British colonial ‘wastelands’ system used for solar land-grabs in India

Two maps of India split by a picture of the UK and a teapot pouring tea down the centre. On the left, old colonial map of British India. On the right, the 'Wastelands Atlas of India' map and a solar panel in the bottom right corner.
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This is the fifth part of a five-part investigation into how UK government climate finance aid is grabbing land, displacing communities, and furthering colonialism in indigenous communities. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here

These are blood panels.

This is how Leo Saldanha refers to the solar panels that are increasingly found in mega-parks and on rooftops across India. Saldanha, who is founding trustee and co-ordinator of the Environment Support Group (ESG) – an independent environmental and social justice organisation based in Bangalore – says that solar power has “violence embedded in it”.

His assertion relates to the fact that most of the solar panels in the country are imported from China, where Uyghur Muslims are exploited, tortured, and imprisoned for their labour to produce them.

In India, old colonial patterns of land-grabbing are paving the way for patterns of neocolonial land-grabbing. As a result, the Indian government are entrenching systems of violence and the marginalisation of indigenous and land-based communities.

Violence in solar power

Meanwhile, mining companies in countries including Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Madagascar have also been implicated in human rights abuses over the extraction of copper, zinc, and nickel. These minerals are used to manufacture solar panel technology. 

But Saldanha has seen firsthand how violence towards marginalised communities does not stop at the supply chain of these ‘blood panels’. Speaking about the Azure Power solar park in Assam, Saldanha told the Canary:

Read on...

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It’s horrific violence we saw there. A man was shot dead. People were tortured. The children we met were traumatised by the police violence.

He visited the site as part of a fact-finding committee at a village the project affected. The violence and land-grabbing Saldanha witnessed there, he feels, is reminiscent of British colonial era exploitation of the region:

 And this is development, so-called renewable energy. It frightens me that in many ways it’s a reproduction of what the East India Company did to India.

A solar land-grab brewing

If you’re reading this while sipping a brew of English Breakfast Tea, chances are its key ingredient came from Assam. Here, legacy British tea cultivation land laws are at the heart of the violent solar land-grab that Saldanha describes.  

During colonial times, Assam was the main tea-growing location of the British Empire. Plantations exploiting Indian labourers dominated the state in the 19th Century. Today, it’s the largest single tea-growing region in the world. It is these colonial tea land agreements, still in place, that enabled this solar land-grab.

The project developer, Azure Power, utilised these old land tenure agreements to dispossess the Karbi and Adivasi agricultural communities of Mikir Bamuni Grant village from their land. Azure Power took possession of these ‘Grant’ lands marked for tea cultivation. They did so by purchasing the land from those who claimed they were the earlier landholders, or their descendants.

Members from the Delhi Solidarity Group, the Environment Support Group, and the Centre for Financial Accountability composed a fact-finding mission. They recorded testimonies from villagers impacted by the project. The resulting report described a series of human rights abuse allegations. Villagers told them that Azure had violently evicted them from their lands and razed their ripened crop paddy to the ground. Local police arrested those who resisted the land-grab and jailed them for over ten days. 

Despite the fact-finding committee highlighting laws that superseded the older British land policies, the government and courts authorised the project. In March 2021, the High Court of the region gave permission for construction of the solar park to commence. 

Alongside these agreements, other systems put in place by the British are facilitating colonial-style green energy land-grabs. They are even interacting with a new vehicle for neocolonial land control and wealth extraction – international aid.

Where colonial past meets colonial present

In Neemuch, a solar park will soon cause over 200 families from three village communities to lose their land and livelihood. Found in the state of Madhya Pradesh, over 50% of the area demarcated for the project there is designated as barren and uncultivable. 

But as an anonymous resident and dairy farmer explained to the Canary, many of the villagers use this land to graze their cattle. 

India’s land classification system calls this a ‘wasteland’. It is these ‘wastelands’ that the government has encouraged developers to use for large-scale solar projects like the park at Neemuch. 

English enlightenment philosopher John Locke first coined the concept of a ‘wasteland’. Locke created the term to define land that people did not privately own, enclose and cultivate. His classification of ‘wastelands’ thus shaped land policies in India at the time of the British Raj.

To Locke, lands which owners under-cultivated and left as underproductive common lands were ‘wastelands’. Land that owners left to nature and did not utilise for pasture or planting also fit his definition. They were the opposite of privatised, enclosed, capital-producing lands. Saldanha explained how the British applied the idea of wastelands in India:

The revenue laws, which again, the British created, documented lands which were productive as either private assets, or assets which are worth protecting by the state. So they protected a lot of forests which were essentially valuable because they extracted timber. But biodiverse grasslands, the British didn’t find any value in grasses, so they declared them as wastelands. 

Racist land-grabbing

Locke’s ideas on the binary between productive, privatised, and propertied land versus uncultivated common land also fed into racist colonial notions of ‘civilised’ versus ‘savage’. The British used these concepts to implement policies to steal common land from what they considered ‘non-cultivating castes’. These were the most marginalised groups, as well as tribal communities who practised nomadic pastoralism, hunting, subsistence agriculture, and livestock grazing. The British considered their ways of life unproductive and of no value in the eyes of the capitalist, colonial project.  

