In 2015, at the Paris COP21, Prime Minister Modi presented the International Solar Alliance (ISA) with a pledge to develop 100 GW in solar projects by 2022. In 2018, Macron and Modi launched ISA in India and inaugurated a solar park participated by Engie in Uttar Pradesh . In 2021, TotalEnergies, the French oil and gas giant acquired a 20% stake and a seat on the board of directors of Adani Green Energy and bowed to deepen its alliance with the Adani Group . As of 2022, however, India has installed 48,5 GW of solar power, but has recently set an objective of 500 GW of renewables by 2030, including 280 GW of solar . The Government, through the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), is prioritizing the development of solar power in the form of large solar parks and ultra mega solar power plants over 500 MW to lower the cost per energy unit and transmission losses. According to the MNRE, Solar Parks also speed up development by simplifying land acquisition and land use change permissions. In 2016, MNRE identified “large chunks of land” available to develop up to 34 Solar Parks with 20 GW of capacity before 2020, many of them in Rajasthan .
In this national context, Adani Green Energy and Rajasthan’s government, in the hands of the BJP at the time, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2015 to develop up to 10 GW of solar power plants in 10 years to exploit Rajasthan’s solar irradiation resource . The projects would be developed by Adani Renewable Energy Park Rajasthan Ltd (AREPRL), a joint venture (50:50) between Adani Green Energy and Rajasthan’s Renewable Energy Corporation Ltd (RRECL) . The MoU recorded the Government of Rajasthan’s wish to “reduce the adverse effects of fossil fuels on the environment and augment the available production, resources, and supply of electricity [...] to develop Rajasthan as a global hub for Solar Energy”. The Government would provide assistance for private investments, and facilitate “Government land” for the placement of the projects . The largest Solar Park constructed by AREPRL, Fatehgarh Solar Park, is located near Nedan village, in the west of the state and has sparked a land conflict with the local population.
Nedan inhabitants consider the contested land where the park has been built ‘Khatedari’, land which is legally owned by the government of Rajasthan but grants farmers certain rights under Rajasthan Tenancy Rights Act of 1955 . The local population have traditionally used the land for agriculture, grazing and funerals and has placed “a water tank, a school, a temple and an oran (sacred land)” on it . In contrast, Rajasthan’s government considers the land “wasteland”, deeming it appropriate for solar power development and avoiding the liability of compensation to land users . Marginalised communities, including dalits and adivasis, are commonly landless in India because of their difficulties to formalise historical use rights and are forced to use government land to sustain themselves . In 2006, Rajasthan’s government ran a scheme to allocate land titles to inhabitants of Nedan, for which neighbours had to pay bribes to the authorities to get through the bureaucracy. However, in 2009, after the state government set the rules to lease land for renewable energy projects, the scheme was folded without giving any rights to the villagers .
Protests have also highlighted the threat the projects put on the survival of the Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), locally called godawan, the state bird of Rajasthan. The solar park overlaps the habitat of the endangered species, of which only 150 individuals are estimated to exist today. And several individuals have been killed after landing on power lines that cross the landscape to evacuate the energy produced in the solar parks .
Already in 2015, Adani had already eyed land in Nedan to build the Fatehgarh solar park . Non-incidentally in 2017, the denomination of the leased land had just been changed from agricultural to barren making way for the solar park. In 2018, the Rajasthan government allocated 990 hectares of public “wasteland” to Adani Green Energy for Rs130 million ($1,6 million) . The local population went to the judiciary to fight back against what they considered a land grab. In 2018, the Rajasthan High Court accepted the arguments of the local villagers and ruled that part of the area allocated to Adani should be brought back for communal use . In 2021, the Supreme Court of India, in response to a public interest litigation initiative, ruled that all power transmission lines in the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard should be laid underground, including the one for Adani’s solar park .
But the judicial success has only been limited, and all efforts to cancel the project have failed. In 2020, once construction was underway, local farmers brought a case to stop the development of the park to the Rajasthan High Court denouncing the land requalification as illegal. The case was dismissed . In 2021, a Public Interest Litigation was filed to cancel the allotment of another plot of land for the construction of another phase of the solar park that overlapped with an ecologically-sensitive catchment area. The petition was again dismissed by the Rajasthan High Court, and the petitioners were ordered to pay Rs50,000 ($615) . Local villagers have denounced that unknown men have offered them jobs in the power plant if they withdrew the court cases. Once the cases were lost, the job offers were pulled back .
Similar land issues and conflicts are sparking across India in the wake of the rush to develop ultra mega solar power projects. In other locations, some protesters, feeling abandoned by the judiciary and the government in the face of large multinationals, have turned to sabotage and damage of solar power plants to demand fair compensation . In this light, it is understandable that the MoU between Adani and the Rajasthan government includes clauses ensuring 24/7 security personnel, CCTV and compound wall and fencing to protect the development .
In 2021, after the setback of their judicial resistance, local villagers staged a protest in front of a government building in Karada. The protesters were supported by BJP members, at the time in the opposition in Rajasthan. They were denouncing that the industrial development was taking away ‘Khatedari’ land on which their livelihood depended and that company workers “misbehaved” when local women protested the development . In December 2022, local activists organised the Oran Bachao Yatra, a march that covered 300km and 40 villages in the Jaisalmer region to demand the protection of orans from green energy projects. The protesters ended their march handing in the seventh letter to the Jaisalmer District Collector demanding that orans, most of which continue to be listed as “wasteland”, be recognised as communal land and be protected as deemed forests .
Sumer Singh, a herder and one of the leaders of the march said “Development should happen but not like this. Trees are cut overnight. Some of these trees are hundreds of years old. What will happen to us? This is our livelihood” .(See less)