Solar betrayal

The rocky terrain of Madhya Pradesh’s Neemuch district has emerged as the largest solar power-generating hub in India, but the nomadic communities that have lived there for generations find themselves dispossessed of land and reduced to abject poverty.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

Officials atop the entrance to Welspun Solar MP project. Villagers are not allowed to enter.

Officials atop the entrance to Welspun Solar MP project. Villagers are not allowed to enter.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, launched in 2010 by the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, as part of India’s plan to combat climate change, is considered one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s current pet projects. Across the country, States (especially those governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]) have been vying—at least on paper—in the race to achieve the revised target of 1,00,000 megawatts (MW) by 2022. Large tracts of land have been earmarked for the setting up of exclusive solar power parks, and plans are afoot to amend land use regulations and tenancy laws in order to facilitate aggregation and leasing of land by farmers/developers for these projects.

In order to understand the impact of one such solar power project set up by Welspun in 2013, Frontline visited Neemuch district in Madhya Pradesh.

Located 60 kilometres from Mandsaur, the nerve centre of farmers’ protests across the country in June, the village of Bhagwanpura in Neemuch district is home to over 200 families from the Adivasi/nomadic communities of Gurjars and Bhils. For generations, they had grazed their cattle on government land, subsisted on rain-fed corn and jowar and water drawn from the ponds nearby, lived in homes hewn out of the rocky terrain, and worshipped their gods in little stone shrines. In short, they had been self-sufficient communities who lived well within their means, and with dignity.

When prime ministerial candidate Modi arrived in early 2014 to inaugurate a solar power plant by the Gujarat-based group Welspun on 1,600 bighas of land, the villagers’ lives took an irrevocable turn for the worse. Located between the villages of Bhagwanpura, Chirmikheda, Diken and Khatikheda, the mammoth Welspun Solar M.P. project is now complete, but the local population is a dejected lot. As many as 70 people lost their lands to the solar power project, and once self-sufficient communities now face the prospect of abject poverty. A few of the villagers who had penalty receipts from the tehsildar’s office, which proved that they had lived and were dependent on the said land, were promised land elsewhere; however, nothing has materialised to date. The villagers also recalled the solar power plant official Manish Pandey’s promise of jobs for “each and every ration card holder of Bhagwanpura panchayat”, but that has not come about either.

Unfulfilled promises

Most of the labour working on the solar power plant has been hired from outside Bhagwanpura, while a few from nearby villages are on contract. Some of them have not been paid in the last three months. “When they asked for their salaries, they were threatened with outright dismissal. So they kept working without being paid,” said a villager.

There is deep resentment amongst the villagers towards the labour brought in from elsewhere. “Why have they brought Nepalis to work as security guards? Aren’t there people from our village who can do that job?” asked Gopal Katariya, identified as a “troublemaker” for raising issues of rights. No villager is allowed inside the solar plant, not even to visit the shrines which now fall within the plant’s territory. “I am not scared of speaking to you, but there is no telling what they [officials] might do,” he told Frontline .

About 15 villagers who launched a campaign for land rights were framed under false charges of theft and jailed for up to 40 days. Among those arrested were Ramlal, who lost two bighas of his land to the solar plant, and Saanwra, who lost his house. “We asked for a job, and got a jail term,” said a villager. Raju bhai, who had proof of land ownership, lost not only his land but around 35 trolleys’ worth of stones valued at Rs.50,000, which were buried under the construction of a new road through the village. “The officials kept telling me not to worry and assured me that they would compensate me with twice the amount of stones once the project was completed. I am still waiting,” he told Frontline .

The experience has dealt a huge blow to the villagers’ confidence and nipped the campaign in the bud. “We had to run from pillar to post to obtain bail. Even now, those with charges against them have to attend the hearings regularly. We don’t understand the intricacies of the law and are afraid to overstep the rules,” said Gopal. In summer, entire families have been forced to migrate, cattle in tow, to other villages in the district. When they graze their cattle in the nearby forest land, they run into trouble with officials. Their only source of income currently is selling cow milk at Rs.18-20 a litre.

The villagers claimed that they did not have access to jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as the sarpanch got all such jobs done by JCB earth movers. “He asks his men to register for the jobs. The moment they get the money in their accounts, they are supposed to hand it over to him,” one of them explained matter-of-factly. A few villagers’ job cards had been cancelled, and their children were forced to drop out of school as the families did not have enough money to buy notebooks. “Textbooks are provided by the government school, but we don’t have money to buy notebooks,” said a parent.

Among the other complaints are the unfulfilled promises made by solar plant officials to add classes in the local government school from Standards 8 to 12. The villagers alleged that the officials fixed a source for drinking water in the village but removed it after a year. A veterinary doctor who used to attend to the cattle stopped visiting after the solar plant did not pay his salary for a year.

Government schemes not functional

Most government schemes do not appear to be functional in Bhagwanpura village. As many as 40 per cent of the people who built toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan claimed they had not received the promised money in their accounts. Bhagwanpura may be located in the backyard of a solar power plant, but its streets do not have electricity. Electricity in village homes incurs inflated bills of Rs.800 or more a month. The villagers had been promised electricity to draw water from the well when the solar plant was being installed but that has not happened either.

Although most people in the area are poor, with little or no income to their name, they have not been registered as below the poverty line (BPL). “Ever since the BJP government came to power in the state [13 years ago], it has discouraged distribution of BPL cards,” said a villager. “We have heard that the Chief Minister gave orders to register more people under APL [above the poverty line] to show improved numbers of poverty reduction. This will be added to the countrywide data to show how the Modi government has been successful in alleviating poverty,” said a social worker in Neemuch.

For the past year, the government has cancelled provision of sugar to households and reduced the allotment of kerosene from four to two litres a household through the public distribution system. The villagers claimed that whenever they approached the government or solar plant officials, they were treated like criminals. “When we went to meet him, the BJP MLA Om Prakash Saklecha, son of former Chief Minister Virendra Saklecha, said he wouldn’t support thieves.” They are not even sure whether their letters have reached the Chief Minister’s office at all. “Police, tehsildar, patwari sab mile hue hain [all government officials work hand in glove]. Who will listen to people like us who have no political or economic backing?”

Meanwhile, according to Manu Srivastava, Principal Secretary, New and Renewable Energy Department, Government of Madhya Pradesh, Welspun has sold the project to the Tata Group. “The Tatas want more assets in the solar field, whereas Welspun wanted to reduce its debt burden,” Srivastava said. He said that the Welspun project was the first solar public-private partnership (PPP) he had signed and added that the steep decline in solar power rates would be a better story angle to pursue. “Why are you going to Neemuch? There isn’t much to write about there. You should go to Rewa, which is the largest solar project in MP and is being written about globally,” he told Frontline .

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