Mega Solar Park Could Put Spiti on Thin Ice in India's Himachal Pradesh

houses on a hill with snow
The Morning Context
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Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India

Mega Solar Park Could Put Spiti on Thin Ice in India's Himachal Pradesh

My yaks are grazing in Dhar Dumbachen,” said Rinchen Tobge, between sips of tea as he took a break from painting his two-room homestay on a November afternoon. He was preparing for the tourists expected to throng Spiti in the winter, hoping to catch a glimpse of a snow leopard. “Dhar” means ridgeline in the local language. Dhar Dumbachen—at an elevation of 5,100 metres above sea level in the state of Himachal Pradesh—is a ridge with vast pastures around it. Residents of nearby Tashigang, Gete, Kibber and Chicham villages graze their livestock there in summer.

By January, Tobge’s two yaks were back home in Kibber and by the last week of March, he was ready to start ploughing his small patch of land with their help. “We may have to start farming in a day or two. It has become hot early this year. It snows later than earlier and gets hot sooner,” he complained, when we spoke over the phone at the end of March.

As idyllic a setting as any. But that’s just on the surface.

The Himachal Pradesh government has been gripped by a sense of urgency to put up solar projects, build new dams and revive stalled hydropower plans. Especially since 2016, when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, in a report, rebuked it for not tapping into its renewable energy potential.

The rush has led to several projects being started. One such is an 880 megawatt solar park in Spiti by the Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd, a public sector utility jointly owned by the central and the Himachal Pradesh governments. The project, supported by the World Bank, is set to come up on 3,104 hectares of land, spread across six villages, according to information shared by SJVN with this writer under the Right to Information Act.

All that land consists of ridges that Tobge spoke about. Covered in snow during the winter, several of them are pastures used by locals to graze sheep, goats, yaks and horses. But the land has been classified as “wasteland” by the state government, which threatens locals’ rights over the pastures.

Tobge and other villagers have expressed concerns that the solar park could put their survival at stake. Scientists, on their part, have warned that the park would end up damaging the habitat of the snow leopard, already classified as “vulnerable” to extinction. 

The government has made no attempt to carry out an environmental impact assessment of the project, since renewable energy projects in India are exempted from doing so. Since the land belongs to the forest department, the SJVN will seek forest clearance, it said in its RTI response. Currently, a draft project report is under preparation. 

In October 2021, SJVN officials visited the affected villages in Spiti to “sensitize” villagers about the project. A majority of Spiti residents being Scheduled Tribes, the district has been classified by the government as a Fifth Schedule Area under the Constitution. In such areas development projects can come up only with the consent of the local gram sabha (an assembly of all the adults of a village).

That consent isn’t likely as villagers are resolute in their opposition to the project. “The village head attended the meetings and told us about the project. We said that the NoC should not be given,” a group of men and women told this writer in Kibber. 

But that has done little to dampen the zeal of either the state government or SJVN officials. The government has set ambitious targets and thinks it can brazen it out. The pitfalls of doing so could play out in Spiti and across India, given that many more such ultra mega solar projects are planned.

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Ambitious targets

At last November’s global climate summit in Scotland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a target of 500 gigawatt of renewable energy-based capacity by 2030. Under its Swarna Jayanti policy, Himachal Pradesh has decided to add 10 GW of renewable energy-based capacity by 2030. Of this, 6 GW of renewable energy potential has been identified in the Spiti valley and Chenab river basin.

In March, Jairam Thakur, chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, made a commitment to meet 100% of the state’s energy requirements through renewable energy and become the first green state in India. The World Bank offered support to meet this goal.

It is in this context that the solar park in Spiti becomes significant. Back in December 2014, the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy launched a scheme for development of Ultra Mega Solar Power Projects. Under the scheme, 25 projects, each with a capacity of 500 MW or above, were to be set up over the next five years. The Spiti park was listed as one of them.

Initially, the park was in limbo due to the high cost of transmission from the remote region. The North Regional Power Committee worked out the transmission cost at Rs 2.5 crore per MW. The project got a new lease of life in 2017 when the World Bank got involved

In September 2020, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy allocated the project development work to SJVN. The World Bank completed a study on solar installations in snowbound areas in April 2021 and gave its go-ahead. 

To bring down transmission costs, it was decided to seek government grants. Alongside, to maximise the use of the transmission network, higher capacity lines are being planned to support more renewable energy projects in future. Recently, the ministry approved a 400 MW solar park at Kinnaur, which will use the same transmission corridor. 

The park’s generation capacity was also brought down from 1,000 MW to 880 MW. “We had to pursue 880 MW instead of the planned 1,000 MW as the transmission lines were going to pass through protected areas,” said Rupali Thakur, chief executive officer of Himachal Pradesh Renewable Energy Development Agency, tasked with the development of renewable energy capacity in the state and under whose ambit the Spiti solar park falls. 

In January this year, the Power Grid Corporation of India issued an “expression of Interest” to conduct a detailed survey and soil investigation for the transmission route to evacuate power from Kaza, one of the largest towns in the area. The 180-km-long transmission line has been planned at a cost of over Rs 2,000 crore. “The World Bank has cleared the evacuation infrastructure. The only issue left here is the high evacuation cost. The authorities need to decide how to take care of this,” said Thakur.

Evacuation cost apart, there is the cost to the local environment. 

