Subbarayappa (name changed to protect identity) lives with his family of five in the small village of Vollur in southern India. The nearest town, Pavagada, is 35 km away. Subbarayappa does not own any land and his only source of income is daily wage labor, including intermittent agricultural and construction work. He struggles to find work in his village and must often travel to nearby towns.

Subbarayappa’s situation is not unique: About 30% of all families surveyed by WRI India in five neighboring villages do not own any land but depend on land-based livelihoods. These “landless” communities are often agricultural laborers, who work in the fields of landowning farmers, or pastoralists, who depend on common land (or sometimes on privately owned land) to graze their livestock.

Agricultural workers tend crop rows in southern India.

Meanwhile, the Pavagada subdistrict where Subbarayappa lives is also home to one of the largest solar parks in the world.

While the solar park produces clean energy, reduces emissions and generates economic benefits, for communities like Subbarayappa’s, there’s a downside: The arrival of the solar park in 2015 led to a major shift in land use within the community. Its installation reduced the amount of land under cultivation by around 90% and severely limited the availability of livelihoods for Subbarayappa and others dependent on land-based income.

The transition to renewables is causing similar shifts worldwide, not just in energy systems but also in the ways societies have organized around them. While the low-carbon transition is undoubtedly essential, so, too, is a just transition that protects workers and communities impacted by this shift — be it coal workers in South Africa, Indigenous communities in Mexico or landless workers in Subbarayappa's village.

A man sits on a wall outside a large solar park in India.

As one of India’s landmark solar projects, Pavagada is set to be a template for several upcoming parks in the country. Lessons from its implementation can help ensure that India’s solar surge is just and equitable for all those involved.

A Green Energy Revolution in India

India has been rapidly increasing its renewable power capacity in the last decade, driven by ambitious commitments to meet 50% of its energy requirements with renewables by 2030. In 2021, India added the third-highest renewable capacity (15.4 GW) after China and the United States. Solar power has been a major contributor to this addition, with close to 77% of the capacity among solar installations being sourced from utility solar photovoltaic (PV) installations like the one in Pavagada. Utility-scale solar PV capacity in India is likely to scale up to 793 GW by 2050 for a long-term decarbonization scenario.

In addition to climate benefits, the immense scale of renewable energy deployment in India brings with it the potential to create employment, improve livelihoods and reduce poverty. There are, however, social impacts of the transition that could further marginalize at-risk communities unless the right protections are put in place.

Rows of solar panels in a large solar park on a sunny day in India.

Where Do the Landless Feature in India’s Clean Energy Transition?

Besides generating 2,000 MW of clean electricity, the Pavagada solar park was seen as an opportunity to usher in new jobs and economic growth in the region.

Around 2,300 farmers from five villages have leased 13,000 acres of land to the solar park. Land-leasing farmers receive an annual rent of approximately INR 24,000 ($292) per acre, with a 5% increment every two years. The 28-year lease agreement assures them a regular income and makes them less dependent on the vagaries of the weather.

However, landless workers like Subbarayappa do not benefit from this arrangement.

In 2021, WRI India surveyed five villages around the Pavagada solar park and found that the amount of land under cultivation decreased by 88% after the solar park’s installation. This has forced workers to travel to nearby villages or migrate to other towns or cities in search of labor opportunities.

“Earlier, the landowners would pay us in advance for the work and if we wanted a loan, we could borrow up to INR 10,000 [$122], but these days there is nobody to offer us work, to give us a loan or to help us,” a landless worker from Vollur said.

An elderly man leads cattle down the road in southern India.
Goats graze in a field outside a farm building in Southern India.

In addition to a decrease in crop cultivation, access to grazing lands has also been lost. Some pastoralists from Vollur and the neighboring village of Thirumani now walk their livestock to other villages — sometimes up to 40 km away — where they compete with local pastoralists for grazing land. Those unable to walk either hire people to take care of their animals or sell their herds. Still other workers migrate to cities in search of contractual labor.

When the solar project was proposed, local workers anticipated new jobs to replace or supplement these traditional livelihoods. Solar panels installed in the first phase (600 MW) of the project required manual cleaning with water, which generated jobs. However, solar panels installed in the second phase (1,400 MW) use dry cleaning robots, following guidelines from the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). This saves water but does not create additional jobs.

