Law and Society

How just is the transition to solar?

Bhargavi S. Rao

As the country moves forward advancing the solar parks there is a big risk of repeating the same mistake of ignoring environmental justice concerns.  A careful  path has to be traced to balance solar park expansion along with environment and social justice as priorities.


The Pavagada Solar Park

Solar energy promises a clean, green and sustained form of renewable energy and countries across the world are transitioning to this source on a large scale. Many have adopted renewable energy targets or other policies designed to promote renewables. The last decade has seen a spurt in the Solar Energy Policies and the mushrooming of utility scale solar parks promising electrification to the most remote parts of the world that still lurk in darkness, especially those in the developing countries. India has initiated and implemented several solar energy policies and programs, many with wide range of economic incentives for private investors. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission started under the National Action Plan on Climate Change has created a very ambitious agenda of generating 20 GW later increased to 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Individual state policies were drafted and approved in a hurried process and implementation has commenced on a grand scale with every state boasting of its achievements in reaching the targets in record time and with ease.

Karnataka now holds a global position for one of the largest solar parks spreading across nearly 13,000 acres in its eastern district Tumkur. Pavagada, the taluk that pops out of the Karnataka map into neighbouring Andhra Pradesh is a plateau surrounded by rocky hills and a grand landscape of grassland spursed with trees and shrubs. Much of the District runs between two major hill chains made up of metamorphic rocks running north to south in the eastern and western part of the district made up of closepet granite. The region is drained by the Uttara Pinakini River, a non perennial River of the region.  The district houses the Madhugiri State Forest, the Devarayanadurga State Forest, the Kaggaladu Heronry, the Huliyur Durga Forest and the Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve and several wetlands. Pavagada was once known for its wolves that lifted children from its villages. This taluk has experienced drought for more than 5 decades and has been a curse for the farmers but the state government’s impressive plan of a 2000 MW solar park, has changed the economic, ecological, socio-cultural landscape. The plan was to be able to generate around 2700 MW from the Pavagada Solar Park by the end of 2018, in coordination with the central government’s objective to generate 100 GW of Solar Power.

Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited (KSPDCL) was incorporated in the year 2015 under the Companies Act, 2013 as a Joint Venture Company between SECI (Solar Energy Corporation of India), Government of India and KREDL (Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited), GoK with an objective to plan, develop and operate solar parks in the state of Karnataka under MNRE Scheme for Development of Solar Parks and Ultra Mega Solar Power Projects in the country. KSPDCL has been designated as Solar Power Park Developer (SPPD) for facilitation and implementation of the 2000 MW Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park to be developed at Vallur, Balasamudra, Tirumani, Rayacharlu and Kyataganacharlu Villages of Nagalmadike Hobli, Pavagada Taluk of Tumkur District, Karnataka. KSPDCL, as a part of solar park development,  has identified and taken possession of land required (on lease basis) and has developed various infrastructure like the internal transmission system, water supply, road connectivity, street lights, drainage system amongst others. KSPDCL has acquired land from land owners on a 28 year lease rental basis and has allotted the land to the SPDs who are selected through the bidding process conducted by NTPC / SECI / KREDL (as the case may be) through the Grid Connected Solar Photo-Voltaic Projects for 2000 MW Pavagada Ultra Mega Solar Park in Karnataka. Water to wash the panels to keep it dust free is extracted from the ground by each of the SPDs in each of the blocks and is softened before using it as the water has high TDS (Total Dissolved Solids).

As the State seeks cleaner power and is celebrating this feat of having accomplished the largest solar park, a visit to the area and interaction with local communities can help understand the numerous downsides of such an initiative. For the farmers, leasing the land for the solar park means the land is locked for 28 years with a rent of Rs.21,000/- per year and a 2-3% increase every year. Even lands in family disputes have been given away on lease in the hope of receiving some money every year.  Farmers share that there was little space for negotiation as the amount was fixed by the Revenue department. A job is possible, not promised for all the unskilled work required in the construction of the solar park for those farming families who have parted with the land. However, for the landless there is little hope of a job.

A total of 13,000 acres spanning five villages has been stripped of its vegetation, fenced and levelled with some of the land already covered with solar panels, while the the remaining are being transformed with diggers and levellers working to adorn this new look. The process of fencing and levelling has disrupted much of the drainage system disturbing the small bunds, rajakaluves, loose boulder structures and other structures that had been thoughtfully placed in the past to ensure water retention in the area. Each block is fenced with barbed wire rising to nearly 8 feet high and much of the labour has been imported from Orissa, West Bengal and Bihar. Amidst the sea of glass sit small tin sheds run by local women selling tea, ghutka and biscuit packets. Young truck drivers bringing in the material from ports of Chennai and Vishakapatnam and their managers, workers flock in these shops marking their arrivals and departures over tea looking into their mobile phones and chatting away to take a break from the heat.

