The Problem with Wind Farming on Rajasthan’s Sacred Lands
This essay about energy development on sacred lands known as Orans is the fourth piece in the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.
In December 2022, numerous villagers from Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India walked 225 kilometers for over nine days for the Oran Bachao Yatra (Save Oran Walk). The yatra (religious procession) meandered through remote villages and ended at the Jaisalmer District Collectorate where the villagers submitted a memorandum to redefine this land as “Orans” in the Revenue record, instead of the current title: “wastelands.” During the yatra, one of the villagers remarked to me, “Oran sirf zamin nahi hai…. Prakriti bolti hai, uski awaz hai” (Oran is not just a piece of land…. Nature can speak, it has a voice).
For a long time, villagers from Jaisalmer have been protesting against the “green grabbing” of the sacred Orans land, which has caused land dispossession and disruption in livelihood. This infrastructural colonization is an attempt to reach India’s sustainable development goals, which included 100 GW of solar and 60 GW of wind power capacity by the year 2022.
The state of Rajasthan is considered the best choice for renewable energy setups because it is located in the Thar Desert and consists of over 102,000 square kilometers of arid desert. This desert is characterized by sand dunes, little rainfall, and severe temperatures. However, it is also the world’s most populous desert, with a population density of 83 persons per square kilometer and pastoralist settlements that rely on cattle for subsistence.
The Government of Rajasthan claims the deserts are “vast, barren landscapes in western Rajasthan” and wishes to make “productive use of abundant wasteland, thereby utilizing the un-utilized/under-utilising land for creation of [a] wind energy hub.” However, most of these “barren lands” are community-conserved areas or common lands known as “Orans” that the villagers maintain in a livestock-based economy.
A symbiotic relationship exists between the biodiversity of the Orans and the villagers. The villagers preserve medicinal, endemic, endangered and threatened plant species and in turn the water bodies in the Orans benefit the community. Further, the villagers also view the Orans as culturally significant, existing as a divine entity.
Today, the Orans are being sacrificed by conversion to extractive green energy projects. The energy projects being proposed on the sacred land may be considered ‘sustainable’ in some respects. However, this green capitalist approach toward energy allows corporate organizations to profit from environmental operations, supplies energy to urban areas, and ultimately does harm to the villagers residing locally.
Capitalist Repercussions of the Wind Energy Project
During a research study in the city of Jaisalmer, I learned about energy complexities in the Thar Desert. On a cold wintry morning, I woke up to the sound of a harsh cacophony piercing through the chilly air of Jaisalmer. Unable to fathom the source, I got out of my tiny mud hut and spotted my host Rehan Khan of Chhatrel village. When I asked him about the loud commotion in the air, he pointed towards the web of windmills that encircle his farm. He complained about the noise generated by these plants throughout the day.
Narrating the emergence of the wind project in the area, he took me back to the time when company officials were laying the seed of the wind energy project amongst villagers in the outskirts of Jaisalmer under the pretence of providing electricity to the nearby villages. Despite protests from the villagers who feared these plants would take over their land, the construction began anyway, claiming that the plants would be removed after a few years. The community tried everything in their power to stop the construction, saying they could do without electricity but not the land which supported their entire survival. The village protesters failed to stop the construction of this symbol of capitalist greed. In compensation for their loss, a few residents were offered positions as a watchman or guard. In a few months, they were dismissed.
As the capitalist venture spread, it engulfed towns and villages that got in its way. Khan sighed as he told me the story, ruminating about the time when the government had embarked to set up windmills in his small village. The government hired influential contractors who used the help of police forces to tackle the protesting villagers. The villagers felt helpless before the authority of the government. They feared alienation and displacement from their own land as the tall windmills crept closer and closer. “Though there isn’t a wired boundary prohibiting entry into the area, the plethora of windmills that surround us have taken over our land completely,” said Khan, crossing over the wired boundary of his small farm where the early buds of chana (garbanzo beans) were sprouting.
He showed me around his farm, saying “Our entire agriculture is dependent on the monsoon in this dry desert.” Because there is a scarcity of water, people mainly grow guar (cluster bean) and bajra (pearl millet) which don’t require much water. Khan’s field is a der, a low-lying land where rainwater accumulates and seeps into the ground, and where seeds can be sown. People mostly grow gehun (wheat), chana (garbanzo beans), and sarson (mustard) in these lands, which don’t need to be irrigated. The rural communities are mostly pastoralist, relying on cattle for their livelihood as crop farming in such harsh conditions doesn’t always guarantee a source of income.
Discovering the Spiritual Significance of the Orans
Khan escorted me towards his house around a kilometer away, enlightening me about various kinds of grass and plants along the route that are used by the people and fed to the cattle. We walked past his humble homestay that he had started only a few days before the pandemic hit our country and devastated the tourism industry. Four tiny mud houses stood at a little distance from each other with only cots laid inside, and without electricity. A little further away from his homestay in an isolated land, a mud hut hides behind a tall khejri (Prosopis cineraria, a culturally important tree species) with cattle and sheep beside it.
