India's solar energy boom fuels local struggle for green justice
What’s the context?
India is on a mission to build new solar power plants, but the rise in renewable energy is not bringing nearby communities their fair share of benefits
Jayaram Reddy and Hira Bano live on the edge of India's two largest solar parks - their villages separated by barbed-wire fences and walls from the miles of gleaming blue solar panels.
Each day, they wake up to the sight of the power plants on their doorstep and wonder if their future will ever be as bright as the growth of solar energy - a key source as India switches to green energy to wean its economy off climate-heating coal.
The Bhadla solar park in northwestern Rajasthan and Pavagada park in southern Karnataka states - among the world's biggest, generating a combined 4,350 megawatts - are considered milestones in India's goal to boost its renewable energy capacity to meet a target of 500 gigawatts by 2030, with just over half to come from solar.
Separated by more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles), Reddy and Bano are among the hundreds of local pastoralists and farmers who were asked to weigh up the potential benefits a solar park would bring - jobs, hospitals, schools, roads and water - in exchange for the land they had used all their lives.
"We were told we should be grateful the government had chosen our area to build the solar park," farmer Reddy, 65, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting with his friends in Vollur village, near the Pavagada solar park.
"They pointed to our unpredictable farm yields, arid land and scarce groundwater, promising us a 100 times better future once the solar park was developed. We believed all their promises."
But India's biggest solar parks have fallen short on those promises, resulting in protests and push-back from communities trying to protect their jobs, land and future, researchers say.
In alienating residents, both the Bhadla and Pavagada solar parks serve as a cautionary tale for the 50 other such solar projects that have been approved by the Indian authorities, which will add combined capacity of about 38 gigawatts.
Officials in India's federal ministry for renewable energy insist that all solar projects must ensure local people are not impacted and their existing livelihoods are not disturbed.
But as state governments draw up ambitious solar policies, and private firms invest millions in setting up plants, both are ignoring the needs of marginalised communities, including livestock herders and small farmers, according to researchers.
"Communities impacted by solar parks are rarely consulted or informed about the plan or its impact," said Bhargavi S Rao, an independent researcher who has mapped the challenges faced by communities living near solar parks in Karnataka.
"Governments say there is a partnership between them and the communities. But on the ground, it is not an equal partnership, which is why people are either protesting or petitioning for more," she added.
Knowledge is key
Anand Kumar, 29, who owns a water bottling unit in Pavagada, uses his YouTube channel as a platform to educate villagers near the solar park about climate change, clean energy and goings-on inside the 13,000 acres (5,261 hectares) of fenced-off land.
"We live near a world-famous solar park, but nobody really knows what this is all about," said Kumar, whose channel has more than 6,000 subscribers.
Between clips on cattle for sale, cultural events and farming tips, Kumar airs interviews with his friends who work as security guards at the solar park, officials explaining power generation and residents documenting their woes.
“Only if we know what is going on and what is our right, will we be able to fight for it," he said.
Bhadla's teenage girls also want to be part of the solar boom, calling for their village school to be reopened after a closure of more than two years.
Their community lost the state land near the Pakistan border, where they had grazed animals for generations, to the Bhadla solar park - and they have no chance to work there due to a lack of education and skills.
Once resentful, the girls now want to study so they can get jobs at the solar park, their aspirations rooted in disappearing traditional ways of earning a living and exposure to a new world of offices where people earn monthly salaries.
"I could work in the solar park if I was educated. I could manage files in the office, or do their accounts," said Bano, 18, who has completed her tenth grade, sitting cross-legged in her sparse room. "I have to study or I will be stuck in household work all my life."
A day in the life of Bano and other Bhadla girls involves chores and sewing cloth pieces into rugs for their dowry. They fear a life of domesticity they see their mothers trapped in.
"This village has too many restrictions," Asma Khatoon, 15, wrote in a Hindi essay, recalling her disappointment when the school shut as she was preparing to take her tenth-grade exam.
Taking a break from drawing well-water, she said her only desire was for classes to restart so she could realise her longer-term ambition to work.
Pradip Swarnakar, a climate change policy specialist who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, said solar "is considered sacrosanct in the renewable space" for being a clean, ethically sourced form of energy.
But for communities, he noted, it matters little whether they have a coal mine or solar park in their midst, as they seek a decent livelihood, better lifestyle and access to electricity.
Coal remains India's dominant energy source, accounting for 70% of its electricity output - but the fossil fuel is known for polluting groundwater and air, and sparking man-animal conflict.
Unlike the potholed roads, contamination and daily explosions that bring utensils crashing down in homes near coal mines, solar parks work silently, the smooth roads leading to them clean and the air fresh.
