India’s displaced mine workers look for jobs in emerging renewable sector

In late 2000, illegal iron ore mining thrived in the Ballari district of Karnataka. After the Supreme Court banned iron ore mining in 2011, many locals were left without employment.

Located approximately 34 kilometres from Sandur, Rajapura is a village situated in Ballari district. The village, primarily consisting of plains with scattered hillocks on its outskirts, is home to one of the largest solar parks in the district. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

A Yariswamy, a 40-year-old former mine worker from Ranajithpur village in Sandur taluka of Ballari, a district in Karnataka known for iron-ore mining, is witnessing the emergence of a new industry in the region. Over the past decade, numerous companies have established wind turbines and solar panels, offering a glimmer of hope to Yariswamy. A father to two children, he looks to this budding industry as a potential source of long-term job security.

Having been associated with the Bellary Zila Gani Karmika Sangha (a labour union), Yariswamy was among the many who lost their jobs in 2011 when the Supreme Court of India prohibited mining in Ballari, formerly Bellary. Since then, he has taken up various jobs, including in agriculture and as a daily-wage labourer, in order to provide for his family. However, none of these could match the stability and income he once enjoyed while working in the mining sector.

The memories of his struggle remain vivid in Yariswamy’s mind as he recalls the abrupt turn of events. “One day, we were informed that we were no longer required to work. It was a shock for all of us,” he recounts. Although the apex court granted partial permission for mining activities to resume in 2011, it fell short of accommodating everyone affected. Since then, the union has organised several protests. Fuelled by frustration and a desire to restore normalcy, Yariswamy joined hundreds of disgruntled mine workers in a march to the district collector’s office in early October 2022 as well.

Yariswamy says that the sudden closure of iron ore mining in the district left approximately 25,000 residents unemployed. Many continue to fight for their rights.

M.V. Ravikumar, a 46-year-old resident of Vittalnagar in Sandur taluk, shares a similar tale of hardship. Working as a driver, he explains how his entire village was once closely linked to the mining sector, either formally or informally. However, everything changed after 2011, and unemployment was widespread.

“In the early 2000s, mining was flourishing in our region. Consequently, nearly every household had three members involved in some mining-related occupation, whether as drivers, labourers, or in other roles. But now, at best, only one member from each household manages to secure employment, resulting in a significant reduction in incomes,” Ravikumar laments.

H. Babbul, a 44-year-old, also from Vittalnagar, draws a comparison between the current income levels and the previous one. “Many former mining workers have shifted to agricultural labour or other types of work. Previously, mining companies provided transportation to our workplaces. However, now, if we need to travel to Ballari city or other towns for work, we must spend more than half of our daily wages on transportation alone,” he adds.

The majority of workers residing in Sandur and nearby areas, which once thrived due to mining activities a decade ago, express disappointment that the rise of renewable projects in the district has not generated enough employment opportunities to absorb those left unemployed in 2011.

Rise of renewables

Located approximately 34 kilometres from Sandur, Rajapura is a village situated in Ballari district. The village, primarily consisting of plains with scattered hillocks on its outskirts, is home to one of the largest solar parks in the district. Owned by JSW, the solar park has a capacity of 125 Megawatts (MW) and was designed to meet the captive energy requirements of its steel plant, informs a company official.

This ambitious project commenced in 2019, following JSW’s collaboration with local farmers and villagers, who leased their land to the company on a long-term basis. Hasan Sab, a resident of Rajapur village, neighbouring the expansive JSW solar park, told Mongabay-India, “Farmers in this area entered into contracts with the company for the solar park, leasing their land for an annual sum of Rs. 20,000 per acre. Around 40-50 individuals from our village and nearby villages secured contractual jobs related to this project, such as electricians, solar panel cleaning, grass cutting, and various other tasks. Senior-level positions are held by employees from other states,” Sab explained to Mongabay-India.

The rise of renewable energy is also evident in other parts of the district. Approximately 60 kilometres away from Ballari City, Siruguppa showcases an expanse of solar parks. While nearby residents continue farming on their land, Shahi Exports’ sprawling 32 MW solar park has become a prominent landmark.

The outskirts of Ballari city present a different sight, as Sindegeri welcomes visitors with a series of windmills owned by Suzlon, as shared by a district official. K. Thipparna, a Sindegeri resident, informed Mongabay-India that 18 wind turbines are spread across seven kilometres on the hilltops. These windmills were established around a decade ago, and due to their location atop the hills, there were no land acquisition issues.

However, JSW, Suzlon, and Shahi Exports are not the sole contributors to the renewable energy landscape in the Ballari district. According to publicly available documents from the Karnataka government, numerous other renewable energy companies have either developed solar parks or wind power stations, catering to their own energy requirements or engaging in commercial operations in various capacities.

It should not happen that the first renewables would come and the government starts planning for skilling; rather, both should go parallelly. Otherwise, skilled people from outside will come, and the local population will not benefit from the area’s new economy.

Sandeep Pai, director, Swaniti Initiative

The Union government has already identified Ballari among the six Renewable Economic Zones (REZs) in Karnataka. It has pegged Ballari’s renewable potential up to 1.5 GW by the end of 2030.

