Venkataramappa walks through the barren field outside his home before proceeding on a dusty path that cuts across the makeshift bus stand on the way to the village square. He waves hellos to a group of people engrossed in a game of kavade (a game of chance played with cowry shells) and sets off before he can get a response. He turns a couple of corners after the local beedi shop where Nagaraju, the shop-owner can be heard haranguing with a customer for demanding credit. "Nagaraju was one of the people who leased his land for the solar project. He now takes care of the shop full-time," explains Venkataramappa, before crossing the main road to a cluster of tin-roofed houses. Beyond the houses is another barren stretch of land in which construction workers can be seen laying solar panels which glisten under the afternoon sun.
Venkataramappa, a 60-year-old farmer, is on his routine visit to see his plot of land in the fringes of Kyathaganacherlu village in Pavagada taluk of Tumakuru district in Karnataka, around 200 km north of Bengaluru. He is one of 3000 farmers who have leased their land for the construction of the 13,000-acre solar park being built in the area which aims to generate 2000 megawatt of power by 2020. The solar park, once completed, will encompass seven villages in Pavagada taluk - Venkatammanahalli, Kyathaganacherlu, Balasamudra, Rayacherlu, R. Acchammanahalli, Thirumani and Annadanapura - which have a combined population of around 10,000.
Solar Park in Pavagada in Tumakuru district of Karnataka.
Solar panels have already been installed in Kyathganacherlu and six developers are currently generating 600MW of power. It is part of Karnataka's contribution to the central government's ambitious scheme to generate 100 GW of solar power by 2022. The state now leads the country in solar power generation and once completed, the solar park in Pavagada will be one of the biggest of its kind in the world. The power generated from the park will be distributed to the various electricity distribution companies in the state and to the central power grid.
When the solar park in Pavagada began generating power earlier this year, Venkataramappa finally ceded to the requests of the government officials knocking at his doors. "Everyone around us had given up their land for the solar project. It did not make sense to keep holding on any longer," he says. But having given up the land for a moderate amount, farmers like him are unsure of their future.
A farmer grows tomatoes in Nagalmadike, close to the solar park in Pavagada.
Energising drought-prone areas
Pavagada, like the nine other taluks in Tumakuru district, is an arid, drought-prone area. The Karnataka government identified the villages in the taluk as the ideal spot for the solar power generation project but its ambitious plan ran into problems when the farmers in the region refused to give up their land for the project in spite of severe drought and crop loss over the last forty years.
Farmers like Venkataramappa were convinced that giving up their land meant giving up their way of life. "We used to grow groundnuts, tur and green gram when it rained and the solution to our problems was ensuring water supply to our farms and not a solar project," says Venkataramappa, pointing at the stretches of land around him.
A water-tank and check dam in Pavagada taluk has been without water for over a year.
A compromise was struck by the state government after it agreed to lease the land for a period of 28 years instead of buying it from the farmers. The solar park is being built by leasing land for a price of Rs. 21,000 per acre per year and then auctioning it to companies that develop solar power. After 25 years, the state government will either renew the existing land lease agreement or dismantle the panels, a process which could take up to three more years. “We do not know who will be in power after 25 years so we cannot comment on whether the government will dismantle the panels. If the private solar power developers can work out a way to continue their agreement with the farmers, they can continue developing solar power,” says an official of the Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited (KSPDCL), an entity formed in 2015 that is tasked with developing the park.
The Karnataka government has managed to lease over 12,700 acres of land out of the 13,000 acres required for the project. "The state (government) is looking at diversified sources of power generation and we are happy to have successfully convinced the farmers to give up their land on a lease basis. This is more remunerative for them as they have suffered crop losses due to lack of rains," says Rakesh Kumar, Tumakuru Deputy Commissioner. The state government, buoyed by the success of this strategy, is planning to adopt a similar strategy to acquire land for other pending projects in the state.
Solar park in Pavagada in Tumakuru district of Karnataka.
Resentment over lost agriculture
However, in Pavagada, farmers who gave away their land for the project are more aggrieved than government officials would like to believe. "This region was once the groundnut bowl of Karnataka. But today, farmers in the region have become alienated from their land. Few farmers with large plots of land are happy with the money paid to them but it is the small farmers who depended on the crops they grew that have been hit the most. Many small farmers gave up their land out of fear because they saw no other alternative after the plots around them were given away for the project," says Venkatesh, an activist with the Safai Karamchari Kavalu Samiti from Balasamudra village in Pavagada.
He believes that the state government exploited the predicament of the farmers in the region. "The offer was inviting because many farmers were in debt after suffering crop losses over the last few years. But ever since the project was implemented people have begun to leave Pavagada in search of work in places like Bengaluru," says Venkatesh, before adding, "We are told that the solar park is generating electricity but we do not have electricity at our own homes". Many farmers like Venkataramappa can be found whiling away their time in the beedi shop in their village unsure of what they will do next.
Watermelon and brinjal grown in Nagalmadike, close to the solar park in Pavagada.