Yet for locals, those benefits are overshadowed by loss of their land and work, and the scarcity of new jobs linked to the solar parks.
In Bhadla, families used to own 50 to 200 goats and sheep, as well as cows and camels, and grew millet. In Pavagada, the groundnut harvest was enough to give to relatives for free.
Now farmers buy the produce they previously grew themselves, have sold their animals and wonder if their faith in massive solar energy projects to sustain them was misplaced.
"There are not many solar jobs for locals, the funds for the development of our region remain unspent and young people continue to migrate to bigger cities for jobs," said farmer Shiva Reddy.
Bhadla village saw several men who had gone to work in the Middle East as herders return, as jobs opened up during the construction of the solar park a few years back.
But when it neared completion, locals lacked the technical education and skills to bag the relatively few jobs available when the park started running.
The men started to leave home again.
"We could tell one camel from another just from their footprint or find our cows from the sound of the bells tied around their necks - but what do I do with these skills now?" asked village elder Mohammad Sujawal Mehr.
"Big companies surround us, but only a few of our men got jobs there," he said, noting that even a security guard's post at the solar park requires schooling up to tenth grade.
Coal mining and power currently employs an estimated 3.6 million people in India and renewable energy only about 112,000, with solar accounting for 86,000 of those jobs.
Researchers estimate this sunrise sector could create more than 3 million green jobs by 2030 in solar and wind power.
But so far on the ground, opportunities for most villagers are limited to basic activities like security, washing solar panels and grass-cutting in the parks or office cleaning.
"Clean energy is not as employment-intensive as a thermal (coal) plant that employs 800 to 900 people as against five or six at a solar park on any given day," said Sarthak Shukla, an independent consultant on sustainability.
"You don't need workers but technicians to operate the park. Local jobs are not the USP of clean energy transition."
Since 2018, the Pavagada solar park has generated about 3,000 jobs during construction and 1,800 longer-term jobs. Bhadla employed 5,500 people to build it and offers some 1,100 jobs in operation and maintenance for an estimated 25 years.
"The numbers will never add up," said researcher Rao, noting that one acre of farmland supports at least four livelihoods, suggesting more jobs have been lost than created after the land was taken over for the solar parks.
When Pavagada farmers were first approached by Karnataka state six years ago about use of their land for the solar park, it had been ravaged by successive droughts and debts were mounting.
R N Akkalappa was one of the few who leased his land for a fixed annual rent while also managing to get a job in the park as he had experience working with bore-well motors.
"We were hesitant but were told if we didn't agree to the terms, the solar park would be constructed somewhere else. We were simply blackmailed into agreeing," he said.
About 1,800 farmers leased out 13,000 acres for 25 years at a rate of 21,000 Indian rupees ($279) per acre per year.
N Amaranath, deputy general manager for technology at the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited, said the approach means farmers continue to own the land.
"We have found global recognition for our model and Pavagada solar park is considered a success on many fronts, particularly on partnering with the community," he added.
Yet farmer Shiva Reddy said giving up his land was a "tough choice" as the income does not meet his needs.
"Expenses are rapidly rising and in the coming years the rent will not be enough. We will need jobs," he said.
Keshav Prasad, chief executive officer of Bhadla's largest solar park operator Saurya Urja, said the firm was "actively involved in improving the quality of life among its neighbouring 60 villages".
Prasad said including communities was a key responsibility of solar companies. Saurya Urja runs mobile health vans and vets on wheels, and has trained about 300 locals in plumbing, solar panel installation and data entry, he noted.
No jobs for women
However, with India's solar tariffs among the lowest in the world and prospects that they will drop further as companies bid aggressively to win projects, cost-cutting measures are already impacting labour-intensive jobs.
In Pavagada, robots are being deployed to clean solar panels because they are cheaper and more efficient, according to park operators, further reducing job opportunities for villagers.
Women who used to work on the farms of Pavagada or grazed cattle in Bhadla, meanwhile, have found no alternatives after the solar parks became operational.
Some men who have land or tractors - assets women do not own - were able to get park maintenance contracts.
Ayub Khan Chooda, 35, hires five people to drive his tractors pulling small water tankers through the Bhadla park, washing 400 solar panels a day at 20 rupees each.
T A Nagaraju, 31, leased 10 acres to the Pavagada park and invested some of the money to become a contractor offering solar-panel cleaning and grass-cutting services.
But he does not employ women as "the solar companies don't want us to send women to work even though many ask me for jobs", due to safety concerns, he said.
