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Government-held lands that communities across India use for livelihood are now becoming the next frontier of land conflicts. (Photo: PTI)
Government-held lands that communities across India use for livelihood are now becoming the next frontier of land conflicts. (Photo: PTI)

How solar farms fuel land conflicts

  • India’s solar dreams require large tracts of land. Now, rural communities are pushing back
  • In the absence of a legal framework to resolve disputes, conflicts rage on. The problem is showing up in the govt’s bid to promote solar parks because they need large tracts of land

About two years ago, when Chanesar Khan first heard that a company will build a new solar park spread over 989 hectares of land, which he and others in western India’s Nedan village had been using to grow food and to graze their animals, he boarded a bus to meet a lawyer in Jaisalmer district—80km away. Together, over the next couple of months, they organized fellow villagers and filed a petition in the Rajasthan High Court challenging the allotment of the land to the plant. Around the same time, one Barkat Khan, along with another set of villagers in Nedan, filed a similar petition in the court.

But in November 2019, the court dismissed both the cases, following which Chanesar and Barkat filed appeals in the same court. Then, on 8 September, the court heard Barkat’s appeal and ordered status quo on the land until a further hearing. All construction on the 1500 MW Fatehgarh Ultra Mega Solar Park being built by Adani Renewable Energy Parks Rajasthan—a joint venture of Adani Green Energy and the Rajasthan government—has come to a halt.

“My grandfather first began to use this land. Our entire family depended on this land," says Chanesar Khan. His appeal is pending a hearing.

Most of the 1500 families in Nedan, many of whom are landless and belong to marginalised communities, traditionally depended on the land, which is now under litigation, to earn their living. But the Rajasthan government says it controls the land and refers to it as wasteland. And that is why it has identified 94,936 hectares of such government-held land in Jaisalmer alone for renewable projects, ignoring its long-time users like the communities in Nedan, whom the government calls encroachers because they don’t have legal titles over these lands.

Nedan’s case illuminates how these government-held lands that communities across India use for livelihood are now becoming the next frontier of land conflicts. In the early to late-2000s, conflicts raged in India’s forest and agricultural lands and eventually resulted in the 2013 Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. But that act provided for rehabilitation only when private land was acquired. It does not address a situation where government-held land is being retained, said Gopal Sankaranarayanan, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court who handles land-related cases.

As a result, in the shadow of many upcoming solar projects, local communities, which are mostly landless and marginalised, demand titles over the lands, and compensation if they are displaced. They say that the land belongs to them because they use it. Some of them have begun to approach the courts; others protest or break solar equipment in their quest for compensation.

In the absence of a legal framework to resolve these disputes, conflicts rage on. The problem is now showing up more prominently in the government’s bid to promote solar parks because they need large tracts of land.

“If there is no land title, there is no compensation," said Govabhai Rathod, convenor of the Zameen Adhikar Jumbesh in Gujarat, which is organising state-wide protests against allotment of government-held lands to large-scale projects. “The government does not care who is dependent on the land. That is why there is a need for a movement."

“If the revenue law (which applies to government-held lands) of the state does not make any provision for people who are staying on revenue land, it is necessary for a person who is staying on that land to challenge that law," Sankaranarayanan, the lawyer, said.

Meanwhile, India’s solar foray is only accelerating. So far, the Indian government has granted approvals to 34 ultra-mega solar parks across the country to meet its solar energy target of 100 GW by 2022. In states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which are leading the push for solar parks due to their high sun intensity, the most freely available land is government-held land.

Piling court cases

In Rajasthan alone, communities have filed at least 15 cases since 2011 against solar projects. In Madhya Pradesh’s Neemuch district, people of multiple communities protested when a solar plant took a portion of the land on which they depended. In Gujarat, a solar plant at Charanka disrupted the traditional grazing routes of agro-pastoralist shepherd communities. These conflicts also irk the project developers because they delay the completion of solar projects which then adds to the overall project cost.

Many surveys have flagged this problem. In 2012, when solar parks were just taking off in India, a joint survey by the National Resources Development Centre and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, found that most of the solar projects “are in remote locations where the primary contentious issues are conflicting land claims and land allocation for grazing." The report by the two policy research institutes added, “as the solar energy market matures, it is critical that government policies and (private) developers minimise the impact on the local communities."

One way to avoid disputes is to make sure “that the land which is being used for solar should not be productive. It should be just wasteland," says Ashvini Kumar, former managing director of the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI), a government of India body that builds solar parks. However, the state governments make little distinction between government-held land and unused wasteland.

“There are (still) large questions about renewable energy," said Kanchi Kohli, a researcher with the Centre for Policy Research. “If you’re setting it up to address energy security and the environment, but at the same time if it’s built on creating social injustice, how do you call it legitimate?"

The ministry of new and renewable energy, Rajasthan’s renewable energy department and the representatives of the Adani Group did not respond to the queries sent to them by email and phone.

