Pavagada Solar Park

As we drove on the untarred road, passing through brick walls sparsely covered with cow dung cakes, we reached the village of Valluru. A rather sunny day in January 2019. It was here that I gained a good understanding of the upcoming solar park. Having been on the field since the early hours of the morning, driving from one village to the other grasping the scale of the solar park that was unfolding, a stop for a much needed sip of tea finally seemed possible. A small shop lining the village road with gutkha, paan, shampoo and other colourful sachets hanging on a string running across the shop drew our attention.

As we stopped near the shop, a few middle aged men and youth were seen emerging from their homes on the streets adjacent to the shop. A few headed towards the shop asking for beedis, while some children were buying coloured sweets and other savouries kept in plastic jars with bright red lids. A plastic cover full of buns and biscuit packets hung close to the table top where the tea and coffee were being made. An old vessel sitting on a broken kerosene stove propped up with bricks was brewing tea. Paper cups were lined waiting for the tea to be poured.

The young men were quiet at first and exchanged notes among themselves referring to us and muttering company people. No mobile phones, no blaring FM radio or video screens. No one seemed to be in a hurry, appeared like there was nothing to do and nowhere to go and nothing much to finish by sundown. Perhaps the night would be lit by the moon and the flickering street light on the inclined pillar opposite the shop with nobody on the road.

Our request for tea came with a packet of Parle G biscuits to endure hunger and then the silence broke with a ‘Namaskara!’, a typical greeting when you meet someone for the first time. Once the introductions were done, and as we sipped our tea, a sigh of relief emanated from the people around us, as they realised we were not the company people as they had anticipated.

Caste continues to divide, as it does in every sphere of life in the country and its culture. The little shop stood at the end of a street and the young men referred to the area constantly as colony. This was the part of the village which housed people of lower and scheduled castes. The challenges faced by the people were multi-layered. We learnt that most of the people in the colony only had about 1 to 1.5 acres of land and that they had leased it to the solar park. In return they got Rs.21,000 per acre per year and the payments had been coming in promptly every year. Many were joint families with three generations living under one roof and dependent on that little money that had to be stretched to feed all mouths and in many families disputes over land had already disturbed the social fabric that had held them together.

While we were deep in conversation with those in the tea-stall, women were transferring pots of water that were tied to a bicycle which brought filled-pots from the main village. Drinking water was a major challenge for the people in the colony as they depended on a tank on their street for the water needs. But this water was not potable, forcing many to walk a mile into the main village to buy water from the RO facility at a rate of Rs. 5/- per pot. Those who could not afford it, or were physically unable to walk long distances, had to depend on the mucky water from the tank. There were no other sources close by. Coupled with this, the region also has very high fluoride content in water causing chronic skeletal fluorosis disease – a condition that causes disability in young children and senior citizens.

The tea-stall conversations addressed many aspects. One of them were about the local economy and employment. The local communities depended on the palm strings and other shrubs on the their lands to weave baskets besides growing some Ragi (finger millet) and grazing animals. As we stood there talking about their farmland, a few middle aged women passed by carrying firewood, sourced from the land being cleared and levelled for the solar park. The men also shared how they had to sell their cattle and sheep as there was no land to graze them. The village had lost its grazing pastures too.

We learnt that only a few young men had managed to get jobs as daily wage labourers for a payment of Rs.400 per day at the solar installation sites. Many had left the village to work as taxi drivers and security guards in Bangalore. Jobs through the MNREGA were few. The village had an anganwadi close by for the children but the primary school was far they shared. One of them quickly added that’s why most children here hardly go to school. One of the senior men added “there has been no ‘development’ here for the last three generations and poverty, obliviousness and lack of education rules in this area.” There were many in  the village who had not even travelled as far as Bangalore according to one of the men.This also reminded me that Pavagada taluk had been in the news for the sale of baby girls and trafficking of adolescent girls.

With no land, no jobs, and an income that is hardly enough, how does one decide which bills to pay and what to buy on priority? ‘The first few months when the money arrives is all about paying debtors and very little is left to spend on food and other utilities’ said an old man. Often, much of the money is also spent on marrying off the daughters at a young age.

With very little money left in hand, the electricity bill is often the first to be defaulted. This means access to a basic lighting, and charging of a simple mobile phone is compromised. An LPG refill is far from possible and in many homes the last of the LPG cylinders used served as a basket stand. Expenditure on food is often minimal when incomes fall and with the main nutrition being rice or ragi, the staples, little money is left for protein or vegetables. The region already has very high anaemia rates among women according to the National Family Health Survey 2019-20 and the lack of a balanced meal is troubling as it can have serious impacts on the health indicators.

Valluru is a village located in Pavagada Taluk, Tumkur District, Karnataka. As per the 2011 census, about 590 families reside here with a population of 2448, of which 1285 are males and 1163 are females. Population of children with age 0-6 is 236 which makes up 9.64 % of total population of village. Average Sex Ratio of Valluru village is 905 which is lower than Karnataka state average of 973. Child Sex Ratio for the Valluru as per census is 1000, higher than the Karnataka average of 948. Valluru village has lower literacy rate of around 58.95 % compared to the state average of 75.36 %. Male literacy stands at 70.01 % while female literacy rate was 46.60 %. The village has a substantial population of Schedule Caste (SC) constituting 27.08 % while Schedule Tribe (ST) were 11.81 % of total population. Out of the total population, 1275 were engaged in work activities. 59.45 % of workers describe their work as main work (Employment or earning more than 6 Months) while 40.55 % were involved in marginal activity providing livelihood for less than 6 months. Of 1275 workers engaged in main work, 505 were cultivators (owner or co-owner) while 184 were agricultural labourers.

Leafing through the field notes, this annotated page in particular is very worrying. Over the last 2 years the pandemic has devastated life everywhere and changed the social order. While the rich can plan to leave the pandemic affected planet for a few minutes into zero gravity with space travel, the poor are grappling for breath every minute.

A few years back, when several investors convened in Delhi to strategize on renewable energy for India, our Prime Minister and the companies from across the world to our own Indian companies pledged to double India’s energy capacity and promised to add 250,000 MW of renewable energy. In 2019, our Prime minister committed to increase India’s renewable energy target to 450 GW as part of a stronger climate action plan. And at the G20 summit this year Modi concluded his address by saying “For humanity to prosper, every single individual must prosper.”

It leaves one wondering how the installation of the 2000 MW solar park in Pavagada has helped every single individual in its immediate vicinity. The quality of life for people in Valluru was already bad and now is probably worse. As impacts of climate change are wrecking our cities, towns and villages, and as they are grappling with all these changes, it is time to revisit some of the recent decisions on our energy needs.

While the mining of minerals to make the photo voltaic cells is a major environmental concern, the zero emission solar energy is gaining momentum to be in compliance with the Paris agreement. But this conversion should not be at anyone’s expense. A serious evaluation of the local environment and the local community situation in areas where such solar parks are installed are essential. Exempting solar power parks from the process of environmental clearance has done tremendous damage to the society around such parks. Just ensuring land availability, installation of transmission lines, grid availability, industry friendly auctions and tariffs have been the focus. But there are no measures to ensure no one is left behind. 

It is fundamental to respect the needs of the local communities and the involvement of local governments is crucial. There is no one size fits all approach with every region being different in its geography, topography, land use patterns, livelihood, ecology, soil quality and water availability. It is important to go back to the drawing board and explore innovative ways to involve local communities in energy production. This will help find ways in which they can be embraced back onto their own lands such as in Valluru, to be part of a system that can help create livelihoods, ensure food security, conserve water and generate clean energy.

Picture courtesy: LA Times on Twitter

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