One solar firm manager in Pavagada, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said it was difficult to cater to the security needs of women workers.
"How will we know if something untoward happens to them in some corner of the park? We can't take that risk," he said.
Globally, women make up 32% of the renewable energy workforce, against 22% in the oil and gas industry, according to a 2019 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency.
But the conservative social norms of Bhadla and Pavagada mean women are finding it harder to earn a living in their communities despite the arrival of clean energy.
Girls from Pavagada continue to seek work at garment factories in Bengaluru city, often working in exploitative conditions with low wages and punishing hours. In Bhadla, women have retreated into their homes, fearing for their safety.
Bhadla resident Dadda Khatoon, 32, used to earn a living from farm work. "But I don't seem to have any role any more apart from cooking and feeding my family. I think I had more respect then," she said.
'Going the coal way'
Not all locals have given up on securing a better future for themselves from the solar sector. Farmers from five villages that gave land for the Pavagada park decided to form an association early on to make sure their rights were protected.
The Shakti Sthala Farmers' Group, named after the official title of the Pavagada plant, has a clear mandate: to safeguard the interests of communities and guarantee promises are kept.
In December, members held an emergency meeting after one of the solar companies mortgaged their land lease documents to obtain a bank loan. "If we hadn't been vigilant, this would have gone unnoticed," said farmer Akkalappa.
The group meets often to discuss members' problems, he said, adding they had ensured security guards hired by solar companies were paid pension benefits and worked only eight-hour shifts.
Another priority in both regions is a well-equipped hospital, with the nearest facility more than 80 km (50 miles) from Bhadla and further than 20 km for villagers at the edge of the Pavagada solar park.
Many of the communities' concerns stem from their awareness of how poorly mineral-rich areas have fared in terms of development, despite regulations and special funds set up for that purpose.
Just two hours by road from Pavagada lies the coal-mining hub of Ballari - and stories about how mining has affected residents have travelled on connecting buses.
"Given the present policies, solar is definitely going the coal way," said researcher Rao. "The same mistakes are being repeated with big companies coming from outside, pitching their tents and side-lining communities who have lived and farmed in these regions for decades."
In other agrarian states like Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, protests have erupted in the last couple of years over plans for new solar plants.
Researchers and human rights activists argue that the scale of these huge solar parks is the problem, suggesting smaller, decentralised projects would instead be a win-win for all.
Farmers could be helped to set up mini solar plants on their land while continuing to cultivate it, earning extra from the clean power they produce by selling it to the grid.
"Solar needs to be more inclusive than coal," said Rao. "Policy makers should put communities at the centre of their planning as they push for renewable energy. Only then will both the state and the people benefit."
States say they are working on both large and small solar projects, with the federal government also advocating for decentralised solar plants to raise farmers' income and break their dependence on diesel-run water pumps.
Before and after solar
Life in Bhadla and Pavagada is often perceived as before and after the solar parks were commissioned.
Bhadla - once a remote hamlet with 250 households sharing the same ancestry - is now connected to nearby towns by a broad, busy highway flanked with solar panels and small markets.
Those who owned land by the highway gained as prices soared and some with an education did get jobs at the solar park - but those on the margins have been pushed back further.
The highway connecting Pavagada to India's tech hub Bengaluru, meanwhile, cuts through lush farms and goes over the Uttara Pinakini river and past the Kote Anjaneya temple, before hitting an arid landscape and reaching the solar park.
Five villages that leased land to the park are dotted with upgraded brick houses, some brightly painted with rent money.
But tree plantations to improve green cover, promised by solar companies, have yet to take root and there are murmurs of the parks creating "heat islands" and sucking up groundwater in both Pavagada and Bhadla.
The Pavagada park has also sliced off school-children's shortcuts and isolated villages, increasing travel time between them.
As dusk falls, the solar park lights are switched on, their brightness eclipsing the villages around them.
The women of Bhadla speak of aches and pains in their joints they never experienced when working on farms or grazing animals.
"For men it is fine. They still find some work. We just sit at home," said Sheti Khatoon, 50, of Bhadla where health workers said hypertension and diabetes were becoming more common due to newly sedentary lifestyles.
In Pavagada, Jayram Reddy misses the physical labour he used to do on his farm.
"Now evening walks are the norm for us to stay fit - imagine that!" he said. "We bet our future on solar and pray every day that everyone comes through on their promise."
($1 = 75.2530 Indian rupees)
Reporting: Anuradha Nagaraj and Roli Srivastava
Text editing: Megan Rowling
Photography: Anuradha Nagaraj and Roli Srivastava
Graphics: Tom Finn
Producer: Amber Milne