Wind taken hostage in tribal land claims -- Land war in Maharashtra delays world's largest wind plant

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Wind power development in the Indian state of Maharashtra is embroiled in a battle over tribal land rights that has the country's leading wind company, Suzlon, cancelling projects, moving development and shutting down swathes of operating turbines. About 250 MW of intended development is either delayed or cancelled and 200 MW shut down while 50 MW has had to be relocated, some of it to the neighbouring state of Gujarat (table).

The problems are centred around 127 hectares of forest land in Dhule that Suzlon leases from the state government under a 30 year agreement. Here it is building a massive 1000 MW of wind capacity in a series of individual projects for private customers. About 637 MW has been completed to date.

Since March, however, members of the local Adivasis tribal community have occupied several sections of the land claiming it to be rightfully theirs. The Adivasis lived on the land prior to India's independence from the UK in 1947. Upon independence, India's government repatriated the land and the Adivasis have been campaigning unsuccessfully to get it back ever since. Last year, the Indian government passed a law giving the Adivasis the right to put in a claim for the land, but it is up to the state government to determine whether or not they have a legal right to it. In the middle of this controversy, Suzlon has become an unwitting victim of the new law, with some campaigners opting to take action rather than wait for a ruling.

Temporary setback

The current battle over Dhule mirrors a similar land ownership controversy which Suzlon went through last year in Sangli, in western Maharashtra, the location for a 150 MW project for Reliance Energy. Here local residents suddenly demanded more money for the land they leased to Suzlon. The Reliance project came to a stop and is still on hold, while 74 MW of the 222 MW already installed there by Suzlon was forced to shut down for a time, although all of it is now back online.

"We have been forced to cancel some turbine orders," admits Suzlon's Vivek Kher. The company concedes that its wind plant installations in India this year are likely to stagnate at 1000 MW rather than continue along their sharp growth path. "With local pressure groups causing interruptions, we have received a temporary setback in terms of meeting targets," says Kher. "However, with our sincere efforts and with the support of the local administration, we are confident of being able retrieve the situation in time to meet all our targets." As well as being forced to bring some development to a halt, Suzlon has also seen thefts of copper power cables, aluminium service ladders, and other equipment rise sharply.

Reconciliation attempts and offers of alternative land for the Adivasis have so far been rejected. To date the dispute has cost Suzlon around $11 million, says Kher.

Copper theft

"Thanks to a better security arrangement and local police vigilance, theft cases have reduced in the recent past," he says. "Some of the losses have been recovered by way of insurance claims...and the financial impact of the additional security arrangements is minimal."

While it waits for the government to settle the matter, Suzlon is establishing a department for land identification to research old records of ownership. "We are merely being extra cautious on this subject," says Kher. "It has minor impact on our finances."

Most of Suzlon's customers have been patient with the situation, adds the company. These include HPCL, which has seen Suzlon put its original 25 MW order on hold and defer a repeat order for the same volume. Other customers for the site include oil giant BP, which has 40 MW installed and a further 300 MW planned. So far this kind of dispute only seems to be occurring in Maharashtra.

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