Driving southward from Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli city, one crosses many towns and villages with all the typical scenes one would expect – busy buses and trains, students in a rush, and construction labourers boarding lorries to head to their workstation of the day. There are hospitals, colleges and universities, shops, and a lot of temples. Beyond Valliyur town, however, the landscape begins to change. Lush green fields surrounded by mountains, grazing goats and sheep, active morning birds and pastoralists and farmers gearing up for the day greet you to the countryside. And just when you start to think the scenery could not get more impressive, there emerges a backdrop of wind turbines, standing at average heights of over 50-80 feet.

Muppandal is home to India's largest operational onshore wind farm in terms of installed capacity. The farm features turbines from many private players, and was developed by the Tamil Nadu Energy Development Agency (TEDA). The wind turbines here are some of the oldest in the country, and range from 200 kilowatts (KW) to 1,650 KW. What makes Muppandal a great site to install wind turbines is its location, which receives uniquely powerful winds from the Arabian Sea. 

Wind turbines next to Tirunelveli-Kanniyakumari state highway in Aralvaimozhi. Photo by Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay.

Across villages in Kanyakumari, Thoothukudi and Tirunelveli districts, these farms have brought winds of change for the people and the local economy. Over three decades, a lot has changed in this region, which accounts for about 25 per cent of India's total installed wind power capacity of 40.12 gigawatts (GW). The villages here were once predominantly dependent on agriculture. Groundnut, sesame, corn, and millets would grow in abundance. Gradually, the wind turbines mushroomed. The wind farms grew in acreages in and around Kanniyakumari and Tirunelveli districts. They found kinship with the land and continued to expand. Land prices soared giving way to infrastructure development and improved lifestyles. People sold their farming lands during this period to make profits. Occupations changed over the years and now, stories about agriculture that once flourished in the region, cascade through generations.

During interactions, the diverse people here – farmers, pastoralists, landowners, engineers, homemakers, shop owners, teachers, and village council officials, all residing near wind farms in Muppandal, Panakudi, Donahvur, Radhapuram, and Mettu Pirancheri of southern Tamil Nadu - shared how the area has evolved over the last few decades and the social impact that the wind farms have had. The people understand that the wind farms led to rapid improvement in the region and therefore try to push aside their collective grief for the loss of agriculture, a profession that the youth of the area now hesitate to take up for various reasons. And for every person who mourned the decline of agriculture, at least one person in their family works at a wind or solar farm.

Continuous electricity and green jobs

Thangaraj C., 38, from Mettu Pirancheri in Tirunelveli, wakes up and checks his phone. The first thing he looks at is the status of the wind turbines of the company he works for, which are installed in the area. Thangaraj oversees four turbines – monitors them, fixes faults, if any, and maintains them. Wi-Fi is available in the small office setup near the turbine, which enables the systems to provide the data on his smartphone. A mechanical engineer with over 15 years of experience in the wind energy industry, Thangaraj has worked in different cities across the country and has seen the advancement of technology from old turbines to new ones.

"Wind is a huge boon for the youth of south Tamil Nadu," declares Thangaraj, standing next to an 88-metre wind turbine that makes a heavy sound as the blades tear through the air. "Oh! we've got used to this sound," he says. Talking about the importance of wind energy in generating employment opportunities, Thangaraj said, "Many companies are located north of Madurai, however, down south there are many engineers who are unemployed. Therefore, wind farms have been a good source of employment. My father is not educated, and my mother passed away due to cancer; but they gave me education. I completed engineering and I am now working in a job that I am proud of. I live in a pollution-free atmosphere, and I am doing a green job."

Windmills in Tirunelveli district and near Muppandal in Kanniyakumar district in southern Tamil Nadu. Map by Technology for Wildlife.

He also takes pride in the fact that wind is a renewable source of energy. It's a 'suthamaana energy source' (clean energy in Tamil), he reiterates. Twenty engineers from his village work in wind farms as engineers. The youth in these districts are in favour of the expanding wind farms, not only due to the possibility of green jobs, but also because they get continuous electricity, which was rare until a couple of decades back. Sooriya Priya, 27, lives in Moovendar Nagar, a village near Muppandal. Her husband works on a wind farm. "There can be positives and negatives of large-scale renewable energy projects, but we get continuous power now. We have no power cuts except the maintenance cuts. This is a huge relief for us. We feel secure and our lifestyles have improved." she said.

When land prices increased with the rise of windmills, it was not only those who sold or leased their lands to wind turbine owners who benefited. Everyone did. Many farmers sold their lands when the wind turbines were being installed and made profits. Nature educator Maria Antony from Panakudi, who works with children and teaches them about local ecology, is one such person who profited from the hike in the land price. "My father sold his land and made a good profit because of which we were able to study well. Many farmers made double or triple the profits during that time which they would not have made by farming," he explained. Although he feels differently about large renewable energy projects as an ecologist, he acknowledges that the increase in land price was a boost to the farmers' lifestyles.

