotment of land.
“There was a lot of uproar in the village. My political opponents accused me of selling off the village land but this decision was taken at a higher level. I had supported the solar plant because that project was a good one and it was going to do some good for society, but I had no say in it.”
Solanki mentioned that some residents of the village have been employed at the power plant as housekeepers or security persons but said that the village has suffered more than it has benefited.
“Sujanpura Modhera ke neev ki eet ban gayi hai (Sujanpura has become the foundation stone for Modhera). The government also calls it the Modhera project. So people taunt me saying, we gave up everything and yet, all the glory belongs to Modhera.”
Mehsana District Collector Agarwal told IndiaSpend that he will have to look into the details of the case but also said that the decision was taken by the state revenue department.
When pointed out that Sujanpura residents demand grazing land nearer their village, Agarwal said, “If not there, they would have been allotted something even farther.” The government chose this land for the power plant as no such land was available in Modhera or around. He said that they have followed the ‘rulebook’ in the process of land acquisition. Officially, his office had not received complaints of residents not being able to access their farms easily because of the power plant, and that if the residents do approach the Collector’s office they will get access to their farms.
With the sun blazing overhead, Maphaji Thakur asks that this reporter come and see his cattle. They are wandering or sitting near his rickety house.
After posing for a picture, when asked if he feels he should have at least taken the solar panels that would have helped with his power bill, Maphaji Thakur said, “We don’t want free electricity, who knows how that [the free solar power] works, but we want our land.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.