Why is Ballari becoming a renewable hotspot?

According to official documents from the Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL), Ballari ranks as the third district in Karnataka with the highest number of commissioned solar projects. Among the approved solar projects with a capacity of up to 736 MW, 474 MW have already been allotted, and more projects are anticipated. The only districts surpassing Ballari in commissioned solar projects are Tumkur (2588 MW) and Chitradurga (721 MW) as of February 2023 data.

As per the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE), Ballari has substantial wind energy potential of 7978.17 MW at a height of 120 metres. Currently, the district has commissioned wind power projects totalling 308 MW and Ballari stands as sixth among Karnataka districts in number of commissioned wind projects.

The rise of renewables in Ballari could also be attributed to the presence of several industries that use iron ore as a feedstock, says Rishu Garg, Group Lead (Regulatory and Policy) at the Centre for Study of Science, Technology, and Policy (CSTEP), Bengaluru. She also claimed that bundling renewable energy with thermal energy can also help in tariff optimisation.

“The district has many iron and steel industries as the area is rich in iron ore. There is a huge potential for developing renewable energy sources for these industries, both solar power and waste-to-energy. There is also a government mandate to utilise thermal energy bundled with renewable energy. For example, the Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) can bundle its thermal power from the Bellary Thermal Power Station with co-located renewable energy sources for tariff optimisation. It is another reason for Ballari becoming a renewable hotspot,” Garg said.

Ballari is also home to very old thermal power stations. It includes a 1700 MW Bellary Thermal Power Station (BTPS) in addition to a 860 MW, privately-owned thermal power plant of JSW, which uses it for captive needs and sells additional power under open access, an official from Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL) said.

Established transmission networks, and an abundance of low-cost, easily available barren lands are a few other reasons attracting renewables in the area. The department is considering giving further push to attract renewables in the district.

“The main reasons are the easy availability of barren land and strong transmission centres nearby. Otherwise, solar projects are not viable due to higher transmission losses if we do not have robust transmission systems nearby. Bellary is a transmission and generation hub. If the new transmission sub-centres are there for the new generators, it is easy for them,” said Lata N. Patil, Assistant General Manager (Solar) at KREDL.

She also said that KREDL has decided to identify Koppal, Gadag, Bellary, and Chitradurga as mega renewable energy hubs with their existing potential to tap renewable energy. “We have also identified these districts for solar and wind hybrid projects. The plan is to develop around 800 MW of hybrid projects from each of these districts. Works are also on towards upgrading our transmission lines accordingly,” she added.

The clean energy developers who have invested in Ballari also attribute transmission facilities as a hand-holding support to support their clean energy projects.

“Ballari’s solar and wind resources are favourable for renewable investments in that state region. Also, the infrastructure and connectivity available make it a good area to develop large projects. Sources of raw materials and labour are an added advantage. The clean green energy produced in our plant is supplied to our corporate and industrial customers located in the state of Karnataka to meet their renewable and green energy targets and net zero aspirations,” Colonel Narendra Verma, COO (Utility Scale RE Projects) of CleanMax, which has a 130 MW solar power plant in Ballari, told Mongabay-India.

Lack of skill dampening the prospect of workers

While Ballari’s renewable energy industry finds the location lucrative in terms of easy access to infrastructure, raw materials and labour, local residents such as A. Yariswamy are still struggling to get a dignified space in the industry that’s booming in their backyard. Yariswamy says though, that he has no special skills and that is a possible reason he hasn’t got a job in the new industries. Earlier, he did not need any special skills or training in his jobs as a mine worker and labourer.

During Mongabay-India’s visit to the district, it was evident that there was a dearth of skilled workforce to take up the rising green jobs in the district. When asked about the lack of skilled workers trained in the renewable sector in Ballari, the district collector Pavan Kumar Malapati told Mongabay-India that Ballari had been known for textile works, and skill development training is mainly given in that sector and till now there was no special programme for skill development in the green jobs.

Sandeep Pai, an expert on the concept of just transitions and Director of Swaniti Initiative, emphasises that Ballari serves as a prime example of why India requires a just transition – a term used for transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy in a manner that is economically, environmentally and socially fair.

The situation underscores the harsh reality of what can occur when local workers are not promptly equipped with the necessary skills when a new green economy emerges, eventually replacing traditional mining industries.

“Whenever policymakers plan a new renewable project, they often go for the techno-economics where they try to assess the transmission lines there, grid, land availability, power demand, and others. In the whole process, they often miss out on a critical aspect of socio-economic planning. It should not happen that the first renewables would come and the government starts planning for skilling; rather, both should go parallelly. Otherwise, skilled people from outside will come, and the local population will not benefit from the area’s new economy. If they do not get the skills on time, the companies will not likely wait and will hire skilled people from nearby districts or other areas. Such incidents are also happening because Just Transition is a new concept in India, and many policymakers are still not inclined to make policies accordingly,” Pai said.

However, KREDL Managing Director K.P. Rudrappaiah said that the department is set to start special skill development programmes for green jobs for the whole state. With this training, Yariswamy and other former mine workers, hope for a secure job in the future.

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