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No assessment of effects

In Spiti, most villages are located at elevations between 3,000 and 4,000 metres. They are snowbound for half the year. The rest of the time, it is an agro-pastoral region. Every bit of land is used.

Most of the land on which the project is to come up is traditional pasture land of the villagers. But it has been classified as “wasteland”. Many academics have criticized the colonial system of categorization of land not under private ownership and use as “wasteland”. They say that community uses of land for grazing, fuel wood and fodder collection have been ignored. 

The HP Solar Power Policy of 2016 states that the Himalayan state has a potential for generating 34 GW of solar power using 3% of its wasteland and rooftops. Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency has estimated a potential of 53 GW using 5% of the state’s wasteland. A large part of these targets are to be met by taking over land in Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur regions. 

According to the 2011 wasteland atlas, the district of Lahaul and Spiti has over 76% (10,526 sq. km) of land demarcated as wasteland, the highest in the state, followed by Kinnaur (3,272 sq. km, or around 51%). 

According to the ultra mega solar park scheme document, water is required for cleaning the solar panels every fortnight. In a typical solar power plant, water requirement per megawatt per wash is in the range of 7,000-20,000 litres, according to a 2021 study. This has local residents worried. Water stress is already worsening in Spiti – a cold desert – due to increased tourism, insufficient snowfall and receding glaciers. There are other ways to clean solar panels, such as the use of high pressure air jets. This writer asked SJVN and the World Bank if any such method was being contemplated. While there was no response from SJVN, the World Bank shared its study on solar installations in snowbound areas. The study mentions self-cleaning panels but does not specifically address the issue of dust.

Media reports suggest that community access to grazing land and water sources will be compromised if they fall within the limits of a solar park. 

Thus an accurate estimation and documentation of impacts prior to initiation of any large-scale project is crucial. But there is no independent assessment of any such impact, because solar projects do not need to carry out environmental impact assessments, according to India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Stripped of their rights

The traditional practice of leaving the family land to the eldest son has meant that a lot of farmers do not have land ownership records. Many are shown as encroachers in government records. This has worsened as irrigation and solar water pump schemes of the state government enable more land to be brought under cultivation.

“Land rights of the people from here have been pending since bandobast,” says Takpa Tenzin, president of Spiti Civil Society, a Kaza-based non-governmental organization. The word refers to an exercise for identification, legal measurement and demarcation of private lands that began in Himachal Pradesh in the 1970s. The revenue and forest departments jointly carried out the exercise for the Spiti division between 1975 and 1989 and marked many houses and farms as encroachments. Residents protested. Cases are ongoing in various courts to this day.

Agro-pastoralists in Spiti have traditional grazing rights over pastures, says Rashmi Singh from Delhi’s Ambedkar University. An expert on pastoral practices in the Himalayan region, Singh feels dialogue could provide insights into how best to go about greening power generation with the least damage to all concerned. For Spiti, she suggests consultations with the communities to ensure that projects do not end up removing access to critically important pastures and streams in a region that experiences extreme climatic conditions.

Small, decentralized systems with more community participation and ownership could be a way out, says Koustubh Sharma, assistant director of conservation policy and partnerships at Snow Leopard Trust. Around five years ago a solar-wind hybrid project of 2.5 MW capacity was announced for Rangrik village near Kaza in Spiti. “We were excited about it and gave the village land willingly. The project would have met our power needs. But it didn’t take off,” recalls Dechen Angme, the village head of Rangrik.

“Now they have come with the [solar] plant proposal, then they will propose the transmission line. Once the issue of transmission is resolved, there will be attempts to add more projects here. Soon we will see nothing of this beautiful landscape that tourists come for. We will only see solar panels,” fears Tenzin.

Whither snow leopard?

At an elevation of 4,205 metres, Kibber abuts a wildlife sanctuary by the same name. Spread across 1,200 sq. km, it is part of the cold desert biosphere reserve of India spread across Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. It provides a habitat to rare animals including the snow leopard, the ibex and blue sheep. 

The snow leopard, found only in the sparsely populated higher reaches of the Himalayas, is listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of  Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Their numbers in India are in the range of 450 to 500, according to the latest estimates. Only 6% of the potential snow leopard habitat is demarcated as a protected area. But in 2008 the forest department designated the entire Spiti region a wildlife division to coordinate snow leopard conservation efforts better.

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With the help of the Nature Conservation Foundation, the Snow Leopard Trust’s India partner, residents of Kibber have established a 20 sq. km reserve. Here, they have curtailed livestock grazing to support the snow leopard’s prey base—blue sheep and ibex.

“We are restricting grazing for the snow leopard and the government is bringing such a huge project here. What will happen to its habitat?” asks Tobge in a reference to about 800 hectares of land from his village that is to be acquired for the solar park.

Tobge is not alone in his concern for the elusive big cat. Sharma of Snow Leopard Trust points out that according to recent research all 13 locations chosen for the solar park overlap with snow leopard habitat. “These are high value sites for conservation.”

All in all, developing a large solar park in Spiti will come at a high cost, not just due to its remoteness, but because the livelihoods of locals are inextricably tied to the land and the unique wildlife it supports. In its desperation to become a front-runner in renewable energy, Himachal Pradesh should not ignore it.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It was originally published in The Morning Context on 9 April 2022.

Banner image: Houses in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India / Credit: Meenakshi Kapoor.

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