Land for the landless

Nedan is 100 km, as the crow flies, from the Pakistan border, and 60 km by road from Pokhran, the site of India’s first nuclear weapons test. Chanesar Khan’s grandfather got about a hectare of land in Nedan during the land-settlement surveys before India’s independence. Over time, as his family grew, they started to use the vacant land in the village to cultivate pearl millets and sorghum. Other families in the village—a mix of Dalits, Rajputs and Muslims—also did the same. Although most families are landless, socially powerful ones used more land than the powerless to earn their livelihood.

Then, sometime in 2006, the Rajasthan government put out advertisements for a scheme to allot land to landless families in Jaisalmer, according to Chanesar Khan’s court petition. People, including those in Nedan, paid bribes to make the appropriate documents to be able to get land titles, remembers Bheru Singh, former sarpanch of Nedan.

The following year, the state government issued its first set of rules to lease government land to renewable energy developers. But in 2009, the government abruptly cancelled the scheme to allot land to the landless, leaving the villages without titles to the land that they used. This was the reason the Rajasthan High Court had given when it dismissed Nedan’s petitions last year, saying that the villagers have no prior right to the land because the state had cancelled the scheme.

But Motisingh Rajpurohit, Barkat Khan’s lawyer, says other issues are involved. Part of the land that the Rajasthan government allotted to the solar park was earmarked for agricultural use, and the state changed its classification to barren land in 2017, a year before allotting it to Adani. And the other part of the land allotted to the park, Rajpurohit says, was commonly used by the villagers for grazing their cattle and for funerals.

What has made matters worse for communities that depend on government-held lands is the failure of land reforms to redistribute land to landless communities. An IndiaSpend report found that 5% of farmers control 32% of agricultural land in India. And that more than half of the rural households, mostly dalits and adivasis, do not own any agricultural land, driving them to use government-held lands.

That is why landless communities including dalits have led movements in various states to demand land rights. “Until recently, marginalised communities have not had the chance to pay attention to documentation," said Neeraj Bunkar, an independent land researcher in Rajasthan. “They might have historical rights to the land, but they don’t have the papers to prove it. This is what makes them vulnerable."

Energy and land conflict

Like Rajasthan, which has the highest sun intensity and also the largest proportion of government-held land, solar projects are coming up in several other states. Gujarat has already commissioned 2,080 MW solar plants, Madhya Pradesh has commissioned 2,324 MW, and Karnataka has commissioned 7,295 MW, according to Bridge to India, a consultancy firm. Some of these states are also at the heart of an emerging new terrain of land-related contestation.

In 2014, when the 1600 MW Welspun solar plant took over the land in four villages of Madhya Pradesh’s Neemuch district, adivasis and nomadic communities who depended on that government-held land for their livelihood protested. Fifteen people who led the protest were arrested. Most of them didn’t get jobs in the plant, Frontline reported.

In Gujarat’s Charanka, 600 MW solar park has cut off a semi-nomadic shepherd community from their customary migratory routes. The government interacted with the higher caste groups to develop this park, excluding other castes and their interests, says Ryan Stock, an assistant professor from the University of Northern Michigan who has researched on the Charanka solar park.

In Kerala, villagers protested against the Kasaragod Solar Park that was coming up on community-used land, and got the government to scale its capacity down from 200 MW to 50 MW. In Rajasthan’s Bhadla village, construction of a solar park is stuck because the communities who were using the land demanded compensation to relocate, according to a report in Mercom India, a Bengaluru-based clean energy consulting firm.

In the 15 cases that communities in Rajasthan had filed against solar plants in the state’s high court, the court dismissed nine of the cases. Two cases were declared unnecessary because the solar plant had already been built. In one of the orders, the court noted, “Renewable energy is the mantra of the day because it is environmentally friendly."

In Nedan, Chanesar Khan alleges that some unknown men offered to give him a job in the solar park if he withdrew his case. Two others from the village confirmed of similar offers made to them. But after the high court dismissed the petitions the first time, the job offers also dried up, he says.

Paying dissenting individuals is part of the process of taking actual possession of the land that the government leases out to the project developers, says a private solar developer who didn’t want to be identified because he has active projects in the state. At least 12 of the 18 months allotted to developers for building solar plants go into sorting out land issues, and the delay adds to the overall project cost, the developer said. “This is a serious issue."

So, “it does help to have a clear legal framework to structure the negotiations because it is time-consuming for all parties involved and the ones who are most vulnerable are the ones that end up losing," says Arpitha Kodiveri, a research scholar at the European University Institute who studies environmental law.

In Nedan, some villagers have begun to sell their animals because they cannot access the grazing land. Chanesar Khan’s herd of goats is now down to 30 from 1000 last year. Khan worries, “If the court decision does not come in our favour, what will become of us?"

“If the government wants to do renewable energy right, this would be a good case in point," said CPR’s Kohli. “When dealing with an unresolved encroachment issue with complex use rights and ownership, the government will need a detailed assessment of the history of how land is used and how records have changed before it can actually determine a good compensation or rehabilitation package."

Mridula Chari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai

Sikandar Shaikh contributed to this story from Jaisalmer

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