Tigers, robots and unintended consequences: Two stories from India
India is the world's second-largest coal producer after China. But it has committed to phase down coal and boost renewable energy to meet climate change targets. As you will hear from our correspondents Anuradha Nagaraj and Roli Srivastava, the pace of those changes is having unexpected consequences.
In the town of Chandrapur, Maharashtra, coal mining has led to an unexpected revival of local ecology, and human deaths from tiger and leopard attacks as their habitats have shifted. Sand dumped from the mining process has created new hills in the countryside that have become an accidental refuge for large predators.
In the southern town of Pavagada in the state of Karnataka, meanwhile, a government scheme to buy farmland for a huge solar park was initially popular. Local farmers were promised jobs and a better future. But that optimism is fading as local people learn robots will maintain the solar panels – and the project will bring them fewer benefits than they expected.
Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.
Iman: Around the town of Chandrapur in the Indian state of Maharashtra, a new kind of billboard has been appearing
Roli: So, there are these billboards erected all across Chandrapur, and these billboards carry pictures of wild animals, there are these tigers and leopards and bears, and it has a warning written in the local language and the warning says, ‘stay alert there are wild animals on the prowl.'
Iman: The signs are unmissable, with photoshopped images of big cats and other predators grouped around the text.
Roli: And there are people who've captured videos of tigers on the street behind their house or something and they were showing me those videos and I was told about the tiger attacks.
Iman: The presence of leopards and tigers on the streets of Chandrapur is something new, and the reasons behind their appearance reveal something about the unexpected risks of well-intentioned ideas.
In this episode, “Tigers, Robots, and Unintended Consequences” - two stories from India.
Iman: Welcome to “Just Transition”, a podcast from Thomson Reuters Foundation about the effort to make the planet cleaner and greener.
Clip 1: And recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.
Iman: Without leaving anyone behind.
Clip 2: Just transition, but affecting people and communities.
Iman: I'm your host, Iman Amrani.
This podcast will look at how we are to ensure a just transition, and what's at stake if it's ignored.
Clip 3: There is so much that we can do to keep this from getting worse.
Iman: So Roli Srivastava and Anuradha Nagaraj are a double act. Both Thomson Reuters Foundation journalists covering the environment in India, sometimes covering different aspects of the same story. And there's something of a mutual appreciation society. Here's Roli on Anuradha.
Roli: Anuradha and I have known each other for the last six years. I think she's a brilliant journalist because even when you think that you have all the angles covered, she brings in fresh perspective and the stories benefit greatly from that.
Iman: And here's Anuradha on Roli.
Anuradha: She's one of the easiest colleagues I have ever worked with. She has so many years of fabulous experience, and she's a very sharing and giving person.
Iman: I can confirm she also said lovely things about you, so...
Anuradha: I hope I matched every adjective of hers.
Iman: As an Indian reporter working in the country, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people come to India with?
Anuradha: So I think one of the biggest challenges we face when we are looking at reportage by people from outside is that there is massive generalization of this country and this country is actually many countries in one country.
Roli: I think the complexity of the country, it's difficult to explain that things cannot be viewed as black and white. I'll give you an example in the context of climate change and just transition. Not everybody recognizes climate change as climate change. They just think of it as fluctuations in weather, in climatic conditions. If there are more cyclones in the city that I live in, for example, in Bombay, which never saw cyclones earlier like for the last many years, most people would see it as an aberration. The IPCC report said that parts of Bombay could be underwater by 2050.
Iman: The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Roli: But those predictions are kind of lost on most people because they still think this is not the norm in Bombay. There was winter this month, as in January, Bombay has never experienced anything like that. It's a tropical city by the beach, it's by the sea. So we've never experienced anything like that. But even that was seen by most people as something that's not triggered by climate change, but something that's happening as a one-off thing and not something that would happen every year.
Anuradha: Yes, we also see many more hotter days. There are so many reports from across the country where we are seeing more flooding. We are seeing glaciers melting. So yeah, we're seeing this around us all the time.
Iman: Anuradha lives in Chennai in the south of India.
Anuradha: For example, Chennai had two days of rain, heavy rain in December and we were flooded. It took us 10 days to clear the water from the city. Life came to a standstill in many parts, so I think on an everyday basis we are seeing these changes around us.
Iman: So back to Roli and the tigers of Chandrapur. She wasn't expecting to be reporting on animals at first.
