The orans (sacred groves) of Jaisalmer have traditionally been treated as common lands by the locals. Jaisalmer mostly consists of nomadic and livestock-rearing communities that take care of these vast lands and look after the area’s rich biodiversity. In return, the land provides them grazing ground for their cows and buffaloes. Of late, however, solar plants have been set up in large parts of these lands to produce renewable energy.
Contrary to popular belief, the plants are not providing job opportunities to the locals—most of the work here is technical in nature, which the communities aren’t trained to do. Locals can only get low-paying jobs, for instance as security guards, at these plants. These solar plants are instead destroying the understory grasses that feed the cattle reared by the communities. Some of the farmers are trying to earn a livelihood by selling ghee and milk to the staff working at the solar farms, but the production of ghee and milk itself is dependent on how well fed the livestock is.
Another pertinent issue is the harm that the solar plants are causing to the different animal species that call these orans their home. Orans are ecologically diverse and offer protection to several species listed as endangered or critical. In western Rajasthan, these forests are home to the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, of which only around 150 remain. Many high-tension power lines that are laid as part of solar and wind energy projects pass through orans. These power lines pose a risk to birds, and several instances of bird mortality due to collision have been reported. Loss of oran land has also impeded ongoing conservation efforts.
Currently, there is significant agitation in Rajasthan over the setting up of these plants on oran land. The communities are not against the construction of solar plants, but they want its repercussions to be adequately assessed and considered. So, for instance, if the oran spans 100 bighas, perhaps 25 bighas can be used for a solar plant. Last week, around 30 community leaders from 15 orans attended a workshop organised by KRAPAVIS to discuss various issues related to orans.
In 2018, the Supreme Court declared that orans be deemed forests, but local governments have been slow to identify these lands and classify them as such. Additionally, solar power projects are exempt from environmental impact assessments, which makes it easy for big companies to set up these projects without ever learning about their impact on the locals and the hyperlocal environment.
Aman Singh is the founder of Krishi Avam Paristhitiki Vikas Sansthan (KRAPAVIS), a grassroots nonprofit in Rajasthan.
Know more: Learn about how changing rainfall patterns are affecting Jaisalmer’s communities and agriculture.
Do more: Connect with the author at [email protected] to learn more about and support his work.