Renewable projects, like the solar parks at Neemuch and Assam, are continuing this process of classist and racist land dispossession. They use the very same tools and rhetoric that British colonisers set in motion hundreds of years ago. As a result, Saldanha said that the Indian government today denigrates small subsistence farmers the same way the British did:

The relationship with their land is so deep and extensive, that it is ridiculed and they are rebuked for even being farmers. They’re supposed to accept the government’s terms or the company’s terms because somebody like the figure of a prime minister says ‘solar is the way to go’ and if you stand in the way, you are made to feel you’re an anti-national.

In spite of this government rhetoric, Saldanha praised the ingenuity of Indian agriculturalists, who use these commons for their livelihoods:

Just imagine a British farmer, let’s say in the Sussex region, trying to make a life and livelihood for his family with fifty centimetres of rainfall. It’s impossible. But the Indian farmer does it and we don’t value that.

One person’s wasteland is another’s commons

The wastelands classification system is apparent in utility-scale solar parks all across India. This includes the projects linked to UK climate finance. 

Solar projects at Charanka, Pavagada, Bhadla, Anantapur, Rewa and Neemuch were all chosen as sites for a solar park because the land was marked as unproductive ‘wasteland’ that could be converted over for green energy generation and corporate profit-making. An investigation by the Canary found that the UK government has provided climate and development aid to these projects. 

Since the year 2000, the government of India has produced five versions of the ‘Wastelands Atlas of India’, which documents the amount of land it considers non-productive or under-productive.

The government’s National Institute for Solar Energy (NISE), an autonomous research and development organisation under the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), has estimated the country’s solar potential as 748 GW of power, if 3% of India’s ‘wasteland’ area is utilised for this purpose. 

Weaponising farming distress

But what the government of India sees as barren and uncultivable wastelands is, to both pastoralists and environmentalists, a shared and precious ecological commons. Even in the more arid parts of India, Saldanha said that farmers and pastoralists make a living on these – often government-owned – commons by being “highly intelligent and inventive farmers”.

He explained how the government uses the rhetoric about wastelands to take their land:

So the official classification in the new law is that they are wastelands. So a large area which is a commons, where pastoral communities survive, was taken away and termed as wastelands, which the current government continues to use and says, since they’re wastelands, let’s put solar panels there.

Saldanha argued that both the government and companies are capitalising on what he terms ‘farming distress’:

We have met with farmers who are saying that the private companies which come and buy off land, are exploiting distress, farming distress. We don’t want to support them. And then we don’t give them economic packages and over time, what we end up doing is rush them into poverty.

And when a company like this comes and says, you know what guys, about five thousand of you clear up – we will let you keep the land, but lease it out to us for 28 years. And what we’re going to do is produce all our energy. Then it’s like going and telling a person who’s starving ‘I can’t give you a good meal. But I’ll give you some food. And I’ll give you some water. And I’m going to keep you at that level. And I’ll never allow you to imagine another possibility. 

Aiding neocolonial green-grabs

Part one of this investigation identified a land-grabbing solar project. The upcoming solar park in central India is set to displace rural villagers from their agricultural lands. Following this, part two identified the UK and World Bank’s complicity in this project via international aid. The third part of the investigation found that UK aid has been funding multiple renewable energy projects like these across the Global South. Finally, part four showed that corporations supported by this aid are exploiting the working classes in both the UK and India.

Moreover, the Indian government is now using British colonial systems of control to carry out these land-grabs. And of course, these projects dispossess the land from the groups and communities that colonialism has always victimised, sidelined and exploited.

Regarding the way in which governments use international aid to acquire land for solar parks in India, Saldanha said:

It’s a perpetuation of the same disparity and exploitation that we saw for generations.

And it’s the very same communities losing out. Saldanha pointed out that pastoralists had been sidelined and forgotten:

They’re not worrying about the pastoralists. Did anybody ask the pastoralists? They didn’t ask them then, they’re not going to ask them now.

Colonisers are no climate ‘saviours’

All of this speaks to a deliberate colonial amnesia where climate solutions are now concerned. It is evident that British colonialism still impacts communities in the nations it subjected to these crimes. It now influences the shape of the political landscape that supplanted them post-independence. As a result, British colonialism is still having devastating impacts on marginalised communities.

The UK government is no more prepared to acknowledge its historic role in the current climate crisis than it is to recognise its responsibility for past colonial actions. And it is these actions which governments like the right-wing Modi administration continue to weaponise against marginalised communities. Specifically, it is using the British colonial wastelands system to do it. In turn, the UK government exacerbates this process. Its climate and development aid subsidises the corporations capitalising on this neocolonial land dispossession. Moreover, it is doing so in the name of halting climate change.

Solving the climate crisis shouldn’t come at the expense of indigenous and local communities. Instead, the UK and other industrialised nations should place their rights at the centre of climate solutions. In doing otherwise, the UK government has made an intentional choice. They are allowing commercial interests to trump the lives of indigenous and land-based peoples. One thing’s for certain: communities in the Global South do not need colonial climate ‘saviourism’ from the Global North – they need climate justice.

Featured image via Hannah Sharland

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  • Show Comments
    1. Thank you, Hannah, for an excellent, full, well-researched report and spotlight on historical (past and present) colonialism vs climate (in)justice. Solidarity with pastoralists in India and working people across the planet who continue to be exploited at the hands of corrupt governments and corporate greed. Can they be stopped, this is the question I’d like to hear your thoughts on next, and how. In the meantime, spreading the word is our only tool of combat.

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