Roli: Yeah, I had gone to Chandrapur, which is in western India. It's a coal mining hub, and I had gone there for a story on the impact of coal mining on local communities. So I thought it would be interesting to visit one of these areas and see for myself what things were like.
Iman: This is from her footage of her trip, a lush green landscape along the road punctuated by mounds of soil and sand thrown up by local coal mines. But then Roli saw the billboards and began to hear the rumors.
Roli: So I was looking for case studies because I heard so much about tigers attacking people that I thought it was important to speak to people who had been attacked or had lost a loved one.
Iman: Pretty soon, she heard of one particularly tragic case. It involved a woman called Nisha Umashankar Dandekar, and a word of warning - what follows includes an account of the death of a child. If you would prefer not to hear that, you might want to skip forward past the next couple of minutes.
Roli: I went looking for her. I tried locating her address and found her residential complex, so I had met her there and she was having lunch when I knocked at her door and she was kind enough to let me in when I told her who I was and what I was seeking from her. And I told her that I believe that there's been a tragedy in your home last year.
Iman: It started when Nisha and her family moved to Chandrapur from Delhi four years ago,
Roli: And she told me how they were living in Delhi, and she rued all the traffic noises over there and the hectic life in Delhi, etc. And when they moved to Chandrapur, she was in a way glad that this was a more peaceful terrain and life was peaceful. Her husband was doing well.
Iman: The family lived in a residential compound near Chandrapur's power plant. On the 19th of August 2021, a leopard somehow managed to enter the grounds of the block. Nisha's five-year-old daughter was playing outside,
Roli: And she remembers only fainting at the sight of her child. And she recalled how she could not even see the body of her daughter. When people alerted her to the daughter being attacked and she remembers only fainting at the sight of her child, and by the time she regained consciousness, the daughter was already rushed to the hospital.
Iman: The girl died of her injuries soon after.
Roli: It was heartbreaking because the woman was really sad to have lost her daughter the way she did. She was very willing to share a picture of a child, which she had kept in her wallet, and she told me how she thought that staying in Delhi would have been so much better because there was traffic and no wild animals there.
Iman: As a journalist coming to that, were you shocked?
Roli: I must say that I've never covered a victim of man-animal conflict before. In the two decades that I've been working as a journalist, I've met a lot of people who've lost a loved one in tragic accidents. It wasn't shocking as much as it was heartbreaking.
Iman: Roli spoke to other victims as well. Sunil Govinda Lengure received head injuries in a bear attack in a village near Chandrapur. Suresh Shankar Khiradkar lost an eye also to a bear. Tigers have been seen inside the power station compound, and it's not just those who have been directly attacked who have suffered.
Roli: I met farmers and cattle grazers who had like five to six cows or something, and they would be selling the milk and earning decent money every day from the milk that they sold. Now they've lost their cows to these tiger attacks. So they are now doing daily wage work. So there is a huge impact on the lives of people because of the tiger attacks,
Iman: And something is driving these creatures into contact with human settlements.
Roli: You know, it's a picturesque town because there are these hills dotting the town and there are these trees on those hills and it gives a rather picturesque look until, of course, you realize that those hills were overburdens and mining parlance.
Iman: In fact, this is not a natural landscape. Coal mining has been at the center of Chandrapur's economy for the last 30 years or so. But this is open cast coal mining that is digging a large pit down into the coal rather than extracting it through tunnels. This generates huge quantities of sand and rock as waste product - sand and rock that is discarded around the mine as overburdens.
Roli: Those are the hillocks created by the sand that is removed when you're digging a coal mine.
Iman: Untreated, it creates a moonscape of rocks and sand dunes covering a huge area, killing plants and wildlife. But under India's environmental laws, trees and plants must now be carefully planted on the overburdens. Creating a forest ecosystem.
Roli: What has happened in Chandrapur is that these overburdens, these hillocks have become habitats for wildlife because this is also home to one of India's largest tiger reserves. India has a huge project called Project Tiger, which it launched in the 70s because tiger numbers were dipping and India was committed to improve their numbers, etc.
Iman: And here is where the unexpected consequences begin.
Roli: The mining activity has kind of clashed with India's efforts to improve tiger numbers. So here you have these mines that are very close to the Tiger reserve, precariously close to the Tiger reserve, and the mines are cutting into the natural corridors of tigers.
Iman: The same is true of other big cats and large predators who also used to be restricted to the tiger reserve.
