As renewable energy grows across India, locals who leased their land to the Pavagada solar park have banded together to secure fairer benefits
- Farmers lease land for one of India's biggest solar parks
- Welfare group formed to protect locals' rights and win benefits
- Villagers monitor funding from solar firms to back development
By Anuradha Nagaraj
PAVAGADA, India, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The farmers of Pavagada scored their first victory in the early days of negotiations with Karnataka state energy officials, who were seeking to rent their land to set up a solar park: a legal agreement drafted in their local language, Kannada.
For the drought-hit farmers of Pavagada, now home to one of India's largest solar power plants, a copy of the lease agreement translated from English gave them a better understanding of the deal that would shape their future.
The Shakti Sthala Farmers' Welfare Association, named after the official title of the Pavagada plant, grew out of this small win and the early realisation that a bright future for local people living in the solar park's shadow was not guaranteed.
"The government came to us because they knew we had suffered many droughts and our backs were broken," said N Gurudatta, 50, who leased 20 acres (8 hectares) to the solar park.
"We were wary and confused. There were different people with different views on what was good for us. That is when we started going for all meetings and discussions as a group. We found our strength in numbers," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Pavagada solar park is one of 52 such solar power facilities India had approved across 14 states as of last year, in a drive to wean itself off planet-heating coal and meet a renewable energy capacity goal of 500 gigawatts by 2030.
Unlike most other places, in Pavagada, farmers continue to own the land used by the solar firms operating the park, making it a unique plug-and-play model, according to state officials.
But it is also the rare involvement of residents around the massive facility that differentiates it and highlights the need for community participation as India bets big on solar power, say human rights activists.
"This voluntary group of farmers came up because of the unfairness of the deal to begin with," said Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the non-profit Environment Support Group that has done research on the impacts of solar parks in Karnataka.
"With solar, it has become a race to the bottom in terms of regulatory relaxations as states vie with each other to attract investment. In the process, the people have been forgotten. To be heard, they will have to come together as one," he said.
Around 2016, conversations about a solar energy policy in the corridors of government offices in Bengaluru, 180 km (112 miles) from Pavagada, reached the farmers' doorstep.
Many were dazzled by the land offer, some resisted, and some tried to bargain for a higher price.
In the end, Karnataka leased 13,000 acres from about 1,800 farmers across five villages to set up the Pavagada solar park, where 11 companies collectively generate 2,050 megawatts.
As per the agreement, the land was leased out for 25 years at an annual rate of 21,000 Indian rupees ($279) per acre.
"In the beginning, there was no co-ordination between the farmers and each one was trying to make sense of the proposal individually," said Paramesha Naik, an environmental science professor at Bangalore University.
Naik also advises the farmers' association and was brought in as a member although he has not leased land to the park.
"Many progressive farmers saw the need to come together and wanted me on board as I have been researching on renewable energy," he said. "Concerns of damage to the land, water and environment have always been at the back of people's minds."
Registered in 2018, the association - which currently has more than 500 members - has a clear mandate: to safeguard the interests of local communities and guarantee promises are kept.
In December, it held an emergency meeting after one of the solar companies mortgaged farmers' land lease documents to obtain a bank loan.
"If we hadn't been vigilant, this would have gone unnoticed," said R N Akkalappa, acting president of the group.
Akkalappa was one of the few who gave up 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.
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.
Initially, there were no representatives of villagers who had leased their land at discussions about the park organised by district administration and energy officials, he added.
"After the association was formed, things have changed a little. Now we are invited to some meetings and we get a chance to talk about our concerns," he added.
The barbed wire, fences and walls that separate the solar park from the villagers that leased their land have also forced changes in their daily lives, researchers say.
Saldanha said pretty much each individual in every family had been affected "in some way".
"Now a tractor has to travel a longer distance to reach a farm because the solar park is fenced. It means girls can't take a short cut to school. The festivities, (the) neighbourhood banter is lost," he said.
"All that remains is houses between solar panels."
Association members have flagged the challenges they face in numerous representations to district authorities.
In letters penned last year, the group demanded an uninterrupted power supply to villages adjoining the solar park, improved drainage, a drinking water supply and better facilities at the local school.
"The roads inside the solar park and leading to it are all nice and broad, but the roads inside our villages are terrible," said Malla Reddy, a lawyer whose family gave 93 acres for the park, noting village roads were still in disrepair after being damaged by trucks carrying heavy loads during construction.
A key demand of the farmers' group has been their inclusion in a high-level committee set up to develop the villages near the park.
Under corporate social responsibility obligations, the solar firms must contribute to a fund established for that purpose.
The association has repeatedly flagged delays in approval and misuse of the money, commonly referred to as "solar funds" by villagers.
Tumkur deputy commissioner, Y S Patil, who is on the committee and oversees work sanctioned by the funds, said so far 635 million rupees ($8 million) had been earmarked for the five villages.
"The focus is on basic infrastructure like water supply, drains and also on improving education facilities," Patil said, adding that most of the work was ongoing.
The association has also been promised a bigger role in decision-making about how the cash will be spent in future.
"All our members have been told to keep a close eye on the quality and quantity of work that just began a few weeks back," Naik said.
"If it is not what was promised to us, we are ready to agitate, lobby, hold talks," he added. "Our efforts to get a higher rent for the land also continues. Everyone's future has to be secure."
($1 = 75.2610 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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