Local villagers share how they were not consulted but coerced into the lease arrangement. Those with large plots have benefitted as they have invested the lease money and bought tractors, diggers and SUVs, which are rented regularly to the solar companies, but small plot holders have gained little. Pastoralists have nothing left in the region for their animals. They now have to walk long distances in the heat with their animals to reach patches of the vegetation left of the fencing and demarcation. One samaritan in Nagalamadike village had invested money to construct a small bund to help retain water on his land for the village animals. Many others have sold their animals as it has become difficult to meet fodder and water needs.

A large number of youngsters have migrated to Bangalore in search of construction labour and other odd jobs. Many feel exploited, especially those living in the Schedule Caste colony of Vollur Village. This opens another dimension of how caste based segregation in a village has further marginalised some communities. There is no source of clean drinking water close by and the local  water supply tank is contaminated with worms. Access to clean water translates to spending of Rs.5/- per pot and not everyone can afford it or bring it from the distance across the village. Migration in search of labour to many, means leaving behind families with young and old members. The local temperatures have become hotter according to the locals, especially the summer months which become unlivable. Many even complain that there is very high flourosis as the water as very high content of nitrates and fluorides but little has been done to solve this problem.

Although there may not be locally generated pollution such as in a coal fired thermal power plant, solar power plants come with their own set of environmental issues. First of all, manufacturing of solar panels is a polluting process in itself starting from extracting silicon which is derived from quartz, which is mined and heated in a furnace emitting carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. Further several chemicals are used to prepare the silicone and the thin wafers of monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. A by-product created in the process is silicon tetrachloride, a compound that vaporizes easily and release hydrochloric acid into water and soil causing serious environmental health concerns. In addition a number of other toxic substances such as cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, sulphur hexachloride are used in the manufacturing process. While these are not hazardous when they are inside the functioning panels of a solar park, their fate after the lifetime of the panel needs to be looked at.

As the panel ages and nears the end of its lifetime, the toxicity in these panels is a serious concern to the environment and pose occupational risks to the workers too. Considering that our cities are still battling issues of managing municipal waste, villages are continuing to burn their waste with no proper systems in place. And in a few decades from now, there will be solar panel waste and the country has no plan for safely disposing it. The hazardous material used in them are not easy to recycle and can contaminate the water, soil and air if discarded with other electronic waste.

While the manufacturing and disposal processes are a cause for concern, the key criteria and procedures employed for siting solar parks in the race to be on the top seem to have sidestepped the crucial questions pertaining to social and environmental justice. The applause for converting a drought prone land to a land that now generates electricity raises concerns on the criteria for land and procedures employed in taking possession of this large tract of land for this massive project. 13,000 acres from 3000 plus farmers is not easy. 

The key principles of environmental justice, the principle of intergenerational equity, the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things, the principle of prior and informed consent and the ‘polluter pays’ principle, among others, have been adopted by many countries including India in 1991.

Following these principles, the array of legal provisions such as The Environment Protection Act of 1986, The Wildlife protection Act of 1972, The Forest Conservation Act of 1980, The National Biodiversity Act of 2002, The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981,The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, The Hazardous Waste Management Regulations, Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act of 1961, Karnataka Municipal Administration Act, Panchayat Raj Act, Public Liability Insurance Act and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, policies such as the Agricultural Policy, Animal Livestock and Grazing Policy, Agroforestry Policy etc, the Standing Committee Reports by the parliament, the supreme court,high court and NGT judgements that have upheld many of these provisions have all set certain precedents to ensure environmental and social justice concerns are not evaded in the context of the current paradigm of development.

Despite these legal safeguards, solar energy projects in India are exempted from Environment and Social Impact Assessments that would have required some consultations from local communities. The Pavagada project has only obtained a No Objection Certificate from the Forest Department, a Hydrogeological Report that recommends a detailed investigation to assess the availability and occurrence of groundwater in the region, and a soil test to check resistance and corrosiveness pertaining to the installation of the solar projects.

The region is known for dry land agriculture growing Ragi, ground nut, paddy and vegetables and pastoralism with communities having a good understanding of the geographical and ecological conditions. With low rainfall and very little irrigated land, a logical procedure in addressing the challenges of drought and a land based sustained livelihood for these communities would have been to involve departments such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Horticulture, Department of Minor Irrigation, Meteorological Department, the Central Ground Water Board and the Panchayats, and explore possibilities. Even a mere consultation with these departments may have resulted in finding a mid path before embarking on such a massive project. It would have only been justifiable to conduct a feasibility study for a solar park of this size, which would have helped determine the viability of the idea and helped ensure the project is legally, technically, economically and socially feasible. It would have helped identify constraints and address them with creative ideas, new opportunities and the local people’s participation in the context of climate change and building resilience.

As the country moves forward advancing these solar parks there is a big risk of repeating the same mistakes of ignoring environmental justice concerns. The environmental concerns raised with mega thermal/nuclear/hydel projects in the past remain the backbone of risk mitigation of the renewable energy projects such as solar and they can help in the easy transition without denying justice to the local communities. A careful critical, consistent and solution based path has to be traced to balance solar park expansion and local land preservation along with environment and social justice as priorities.

Bhargavi S.Rao is an Independent Researcher and Associate Director at the Centre for financial Accountability. She is a Guest Faculty at the University of Washington and was associated with the Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives.