A landscape once dotted with small sandstone houses and a scattered populace in an arid region of Rajasthan is now covered with large solar panels and tall windmills. Within a short span, “Golden City” Jaisalmer has been turned into a major hub of renewable energy projects.
In the last five years, Ashok Gehlot’s government has positioned itself as the leader of India’s transition to green energy through several policies. The State government brought in several relaxations and schemes under the Rajasthan Investment Promotion Scheme 2019, Solar Energy Policy 2019, and Renewable Energy Policy 2023 to incentivise power companies to set up shop in the State.
As many as 16 companies, including National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Azure Power, Aditya Birla Group, and LNB group, worked on just one solar park in Bhadla.
Giving a push for green projects ahead of the Assembly election on November 25, the Congress has emphasised renewable energy in its Rajasthan manifesto for 2023. From the integration of renewable energy sources at the distribution companies (discom) level to developing a renewable energy export strategy, there is a slew of promises.
Most of the renewable energy projects have come up in the western region, which spans the Thar desert and has abundant land due to low population density. The project hotspots include Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bhadla, Bikaner, Jalore, Pokhran, and Jodhpur.
In the context of elections, western Rajasthan is important as it boasts some of the big faces from State and national politics. Both Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the Union Minister for Jalshakti, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, are from Jodhpur.
This correspondent visited four villages in Jaisalmer district to understand the possible electoral impact of the green power projects in terms of the employment it offered to local people and the development of the region. The local people are angry at the government for allowing private power companies to lease common land that was used for grazing (gochar), as water catchment areas, and for nalas (drains) and talabs (ponds).
Anger on the ground
Behra Ram, 45, rued the day officials of a private company came to survey his village for installing wind turbine generators. He is the sarpanch of Dawara village, nearly 62 km from the city, and cultivates on 28.3 bigha (7.16 hectares) of land.
His agricultural land was part of the 874 hectares across 18 villages of Fatehgarh and Pokhran tehsils for Adani Green Energy Ltd’s (AGEL) hybrid solar (2x300 MW) and wind (151.2 MW) power project.
“I filed a case in the high court as my khatedari (ancestral agricultural tenancy) land was wrongly recorded as government land in revenue records. Even though the case is ongoing, the company took my land without my consent,” said Behra Ram.
As per Rajasthan Land Revenue (Allotment of Land for Agricultural Purposes) Rules, 1970, cultivators like Behra Ram, whose khatedari rights conferred between 1970 and 1972 were subsequently revoked, are eligible for regularisation. His lawyer Sumer Singh Rathore is fighting a similar case for another client from the same village.
There are also cases where villagers could not access private land because the land around it was leased out to a company. Then there are cases where allotted government land is being cultivated by farmers after paying an annual trespassing (TP) fine.
The lands allotted for projects, which include grazing land, land covered with sacred trees (orans), and lands with drains, rivers, and ponds, were recorded as “wasteland” to make the acquisition process easy. Of Dawara’s 1,363 people, as per Census 2011, at least 168 work as cultivators and are affected since they depend on irrigation.
Similar discrepancies had led the Rajasthan High Court to cancel the allotment of public utility land recorded as “wasteland” to Adani Renewable Energy Park Rajasthan Ltd in Jaisalmer’s Nedan village in Pokhran tehsil and to Essel Surya Urja Company in two villages of Jodhpur district, in July 2021.
According to the Land Conflict Watch database, of the 23 conflicts over solar and wind energy projects documented, the maximum (seven) were from Rajasthan, from districts like Barmer, Sum, Jodhpur, spanning 18,000 hectares of land.
Stories of betrayal
About 74 km from Dawara, residents of Rewadi village, also in Fategarh tehsil, were charged with resisting a hybrid solar (421.9 MW) and wind (105 MW) project by SBE Renewable Ten Projects Pvt Ltd in Jaisalmer and Barmer districts. A Rajasthan High Court judge imposed a fine on them for wasting the court’s time with their petition.
“We have been betrayed. The company people called a few of us for a meeting where they said they were going to do good things for the village and give us jobs. They didn’t talk about the project at all. They didn’t just take away our cultivable land but they didn’t give us any jobs,” said Tarachand Paliwal, one of many angry villagers.
In Dawara, there have been intense protests against the cutting of 111 sacred trees, or orans. In Rewadi, petitioners said the “wasteland” allotted for the project from their village had an agor(water catchment area), on it. If this agor goes, it could destroy local vegetation and water bodies. Jaisalmer district, like its neighbouring districts in western Rajasthan, is prone to receiving abnormal rainfall and also facing water scarcity.
“It will definitely influence my decision in this election. What the Congress government has allowed is not right and I can say with guarantee that all my fellow residents in this village feel the same,” said Dawara’s Behra Ram.
Raan Singh, a BJP worker campaigning in Jaisalmer’s Fatehgarh tehsil, said that his party had tried to use the people’s anger against the renewable energy companies to convince them to vote for the BJP. “The Congress deflects the blame by saying they don’t have power over these companies as they are centrally sponsored. Now, it is for the people to decide who is telling the truth and who is not,” he said.
Renewable energy projects do not find a mention in the BJP’s manifesto. The Congress manifesto has dedicated an entire section to renewable energy, which promises incentives, and talks about the need to recognise the importance of green energy. It has also pledged the supply of green energy to make Rajasthan an attractive choice for businesses committed to combating climate change and promoting eco-friendly practices.
“We have been campaigning on all the issues mentioned in our ghoshna patra [manifesto] including renewable energy projects,” said Roopa Ram Meghawal, Congress candidate for Jaisalmer Assembly seat.
The Congress and the BJP are in a direct contest on most seats in the western Rajasthan region, across 43 Assembly constituencies.
Sukriti Vats is a writing fellow at Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.