A windmill project that allows farming to coexist
Less than 10 km away from the glistening solar panels of Kyathaganacherlu, Siddagangamma is busy picking chilli in her five-acre farm in Eguvapally, a village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, which borders Karnataka's Tumakuru district. Behind her Soorappa, a goat-herder guides a herd of 50 goats away from the chilli farm and towards a patch of grass near the main road leading to the village. A windmill turns noiselessly towering over the duo. Farmers in Eguvapally cannot help but contrast the solar project in Pavagada with the windmill project installed by the Andhra Pradesh government in their village. “We have seen farmers in and around our village give away their land for both projects,” says Siddagangamma.
The windmill occupies a corner of Siddagangamma’s farm and allows her to continue growing chilli and other crops like rice and black-eyed beans. "In the case of the solar project, the authorities have built a compound wall and there is no possibility of us going there and doing anything with the land, whereas in the windmill project, farmers can cultivate crops and coexist with the windmill," says Siddagangamma. Her words are echoed by Qasim, a farmer from nearby Venkatammanahalli who says that farmers are happy to give away a part of their land for the windmill to be set up. “The farmers were paid as much as Rs. 15 lakhs for a small part of their farm,” he says.
Chilli farming in Eguvapally in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh where windmills have been set up.
The Andhra Pradesh government identified areas in Anantapur district, which surrounds Pavagada on three sides, as ideal for setting up windmills. Winds blow at a velocity of 45 km/hour from April to September in this area which is less than 10 km away from the solar park in Pavagada.
The Karnataka government in 2017 revealed a plan to set up windmills in Pavagada. Then Energy Minister DK Shivakumar, who is seen as the architect of the solar project, revealed that the state government is working out a policy to set up windmills in the region mirroring the windmills set up by the Andhra Pradesh government in Anantapur district. However, the windmill project is yet to take off.
Soorappa (42), a goat-herder in Eguvapally says he has to walk kilometres in search of grass
Activists have also argued that large solar parks like the one in Pavagada should not be constructed without carrying out environmental impact assessments. In 2013, Leo Saldanha, an activist with the Environment Support Group (ESG) based in Bengaluru petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the diversion of grasslands for industrial projects including solar parks without environmental impact assessments. “Solar parks are causing intensive damage to the environment. It breaks up grasslands and agriculture lands. Grasslands sequester carbon more than forests and if they are diverted for solar projects, the rates of carbon sequestration in the region will also fall,” Saldanha explains.
Is solar the perfect solution?
The discussions surrounding the solar park come at a time Karnataka is facing a shortage of coal, that is affecting power production in the state. But in spite of the coal crisis, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy admitted that the state government is not considering solar power generation as the alternative. "We are self-sufficient throughout the day except between 5 pm and 10 pm. During these hours, we cannot rely on solar power so we will be looking at ways to generate electricity with hydel power even though earlier we were planning to conserve water for the dry months next year,” he told reporters in a press conference on October 26, on the side-lines of a meeting related to power generation in the state. The meeting came a week after Kumaraswamy wrote to Union Minister of Railways, Coal and Corporate Affairs, Piyush Goyal, appealing for supply of coal to the state amid a shortage of coal at the thermal power plants in Raichur and Ballari.
Solar panels being laid in Thirumani village in Pavagada.
This revelation by the Chief Minister has increased the criticism for the investment made on the solar park. “Large solar parks don’t make sense for our country since abundant land is not available. Decentralising solar makes the best sense. Solar panels can be set up on the top of buildings whether it is a hospital, hostel or hotel,” Harish Hande, founder of Solar Electric Light Company (SELCO) India, a social enterprise that provides sustainable energy solutions. Every megawatt of power requires up to five acres of land.
Harish further points out that maintaining a solar park needs water resources to clean the panels regularly, a cost that the officials at the park do not seem to have factored into their calculations. “A layer of dust will reduce the power generation of solar panels by as much as 30%. The panels will need to be cleaned regularly. Who calculates the cost of water? Simply installing a solar park does not make it a sustainable source of power. The government should take care of the whole system of power generation in a sustainable manner,” he adds.
Krishi Honda, a pit formed to retain rainwater in Bugadooru in Pavagada.
In the last two years, Pavagada received rains more than 600 mm only in October 2017. “That was the only month I can remember when the water tank in our village filled up. If there is no water for crop cultivation, where is the water coming from to maintain the solar panels?” asks Venkatesh, a question that remains unanswered by the officials at the solar park.
Even as the solar park in Pavagada quietly continues to generate power, farmers in the region are reconsidering their lives. While some have adapted to the change by opening a shop or by finding work inside the solar park as a driver or a security guard, many others are unsure whether they will get their land back after 25 years. “For now, the money being paid to us is sustaining us. We can pay off our loans and even think about buying a vehicle or other investments, but we don’t know what will happen next. We don’t know if we will be getting our land back in 25 years and if we do, whether we will be able to cultivate crops then,” says Venkataramappa.