A survey by WRI India found that only 18% of the workers employed by the solar park belonged to landless households, though they form 30% of the local population. More than 80% of those employed at the solar park belong to landholding families. Landless workers claimed that villagers who had leased land to the solar park were preferred, due to an in-principle agreement recorded in a Government of Karnataka Order to approve the solar park.

Agricultural workers plant seeds outside a solar park fence in India.

How to Ensure a Just Transition to Solar Energy in India

Pavagada and other solar parks like it don’t have to come with such steep downsides. New green energy infrastructure development can lead to economic benefits for landless communities and others whose employment and way of life will be impacted.

As the low-carbon energy transition scales up in India and elsewhere, policymakers can take steps to ensure just and equitable outcomes for all. For example:

Solar companies can permit shared land use in solar parks

The co-utilization of solar park land for grazing and cultivation must be fostered by governments as well as solar park developers. “Agrivoltaics” and “solar grazing” — allowing crops to grow or livestock to graze in the space around solar panels — can provide landless communities with sustenance, diversified livelihoods, and increased resilience to the impacts of changing land use.

Raising the height of solar panel modules and installing underground cables will enable farmers to graze their herds around and under the panels, preventing damage and providing shade to the animals. Suitable panel configurations and module heights will also open the land up for cultivation. Cases of shared land use in India and other countries can be used as a reference; one solar project in Spain, for example, has been combined with agricultural use and beekeeping.  

Goats graze among solar panel rows in southern India.

Solar companies can enter into lease agreements with farmer cooperatives for this purpose. Proposals for such agreements must be scientifically robust, including the choice of appropriate crops and farming practices. They must also be supported by the state through enabling policy frameworks, integration in agricultural strategies and provision of financial resources. This will also help improve and secure livelihood opportunities for the local communities. 

Governments and businesses can provide training and jobs for displaced workers

The government should empower landless workers impacted by the clean energy transition through training and upskilling programs to help them access employment opportunities. Besides vocational training for employment at solar parks, such programs could also involve re-skilling workers for different local industries, such as factory jobs in neighboring towns. Upskilling and re-skilling programs should specifically target workers who are rendered unemployed due to changes in land use and should facilitate safe long-distance transportation for work.

Two unemployed women play a board game on the street in India.

Even though women formed 56% of the agricultural workforce in these five villages before the solar park, no women — either landholding or landless — are employed by the solar park. For the clean energy transition to be just and inclusive, private solar developers should consider gender-sensitive support, such as providing women workers with access to safe transport, accommodation and childcare assistance in employment locations. Communities can also be supported with training, tools and finance mechanisms to set up micro or small enterprises locally.

A young man rides a bike with a trailer attached loaded with toys for sale.

National and sub-national agencies can further encourage rooftop solar

The full potential of rooftop solar installations in cities must be harnessed to reduce pressure on agricultural land. India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and State Nodal Agencies could test out innovative business models and further incentivize rooftop solar to tap into its massive potential and reduce the dependence on ground-mounted solar.

Besides avoiding transmission and distribution losses that are common with lengthy transmission lines, rooftop solar can circumvent potential social and environmental impacts of land use change and competition. Innovative international finance models can also help make less land-intensive options, such as offshore wind, financially viable.

A man installs rooftop solar panels in an Indian village.

What the World Can Learn from Pavagada Solar Park

Pavagada solar park highlights the risk of climate action exacerbating existing socio-economic inequities — as well as the opportunity this transition presents to mitigate some of those harms.

As India aims to triple its renewable energy capacity in less than a decade, a just and equitable energy transition must not only focus on fossil fuel workers, but also on communities affected by the scale-up of clean energy. Across all projects and nations, decision-makers must thoroughly assess local implications to ensure that everyone, including workers like Subbarayappa, can reap the economic benefits of the low-carbon transition.

This article is the first half of a two-part series on just transitions in India. The second explores how new low-carbon practices could impact workers in India's buildings and construction sector. Learn more about WRI’s work on just transitions here.

Photos by Vishwajeet Poojary/WRI. Final image by Umesh Negi/iStock.