Pavagada (Karnataka): It was in 1983 that Pavagada, a hilly town of less than 300,000 people bordering the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh came into national prominence.
Children, most of them girls under the age of five, began to disappear. Abducted in the dead of night from their homes and murdered, their remains were found with paw prints nearby. Wolves, once abundant in Pavagada, were blamed; caves were raided, and wolves killed en masse by villagers.
Wolves have not been spotted in Pavagada for some time now. Leopards and bears—these animals once roamed the rocky hills of this semi-arid region freely until the early 2000s—disappeared too.
According to the locals, these large fauna left when the Karnataka government allowed a mega solar park in Pavagada, functional since 2018, named Shakti Sthala or place of power, one of India’s biggest solar parks with a 2,050 MW capacity. The project was built on farmland obtained through an innovative model—13,000 acres, about a quarter the size of Kolkata city, were leased from farmers for 28 years at an annual rate of Rs 21,000 per acre for the first five years with a 5% increase after every two years subsequently.
Five villages—Thirumani, Vallur, Balasamudra, Rayacharlu and Kyathaganacherlu—falling under the Thirumani gram panchayat in Tumkur district gave land for the park: 1,948 farmers agreed to give their land.
Many large landholders in Pavagada taluk, one of Karnataka’s most backward, became wealthy overnight by leasing their land to Karnataka Solar Power Development Corporation Limited (KSPDCL), a special purpose vehicle (SPV) created by merging the Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd (KREDL) and the Solar Energy Corporation of India Ltd (SECI).
But livelihoods for small landholders and landless Dalits receded, as agricultural labour dried up. Some found lease payments for their small landholdings inadequate to sustain their families beyond a few months.
A Warning For India
Gopala of Rayacharlu was drying batches of red chillies on the road under the sweltering sun when Article 14 met her. Their two acres of land were leased, fetching them Rs 42,000 annually. “Can a family survive on that?” asked the 40-year-old.
Gopala continued to work as an agricultural labourer, earning a daily wage while her husband tended to the two acres they retained.
Pavagada’s solar park is one of approximately 40 similar projects approved in locations across India, part of India’s solar mission to gradually move away from coal-based energy and to meet India’s ambitious renewable energy targets.
As India surges ahead to fulfil its renewable energy ambition of 500GW by 2030, more large renewable energy projects are expected to come up. With barren land scarce, these large projects are often pushed on to farmlands that provide thousands with livelihood.
The Karnataka government enabled easier ‘acquisition’ of land for the solar park by bypassing lengthy processes mandated by the 2015 law guaranteeing citizens fair compensation for such land. The government sidestepped the law entirely, opting for a land-pooling solution, leasing land from farmers for a fixed period.
The leasing of their lands was presented to Pavagada’s farmers in the acutely drought-prone region as a viable option to farming, and some farmers Article 14 spoke to said they agreed to lease their lands because Pavagada had received scanty rainfall in the years prior to the park’s construction.
Mahesh, an organic farmer who refused to part with his agricultural land, told us that some village elders were regretting the decision to give away their land. Women, especially those belonging to marginalised communities, said they had lost their livelihood along with the land.
A Gendered Impact On Livelihood
Besides the annual lease amount, some men also found employment in the solar park. The women of Pavagada, and especially Dalit women, suffered the hardest blow.
Narayanamma of Achamanahalli village near Thirumani left home every morning, herding her cattle to a grazing ground 3 km away, returning late in the evenings. A mother of eight daughters, Narayanamma owned 200 sheep, five cows, a bull, and a ram. She owned two acres of land in Thirumani that were leased out.
“If only I had a son, we could have got a job at the solar park,” Narayanamma said.
Hundreds of women farmers in Pavagada faced similar circumstances, their farm-based livelihoods lost.
Farmers claimed that one of the oral agreements made by officials during the land acquisition process was to provide employment in the solar park to every household that leased their land. A household like Narayanamma’s, however, simply did not qualify for the incentive as there was no able male member who could apply for the job.
Her husband Kithappa could not, for he had to take their sheep into the solar park for grazing. While shepherds, male or female, were initially not allowed into the park area by the solar energy companies, some companies later allowed only male shepherds to enter.
KSPDCL officials said they were not aware of this development and did not support such a policy.
During the installation of the solar park, according to Narayanamma’s daughter Manjula, when officials denied them entry, Narayanamma had to migrate with her livestock for a few months to a village where the animals could graze.
The loss of the villagers’ traditional grazing grounds was pointed out by members of Environment Support Group (ESG), a Bengaluru-based non-profit that studied the impact of the solar park on Pavagada’s people as part of a Harvard Kennedy School-supported project. There was distress sale of livestock during the installation period, according to ESG.
The women were particularly affected, they found. “For women, having goats and sheep is like having cash in the bank. They can sell a goat or sheep when there is a financial emergency,” said Bhargavi Rao, a trustee of ESG. “That ready cash is gone. Access to land is gone.”
Despite the KSPDCL’s claim that around 50% of land lessors were women farmers, villagers said not a single woman from among them was employed at the park.
Men found work as security guards, solar panel washers and as labourers cutting wild grass. Among the men too, there were complaints that the better jobs had been bagged by migrants.
For the women, with farms leased to the park, work was difficult to come by. Most sought respite in daily wage farm jobs like plucking tomatoes in villages in Anantapur, in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh, about 20 km east.
At 6 am every day, over 50 women from Vallur, in Pavagada taluk, boarded a pick-up van to Anantapur to do odd jobs for a daily wage of Rs 200.
How The Land Acquisition Law Was Side-Stepped
General manager of KSPDCL N Amarnath said the company opted for a lease model to acquire land to protect the “sentiments” of locals towards their land.
