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As the year comes to an end, the state of Karnataka feels proud of its renewable energy targets. And that it is on par with California when it comes to the generation and use of renewable energy. According to records, of the total 30,063 MW capacity of power generated, 7,334 MW is from solar, 4,823 MW from wind, 903 MW from mini-hydel projects, 1,731 MW from co-generation units and 3,798 from hydro projects. Karnataka boasts of 49.6% of energy from the renewable sources excluding hydro power.  It has made the state power surplus and the state now plans to sell power to other states.

Out of the 7,334 MW of solar power, 2000 MW is contributed by the utility scale Pavagada solar park that sprawls on about 13,000 acres of land. Smaller chunks of solar power come from an array of projects distributed under various categories. The Solar policy 2014-2021 besides aiming at achieving the target of 2000MW of solar power generation by 2021, also encouraged the development of utility scale solar projects through competitive bidding and 300 MW of feed in tariff based solar projects by farmers. It promoted grid connected rooftop solar projects with net metering and encouraged the off-grid solar street lights, rooftop solar systems and solar powered agricultural pump sets. Integrated solar parks, hybrid renewable energy projects, creation of land banks for development of solar projects under lease of land and supporting the deployment of grid connected canal top solar projects were some of its key highlights. The policy appears to have realised its persistence.

On a closer look at each of these solar parks, it is seen that a number of setbacks have been created by each of these. First of all, the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change considered solar parks to be harmless and removed them from the purview of environmental clearance mechanisms. This made it easy for solar power developers to install utility scale parks in many areas with little consideration to the adjoining landscapes.

A good case to understand the consequences of such solar parks, besides Pavagada, are the solar parks that have been set up in Chamarajanagar District of Karnataka. A total of 6 solar parks are commissioned in the district. These include Atria Solar Power with a commissioned capacity of 30 MW, Hero Solar energy Pvt Ltd with 3 commissioned capacity parks of 20 MW each, AMP Solar Solutions Pvt Ltd (Siemens Gamesa renewable Power Pvt Ltd) with a commissioned capacity of 30 MW and Wardha Solar (Maharashtra) Pvt Ltd, with a commissioned capacity of 50 MW as per the Details of Solar Power Project commissioned under various category in Karnataka

The district of Chamarajnagar lies in the southern tip of Karnataka State bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala with a geographical area of about 5,101 square kilometres. It consists of semi-arid and rain dependent flatlands along with forested hills of the Biligiri Ranga Hills, Male Mahadeshwara hills, Bandipur National park, the Cauvery wildlife Sanctuary, K gudi, Gopalaswamy hills, Shivasamudram and others. Lying in the eco-sensitive zone of the Cauvery wildlife sanctuary, it has been very easy for the solar power developers to obtain the No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from the concerned village panchayats and the forest departments.

Solar power parks being fenced do pose an obstruction to the wildlife in the region. The region is home to the Asiatic elephant and these parks lie in the Elephant corridor. The region is also home to a variety of other flora and fauna many of which like the grizzled giant squirrel are in threatened or vulnerable.

In addition to posing a risk to wildlife, the solar parks are a concern for the food security of the region. Many who were coerced into parting with the land, did not have the capacity to negotiate good deals due to speculative buying of land. The families of those who sold their land for the solar park were promised a job that was never realised. These families at least had household level food security from what little they managed to grow on their small chunks of land prior to selling them. They grew paddy, ragi, vegetables and fruits. The farm lands also had trees which were helpful in many ways in trying times. Now, with no land or work, it has become increasingly difficult to make ends meet for these families. Women bear the brunt of the impact, having to bring water, fuel, cook and take care of the young and old, as men migrate out looking for opportunities.

Besides providing electricity for lighting 24×7, the electricity produced through these parks have been of little help to the local community. They still have to struggle with the few hours of electricity available to pump water for agriculture and domestic purposes. Some of the common  grazing pastures are gone and the communities now walk long distances in search of fodder. A recent study on the status of natural resources, agriculture and climate emergency in Chamarajnagar District highlights how small and marginal farmers are abandoning, leasing or selling land, with the risk of having to buy what they used to grow.

Local benefits when planning such utility scale solar parks are largely disregarded. Social fragmentation, loss of farm jobs, services, local traditional knowledge and skills are widely snubbed when investing in such plans. Local communities are kept completely in the dark and are not part of any decision making. In the grand plan of decarbonising and increasing the share of renewable sources of energy arising from targets of the Paris Agreement, the local governance processes and mechanisms are completely avoided.

Rural livelihoods are increasingly exposed to climate impacts such as droughts, severe storms and more intense extremes of weather events which is introducing newer risks to the already vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society. The IPCC livelihood vulnerability index (LVI) approach is never used in planning while aiming for the targets. In a study conducted on the Vulnerability index of Karnataka  Chamarajanagar lies among the top five districts for socio-economic and livelihood vulnerability. 

This year’s Invest Karnataka Summit event is said to have brought Rs.72,000 crore investments into the state. Just a few years ago Chamarajanagar was identified to be the industrial park in the Badanaguppe-Kellamballi area. It was expected to bring prosperity to the backward district and everyone around it as it promised attracting businesses even from neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Unfortunately this project has failed to take off due to land pricing issues and better facilities across the border in Tamilnadu. 

Stepping into another new year, it is high time central and state agencies, regulatory authorities, investors, local communities and local governments, civil society and academia, and the media and general public address this conundrum of promoting renewable energy, particularly utility scale solar projects: in terms of who is financing, who benefits, who loses, and why all this must matter to the consumer. The massive international and private finance for this sector surely is a response to the climate change scenario. But is this truly an effort to support humanity without hurting the planet, or is this reckless development as has been the case with mega dams and coal fired power plants.

The story of Bandalli is indicative of where we might be headed in a few years, if we do not ask the difficult questions now. Destroying prime agricultural land and ecologically sensitive landscapes for renewables does have devastating social and environmental impacts. It will bring irreversible damage on health and well-being of local communities, particularly of women and children, as has been the case with other extractive forms of energy production. That the promotion of renewables, especially mega solar parks, is being promoted in the complete lack of involvement from the local governments and the local communities, should alert us to the undemocratic transition underway. Integrating water, energy, food, ecological and livelihood securities along with local community participation in decision making into the  various energy projects and policies is the way forward, even as holding financial actors accountable is imperative.

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