I noticed an area further on the horizon that has remained untouched by the windmills that otherwise cover the rest of the land in my field of vision. I asked Khan and he identified the land as the Aalaji ka Oran where his cattle graze every day. He explained that it is a community-conserved area called Oran, dedicated to the folk deity Aalaji widely worshipped in the region. These large areas of common land are found in various parts of Rajasthan and function with an ancient system of adaptive resource management. These lands play a significant part in maintaining ecological balance and are often referred to as a local micro biodiversity reserve. They function as the grazing ground for cattle, and the composition of the plant species has evolved in response to livestock requirements. The folk culture supports this sustainable livelihood by bringing communities together through various fairs and festivals that take place in the Oran.
On visiting the Oran, I learned about the complex system of rules with which the Oran functions. The temple located within the Oran is one of the main ones dedicated to Aalaji. The Bhopa (priest) is the principal figure that connects communities with their deity and acts as a channel of communication between the two. The Bhopa at the temple explained the complex system that has helped preserve the Orans as well as provide a stable livelihood to the village dwellers. He added that any kind of private or government intervention in the Oran is strictly prohibited, and the felling of trees for any purpose other than religion is also banned. The resources in the Oran can be used by the community as long as they fall to the ground on their own.
However, I was told by one of the villagers that people are always welcome to relish the ber (berry) hanging from the trees or kair (Capparis decidua) and sangari (desert beans, from the khejri trees). As communities living near Orans are mostly pastoralist in nature, their survival completely relies on these Orans providing grazing ground for their livestock. Most of these Orans also consist of water sources like streams, ponds and small rivulets that provide water to the cattle and are also used by people for irrigation.
As I advanced through the Oran, my mind reverberated with thoughts about the belief system that has preserved this piece of land from being engulfed by wind project companies. Though renewable energy sources are often identified as infinite sources of energy envisioned as the least exploitative, they can lead to political challenges when the sociocultural aspects of such energy transitions are ignored. These large-scale infrastructural projects reflect the hope for national identity built through modern techno-science, without considering the infrastructural complexities of green energy projects in the Thar Desert.
Some of the Orans have been claimed by the government after independence and wrongfully declared as “wastelands” under the Revenue Department. The remaining Orans do not have any written document attributed to their ownership which makes it easier to allow these lands to be given away to industries and energy companies. This has not only harmed the ecological balance and sustainable development of most of the Orans, but has also caused major distress to these communities who depend on the Orans for their livelihood. The grazing grounds are shrinking as most of the cattle, fearing the cacophony of the windmills, maintain a safe distance. Communities also have to travel further for water in the scorching heat of the summer.
Reclaiming the Orans
It did not take the villagers long to form “Team Oran”, a group fighting against the development at the cost of sustainable land. The team has carried out several Oran Yatra for the Orans that have not been recorded in the Revenue Department records.
Last summer, a group of villagers walked towards the District Collector’s office. One of them carried an earthen pot in their hands. The earthen pot contained the blood-stained soil from the land where seven deer were killed due to a solar plant near Degrai Oran in Jaisalmer. The team gave the blood-stained soil and a memorandum to the District Collector to pass on to the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister of the country, asking to protect the Orans and the animals in the Oran.
Sumer Singh Bhati, community leader and Orans activist, states, “Development should be there, but we are against the destruction that is happening in place of development. We don’t want that.” Sumer Singh Bhati is completely dependent on his livestock for survival, owning 400 camels, goats and cows. He understands how important Orans are as grazing grounds, given that Degrai Oran and Aalaji ka Oran support forty to fifty thousand cattle.
The Orans are in peril as wind farming threatens these sacred lands in Rajasthan. The energy projects that are being proposed on the sacred land are “sustainable,” yet altering the Orans both causes harm to ecological balance and makes the land uncultivable. For instance, when a solar panel is installed, a hole is dug 7-8 feet into the ground to build the concrete base of the pillar. Meanwhile, the windmills are a threat to endangered birds. Through this encroachment by power companies, the peaceful lives of the village dwellers have been disrupted along with the vital relationships between nature and the community. It is crucial to reclaim the Orans, the villagers’ only possibility of survival in this hostile desert, and to resist the green capitalist practice of taking away land for the sake of development, putting the communities and species thriving there at risk.
Featured Image: Farmer Rehan Khan in his farm plot looking at the windmills. Photo by author.
Nisha Paliwal is a research scholar in the School of Liberal Arts at IIT Jodhpur. She is interested in folklore and community practices at large. Her Ph.D. research area stands at the intersection of energy humanities and critical infrastructure studies where she looks at energy transition/intervention at the site of sacred spaces called ‘Orans’ in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. Her work involves understanding the effects of such transition/intervention on ecological and community practices. In the long term, she is interested in documenting these community practices and arts through writing, photography, and audio-visual formats, forming a body of work showcasing local cultures. Contact.