Roli: And when they venture out, they find this very conducive environment of the overburdens that are covered with trees and have a stream and all that. So it's a very, it’s an organic natural habitat for them to take shelter and to live there. So the numbers are exploding right now on the overburdens.
Iman: The problem is that the conservation effort has worked. There are more tigers in India now than there have been in decades. And Chandrapur's new overburden forests are closer to the town and its surrounding villages than the original Tiger reserve, much closer.
Roli: They're all so familiar with the sights and sounds of a town and not as much as the forest that it's difficult to relocate these tigers to a forest area now because they just wouldn't adjust there. They're so used to having cars and jeeps and scooters all around them zipping through that overburden. They're not familiar with the forest area anymore.
Iman: So the main issue here isn't necessarily that there was a tiger reserve nearby, but it was the way that the coal mine was providing a different habitat for the tiger. So they bled into the space where the humans were existing?
Roli: Right. That's correct. So it's a lack of foresight by the mining operators. They didn't foresee that creating these overburdens, what it could lead to; the blind greening of these hillocks, these overburdens what that could lead to. There was a lack of foresight.
Iman: So what is the solution then? I mean, it can't be for humans to just kind of keep an eye out.
Roli: So there was a proposal by environmentalists and activists and local Chandrapur citizens that these hillocks be removed. And the government had said then that they will use the sand in construction or other related activities like laying roads, etc. But none of that has happened so far. So that's one possible solution. The other possible solution that citizens urge for is that if we are making so much losses because of the mining activity in our backyard that we might as well get permanent jobs, we might as well get some financial compensation for all of this. But that wouldn't solve the problem of tigers attacking them.
Iman: And you mentioned the local people of Chandrapur, how do the local people feel?
Roli: I think they feel lost. They're seeking solutions, and they feel that this kind of reportage would possibly help them find the solutions, make the government sensitive to the losses that they have incurred and possibly compensate them with jobs, with money, with something at least so. Yeah, that's the only hope they have.
Iman: Roli asked forest officials if they would be taking action over the issue of dangerous wildlife in the overburdened forests. But they said that those areas are the responsibility of the mining company. They also said that they had told the mining company to remove the vegetation on the overburden to make it uninhabitable for dangerous animals. But under Indian law, the mining company is required to do exactly the opposite. They are mandated to green all the overburdens they create, effectively build a tiger habitat.
Roli: It serves as a cautionary tale, Iman. This is an unplanned, unexpected outcome of coal mining as we always think of coal mining as air and water polluting and destroying the environment, etc. but you never think of it as a trigger factor for man-animal conflicts. And as India moves to other energy sources like solar, wind, it's betting big on solar and setting up solar parks, etc. I think what has gone wrong with coal mining should not be repeated with renewable sources of energy. There has to be a better planning, better foresight in these new energy ventures because solar or hydro will be the new coal tomorrow.
Iman: Which takes us to our second story, a story of robots and solar power and unintended consequences. This story takes place in the southern Indian state of Karnataka in the town of Pavagada.
Anuradha: I traveled in December when, you know, it was absolutely beautiful after the rains, so the fields had standing crops. It was lovely. And then you start coming closer to Pavagada, so you come to Pavagada town, which is like any other, you know, really small town in India. It's a bit haphazard. There are small shops and there's small motels, and after you cross the town is when the landscape sort of starts changing. So then you start seeing less agricultural land and then just like that, very suddenly you start seeing these solar panels, which are blue. And honestly, they look very beautiful because after, you know, having seen this, this dry brown landscape for about 20 minutes of your drive and suddenly see this sea of blue, it's blue glass solar panels.
Iman: This is Pavagada Solar Park, a huge stretch of land entirely covered with solar panels to generate electricity for India's grid. Footage of the park has a sci-fi look to it. Long rows of dark ocean blue panels marching off over the horizon all tilted exactly the same angle to maximize exposure to the sun, even in some aerial photos from a drone. You can't see from one end to the other,
Anuradha: And it's quite pretty, I must say, I actually stopped where the park starts and I got off my taxi to have a look because I hadn't seen anything like that before.
Iman: It's a contrast with Karnataka's coal mines.
Anuradha: When I went to a coal mine, my drive was very different. When you go towards a coal mining hub, you see terrible roads that have terrible pollution. You have lines of trucks which are waiting to carry the coal out, are carrying the coal in, and you have this conveyor belt that cut through the most beautiful landscape carrying coal and there's noise and coal dust everywhere. And contrast that to driving to a solar park. It's pristine. There's no pollution. It's clean, and the road was beautiful and broad. So solar is good.