Amarnath told Article 14 that land acquisition was a time-consuming process.
“Since it is a lease model, we have not forced anyone to part with their lands. Some have, while some haven’t,” he said, calling it “reassuring” that the land would continue to be in their names and would be returned to them after 28 years.
However, criticism by experts suggested the lease model actually helped the company bypass rules stipulated by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR Act) 2015, including the preparation and publication of a social impact assessment study and public hearings during this process.
“Every land acquisition has to follow a proper procedure under the Act,” said Rao. These included affected members of the community being notified, public hearings conducted, land valued based on its natural assets, the number of animals grazing on the land, etc
With its focus on fair compensation and due process, sections 4, 5 and 6 of the LARR Act mandate conducting a study assessing the social impact of the proposed project, holding a public hearing during this assessment, and publication of this assessment. Under section 7, this study must then be evaluated by an independent group of experts. Under section 16, a comprehensive resettlement plan is prepared for those whose lands are to be acquired, which is then to be reviewed, approved and made public. It is a time-consuming process.
Land for the solar park could also have been acquired under the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development (KIAD) Act, 1966, if there had been “any principled planning” for the state’s renewable energy generation, according to Rao. Communities, however, preferred the LARR Act for its provisions protecting their interests. “In the case of Pavagada, both these Acts were bypassed,” she said.
Moreover, in 2012, the ministry of environment, forests & climate change (MOEF&CC) took renewable energy parks out of the purview of the environmental clearance process, based on the assumption that solar parks are inherently good.
The ESG challenged this in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) the same year. “The NGT ordered MOEF&CC to revisit their decision but they did not do it and instead, reinforced their decision repeatedly in complete disregard to the NGT order which is actually contempt of court,” said Rao.
Land in Pavagada was taken by gently persuading people to part with their parcels. Had they notified people that more than 12,000 acres were to be acquired, “there surely would’ve been some resistance from people or they would’ve atleast been in a better position to negotiate”, said Rao.
KSPDCL was seeking the land on lease, itself not a violation of law and requiring no public notification to be sent out or public hearing conducted. Instead, the SPV hired retired government revenue officials who belonged to the region and knew the landscape and were respected by the people, to gently coerce farmers into giving land, said Rao. Farmers Article 14 spoke to also confirmed that the land deals were explained to them by retired officials.
The overall principle of the Act was to protect the people from being dislocated and support them in times of land acquisition. “By sidestepping the Act, the state has blatantly attacked the lives and livelihoods of the people of Pavagada,” said Leo Saldanha, coordinator of ESG.
Not only their farms but also the pathways that women used were taken away from them, said Saldanha, forcing the women into a manner of home imprisonment. Traditional pathways through farmlands and hills are important for the safe movement of women and children. Taking these away was “nothing less than violence”, Saldanha said.
Many studies (here, here and here) on the impact of large-scale land acquisition (LSLAs) for mega projects have noted the impact of the loss of land and traditional livelihood activities on women, making them more dependent on men as compensation paid for land is often vested with men.
The Rights and Resources Institute, a global coalition of organisations dedicated to advancing the forestland and resource rights of indigenous peoples, analysed the impact of LSLA on women in various countries, and reported that land transactions have led to a rise in women’s labour burden, reduced incomes for women and contributed to their exclusion from spaces of consultation and decision-making.
Marginalised Affected The Most
Mache Hanumantha of Vallur, a Dalit, said he lost a two-acre farm that his family had worked on for generations.
He accused the solar park of grabbing his land since he did not possess a title deed. The land had been handed over to them by a landlord they used to work for, and neither he nor his father had felt the need to formalise the transaction. Their land lost, his wife Manjula’s meagre earnings from plucking tomatoes in others’ farms barely managed to feed their six young children.
A study titled Gendered impacts of large-scale land acquisitions in Western Ethiopia by Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research and Engagement (FLARE), a network of stakeholders to advance the knowledge at the intersection of forests and livelihoods, pointed to women being affected by food shortages as they often eat less or skip meals altogether because of their responsibility to feed the entire family, affecting their nutrition.
The free, prior and informed consent of every community member was missing in Pavagada. At multiple stakeholder meetings conducted prior to the installation of the solar park, women’s representation was negligible, said villagers.
Akkalappa, in his thirties and a resident of Kyathaganacherlu, leased 15 acres to the solar park. He said women owned land in his family, but all decisions were taken by men. The women land-owners of his family did not participate in the stakeholder meetings.
Pinaki Halder, national director of programmes (India) for Landesa, a non-profit that works with governments and other organisations to secure land rights for the rural poor, said the missing voices of women was apparent from the conception to the execution of the park project.
“I felt there has not been any sincere attempt on the part of authorities to understand the women’s relationship with their land or what it meant to take away its access from them,” said Halder.
The safety of women and children is often overlooked while planning projects such as this solar park, said researcher Priya Pillai, who studies the socio-ecological impact of various energy systems in India.
In Pavagada, many migrants were employed during the installation of the solar park which made village women feel insecure. Citing data from a survey in Angul in Odisha where an increase in the number of unwed mothers was recorded in the years after the setting up of the Talcher Thermal Power Station in that state, Pillai said sexual exploitation of women and young girls had been reported from coal mining areas.
“We cannot say the same about Pavagada due to a lack of study or data, but during my visits, women confessed to me that they felt insecure about strange men in their villages,” said Pillai. “Women in villages perceive danger from men they do not know.”
(Arathi Menon is an independent journalist based in Mysore, Karnataka. She writes on issues related to environment and gender.)