A large-scale solar power plant in Jaisalmer district.

Whose land is it anyway? Rajasthan’s RE ambitions must address the impact on locals

Depleting common property resources, including grazing lands in Rajasthan, significantly impact pastoral communities and livestock. The renewable growth story in the state is entrenched with local issues and therefore demands a closer assessment of regional impact

Seemingly sterile, Rajasthan’s Thar desert possesses a rich and distinctive biodiversity. Its regional natural vegetation consists of peculiar grasses, shrubs, and desert trees. It is marked by the Northern Desert Thorn Forest at many locations, which exists in large patches of varying density across the desert. Various endemic species of mammals find their home in Thar, and over 140 varieties of birds, including the majestic Great Indian Bustard, populate its clear blue skies. This diverse biodiversity, however, is now at risk due to increased electricity transmission lines and renewable energy infrastructure.

Land use leading to rising conflicts over ownership

Rajasthan is among India’s leading states regarding installed solar photovoltaic capacity thanks to its vast swaths of desert land and availability of ample sunshine. It is not surprising that under its ambitious Solar Energy Policy 2019, Rajasthan aims to achieve 25GW of installed solar energy capacity by 2024.

With these ambitious plans, however, come conflicts. For generations, the state’s local and indigenous inhabitants have moulded their lives around extreme climatic conditions. Livelihoods and cultural practices in Rajasthan are intricately linked with land use—one of the fundamental sources of sustenance for pastoralists of the state. Livestock such as goats, sheep, and camels form the economic backbone of several indigenous communities, who rely on the availability of land for the survival and upkeep of their animals. 

The state’s accelerated solar ambition stakes high demand on land. A one-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant requires four to five acres of land. The increasing number of solar power projects that stretch beyond hundreds of megawatts significantly alters the region’s landscape. Given the local significance of land, the rise in solar plants has led to an increase in conflicts around ownership and use. A look into the impact of enhanced RE projects on the depleting population of camels in Rajasthan offers relevant insights into the entrenched nature of local challenges. 

Increasing unavailability of grazing lands for camels and livestock

Rajasthan has the highest population of camels among all Indian states. It is home to more than 80% of the camels in the country. However, as per the livestock census of 2019, there has been a sharp decline in the state’s camel population—34.69% since 2012. 

Camels are bred in regions with the availability of large expanses of land. They feed on more than 36 plants and tree leaves endemic to arid and semi-arid areas such as the Thar. Unlike cattle, camels require open grazing areas to meet their nutritional needs by consuming distinct and diverse desert flora. 

In Rajasthan and the adjoining regions of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, camel rearing is primarily undertaken by marginalized pastoral communities whose cultural identities have been historically associated with the animal. At the onset of every winter, herders migrate up to 120km in search of forage for their herds. They follow traditional fixed routes and return upon the arrival of the monsoon. Typically, camel herders have small landholdings and rely on common property resources for sustaining their livestock.

With the expansion in renewable generation and the resulting diversion of common land, grazing areas for camels and livestock are rendered inaccessible and traditional routes stand disrupted. 

Changing land laws leaving local communities in the lurch

Regional natural resources and biodiversity in Rajasthan have traditionally been subjects of community conservation and governance, as common land and water bodies are seen as sources of economic, social, and cultural value for the village or regions.  

MK Gaur et al. (2018) of ICAR- Central Arid Zone Research Institute provides an exhaustive list of the various common property resources found in arid areas and describe them, which includes “village pastures such as Orans, Gochars, Charagah, Dev-vans, community forests, common threshing grounds, watershed drainage, village baoris, nadis, ponds, tanks, rivers, rivulets, wetlands, conserved community areas, protected areas, Dhaam or Dhooni, culturable wastelands, barren and unculturable land, wastelands, and so on.” 

Degrai Oran Pond, Degrai Village, Jaisalmer.
Degrai Oran Pond, Degrai Village, Jaisalmer. 

With the advent of formalised laws, however, community management of common property in the state has declined. Owing to the various types of legal and regulatory restrictions that now govern common land use, there has been a gradual loss of access to pastures for camels and herding communities. While the legal regime relating to private property evolved more or less comprehensively in India, there is a prevalent lack of clarity on common and pastoral land laws. These procedural complexities pose pronounced challenges in realising land accessibility and livelihood security for indigenous communities. As a result, the majority of the legal conflict around land acquisition for RE in Rajasthan stems from the existence of unsettled claims of possession and use of common property resources.

Proponents of fast-track renewable energy projects argue that RE development is essential because of the urgency of response demanded by climate change. However, disturbing ecosystems while responding to the climate crisis is a counter-intuitive strategy. In a bid to take accelerated action on the climate problem, such a move exacerbates climate injustices at various levels.

Assessment of impacts on local livelihoods and ecosystem is need of the hour 

To respond to the challenges concerning renewable energy expansion in Rajasthan, there is a need for quantitative and qualitative studies that systematically assess the impact of the increase in renewable energy on the livelihoods and ecosystems of local communities at the frontline of risks. 

Further, one of the foremost concerns related to the governance of renewable energy plants in Rajasthan is the absence of mechanisms and platforms for the channelisation and redressal of local concerns and demands stemming from the setting up of renewable plants in an area. Laws aimed at facilitating renewables-related investment in Rajasthan have created legal processes that overlook challenges indigenous inhabitants face and dilute the powers vested in local self-governance institutions such as the Panchayat and Gram Sabha. 

For the ongoing renewable energy transition to be just, there is thus a dire need for reinstatement and strengthening of legal and governance mechanisms that enhance public participation in decision-making at various stages of the planning, setting up, and functioning of renewable energy projects. 

Simran Grover & Naini Swami work at Bask Research—an initiative focusing on energy and climate governance, based in Jaipur, Rajasthan

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