Iman: On completion in 2019, Pavagada was the largest solar park in the world. 53 square kilometers or 33 square miles of panels. Part of India's bid to become a world leader in renewable energy.
Anuradha: I don't know how many football grounds put together make up the park, it's massive. One of the most interesting things was that you don't see enough people. You know, India is a place where you see a lot of people on the streets. But because of this solar area, I realized that I was driving so many kilometers without really seeing people because there's nothing on the site. I think the only people I saw when I was driving along the periphery of the park were these two goat herders. They had let their goats loose for grazing. I think those were the only people I saw for about 15 minutes, which is quite unusual in India.
Iman: Of course, this land wasn't always empty.
Anuradha: So most of this was agricultural land. So it was land where people were farming or trying to farm, and some of them had their houses there. But most of them have their houses in the villages. So now what has happened is the village is still the village. And then you have this fence that divides the village from the land. That's the solar park.
Iman: One of those villagers is Jayram Reddy. His farm is now part of the solar park.
Anuradha: So Jayram Reddy is in his 60s and he lives in this village called Vollur, which is on the border of the park. And I remember meeting him one evening. Like most people in these regions, he was wearing white on white, a white shirt, and he had the face of a person who was toiled. You know, like his, he was wrinkled and like, he came across to me as a person who was coming to terms with his new life. So he was a man who was very uncomfortable with not doing what he had done for the longest time. And you could sense that in his mannerism, he's like, “I'm not used to doing this.”
Iman: Before the solar park was built. Farmers were already struggling. This isn't an easy place to grow crops.
Anuradha: So when the proposal first came to this region, it had been five years of drought. They were all in debt already and finding it difficult to survive, you know, their backs were already broken.
Iman: The government's plan was not to buy the villager's land for the park, but to lease it from them.
Anuradha: The government told them that a) look your land is anyway not productive, so we will give you an assured income for your land every year. So this is like a rent for every year, for 25 years around. Around $280 per acre per year. So if you had lots of land and you gave a lot of land to the government, you probably would get a larger amount. But if you had smaller patches of land, then you would get less.
Iman: But the government went further.
Anuradha: They were promised that local people from their communities would get jobs in the solar park, and then they were promised development. Having better schools, better drinking water facilities, better drainage, better roads. So these were the promises made to them. And though at that time, a lot of farmers told me that they thought that they were being offered a very low price. That wasn't the price of the land at that point, but because they were already under so much debt, so a lot of them accepted it.
Iman: For the government, the expansion of renewable energy sources like solar has been a climate success story for India at the COP26 climate conference in 2021. Prime Minister Modi promised that India would get half of all its energy from renewable sources like solar by the end of this decade. Meeting that target depends on these solar parks. Initially, the plan also seemed to be working for villagers like Jayram Reddy.
Anuradha: He kept saying that, you know, this land was saved for generations by my family and handed down to me by my father. And I've given it out to lease and I keep thinking if I should have kept it for my own children because, you know, land is such a big asset. And so he was very guilt ridden about the whole deal that he had struck.
Iman: A better future for local people has failed to emerge in other ways. There's a reason Anuradha didn't see many people on her drive to the park. Jobs that were expected for the locals have not materialized.
Anuradha: So the thing with solar panels is that if you don't clean them and if you allow layers of dust to settle on them, then their ability to absorb radiation reduces. So it's absolutely essential that they are clean and sparkling all the time. And what they traditionally do is they give out these little contracts to villagers, and what they basically do is wipe the panel manually. That's how it's traditionally done. But like I said, this is a semi-arid area, so water is an issue. Groundwater levels are not fabulous here, so companies obviously don't want to spend so much on water as well. So there are a couple of companies which now have these little robotic arms that are attached to the solar panel. And these are basically like giant dust rollers,
Iman: Robot cleaners, in other words.
Anuradha: So, yeah, some of the solar companies have started using robots. Not all of them yet, but they're getting very soon. So it doesn't use any water, so it just rolls over the panel and keeps taking off all the dust. So it's much more cost efficient for companies to invest in this. But then it means that a lot of jobs are shrinking.
Iman: I don't know if you've seen the series Black Mirror, you know.
Anuradha: A little bit. Yes, not the whole series...
Iman: It's a bit dystopian and in my head, from what you said, I could just see these little robot things. It's like the end of the world, don't you think?
Iman: And in terms of the younger people, are they sticking around? What does the future look like?
Anuradha: So this was another description that I got when I was sitting in one of the villages. They said, “Do you see any young people around you?” And then that made me sit up and look around and I was like, no, and they're like, well, because most of these villages only have old people left. So the young people are not staying. That was one of the things they were told that, you know, people would come back. Very few have come back particularly girls and women because women are absolutely not being employed in the solar park. So no, the young have not come back.
Iman: So, a project to transition away from fossil fuels has also unintentionally contributed to the decline of local jobs and communities and left local people disappointed. Is there a way to do these kinds of projects without this kind of collateral damage?
Anuradha: I think it doesn't have to be this way. Renewable energy doesn't have to make the same mistakes that we made when coal was introduced into the country, which is get large companies to come in, set up massive solar parks. And when you do all this, then communities will become collateral. So there's this counter conversation happening, which says why can't you decentralize it? Why is it not possible to set up a smaller solar plant where the farmer can also use that power and also give some of that power to the grid? Is there a need to have such large solar parks which displace so many people and like you said, then they become collateral because the system doesn't account for all of them.
Iman: And what does Jayram expect for his future now?
Anuradha: I think he doesn't expect anything for himself, but he is worried about his children, so he's hoping that his land comes back to him. He would ideally like his children to come back to the village, but that would only happen if there's a good school for his grandchildren to study in. And if there's a good hospital facility, that would also mean that people who have migrated to a city find it attractive enough to come back to their homes and villages.
Iman: What was the impact that you hope your reporting will have?
Roli: The impact I hope my reporting would have is some action by the coal mining company and acknowledgment that this is a problem that's created by mining. And it's only when they acknowledge that, yes, it's a problem that has been created because of the mining activity. Will they start looking for a solution? So I am not looking at any immediate action that the mining company will take just because I've reported on it, because if that was the case, they would have done it after that five-year-old died. So the only hope I have is an acknowledgment of the problem to start with and then they'll start looking at the solution.
Anuradha: First thing when I come home after all these trips is I'm very angry. It takes me like a couple of days to kind of calm down. Yeah, I've seen a lot of anger when I come back from these trips because I just feel it's terribly unfair and I just feel that we can do better. It's not because we can't. And I realized over a period of so many years of writing about marginalized communities, I have a huge issue with privilege. So I do question in my everyday life, my every decision, because I do come from a certain amount of privilege, I do live in a comfortable space. I can afford a certain number of things and that's a constant battle. That's a battle that I fight all the time. I discuss it with friends. I have lost friends over this battle about, you know, privilege - are we taking too much and giving too little? Yes, I do struggle with it.
Iman: I think that's one of the really important things about journalism and reporting because a lot of people, they can write opinion pieces from a desk or pontificate about what's going on. But what you do is important because you meet the people and you get to understand what shapes them and what their needs are. And that's why I think it's really important for me to be speaking to an Indian journalist about India.
Anuradha: I think one of the things that I just generally have learned over a period of time from all these people I've interviewed, including in Pavagada, is that the definition of what is happy, varies definition of contentment varies, definition of what you need right now varies. So I have learned to go there as a reporter, ask the questions and not say "I'm so sorry to hear this" or "that really sounds terrible," because I don't think they want to hear that from you.
Iman: They don't want pity. People don't want pity from you. They want you to come and understand.
Anuradha: So I treat them as an equal.
Iman: One of the things that I keep saying when I'm doing these interviews in this series is I'm trying to find silver linings because so often this issue, it just seems overwhelming and it depresses people to the point where they just can disengage. And so I feel like it's important to ask, what is it that keeps you going?
Roli: What keeps me going, I think, is we have barely scratched the surface of the problems right now is what I feel. I just feel there’s so many stories and so many issues that are yet to be told. Also, I feel that even if there is no overnight reaction to stories, these stories do not have a shelf life. They'll stay longer. And these will continue to be used in petitions to highlight the problem that the local communities in these mining areas are facing. That's my only hope, and I'm very conservative in being optimistic about what my stories bring about. But I can safely say that when I thought the story was done and dusted and nobody was even looking at it and suddenly realized that, oh, it's been used in a court petition by somebody in some other part of the country to plead for some kind of a change or something. So you never know how far these stories travel.
Iman: Well, that's enough of a silver lining for me. So thank you very much. I appreciate that.
You can find Roli and Anuradha’s stories on tigers, robots and renewable energy on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website. Links are in the show notes.
The human stories behind the shift to a green economy