The challenges in pastoralism and agriculture

The benefits and drawbacks of wind farms are interlaced in this region, creating a paradox that makes it hard to pin down whether wind farms have been good or bad for the people. Raghavan M., 65, from Mettu Pirancheri, has been a pastoralist for 15 years. As he released his 70 sheep to graze, in a landscape dominated by the invasive Prosopis juliflora, he said, "Although grass grows around the areas where turbines are installed, there is no grass under the turbine. The water table has reduced in the spots where the turbines were installed." While the precise link between the wind turbines and these impacts are difficult to establish, Raghavan says people have made these observations over the years, adding that it has been difficult for him to graze his sheep after the wind turbines were installed.

Another farmer and pastoralist from Mettu Pirancheri, Pandaram Velu, 50, says he suffered because the fences at the wind and solar farms block access, and he can't take his cattle to graze in different areas like he did earlier. Now, he finishes the round of grazing within a 10-kilometre radius. However, he noted that wind turbines are better than solar farms that "block" the entire land. "No one forced anyone to sell their lands. People wanted to sell the land for profits. Now agriculture has dwindled, and lands are fenced off," he told us while he was feeding his goats with leafy greens from his farmland. Velu's younger brother works on a solar farm and assists him in the farmland whenever required.

A fenced wind farm to stop trespassers and cattle grazing in Radhapuram at Tirunelveli. Credit :  Narayana Swamy Subbaraman/Mongabay.

Not only pastoralists, farmers in some areas too have concerns. Some state that their produce is affected because of the wind farms. About 90 kilometres from Mettu Pirancheri, is Radhapuram where Rasathi I., 52, waters her tomato field. Just a few yards from the field is a giant wind turbine. "The turbines and the crops don't set. The natural wind is different. The quality of the vegetables grown has been affected because of the turbine. It hasn't improved agriculture exactly," she says. Her son works for a wind company, and is preparing to pursue a Master's degree abroad.

Many farmers also ask, "Who is making money?" Annakudi M., 60, a farmer in Mettu Pirancheri with six acres of land, says four members of her family work in the wind farms. "I've heard them say that their job is tedious, but they still go. Already agricultural lands have dwindled after wind farms expanded and people sold their land off. However, no job is like farming. Wind farms do generate jobs but it's the owners of the wind turbines who make the money, not the farmers who sold their lands off," she said.

Over the years, as many people sold their farms, agriculture has dwindled. Vidangan R., 70, the village head of Moovendar Nagar near Muppandal, about 20 kilometres west of Radhapuram, reiterated the dual sides of wind farms. He said that although the wind farms are a boon to the district in one way, due to the rapid development, they have also indirectly led to the loss of agriculture. "As agriculture got increasingly difficult, people sold their lands to make money. Now, in Moovendar Nagar alone, there are about 30 people working in wind farms. But if the farms were to expand to more areas, that is a threat to agriculture. The money goes to wind farms, and a few jobs come our way. Agriculture is important," he said, recollecting the days when he saw truckloads of groundnuts being transported for sale. Vidangan's son works as an engineer with a wind farm service provider.

Lands sold and leased out

A narrow street with wind turbines on both sides, the entry to Radhapuram during sunset looks like something out of a movie. Sundar Rajan, 85, stops his car. "I sold a few plots of land in Radhapuram to a private wind turbine manufacturer. We had orchards there before. We had mango trees, coconut, etc. Three wind turbines exist in my previous land. It's a fenced piece of land. We did profit from it." Just as he drives away, we see pastoralists grazing their cattle outside several fenced pieces of land.

About 30 km from Radhapuram lies Dohnavur, known for Dohnavur Fellowship, an institution started by Irish Missionary Amy Carmichael as a centre for orphans and a safe home for children who were subject to the devadasi practice (a practice whereby parents marry a daughter off to a deity or a temple and she performs duties for the temple) in the early 1900s. Jeremiah Rajanesan, who oversees the Fellowship's functioning today, said, "We leased out nine parcels of land when the turbines were just beginning to get installed in the district and it is part of the annual lease. We get around Rs. 400,000 per annum. We have a deep relationship with the landscape, and as long as the ecosystem stays intact, we are okay with the wind turbines staying on."

One interaction with a farmer stood out from the rest. Kanakaraj A., 56, from Panakudi, who was the first person in his village to sell his land to a wind company, said, "The whole district has benefited from the continuous power supply. My son works in a wind farm in Andhra Pradesh and our family understands the importance of green jobs." He believes that agriculture is possible on the land with turbines. "The turbine owners that I sold the land to still cultivate groundnut crops, he says," in the tone of busting a myth. Kanakaraj stressed that the reason that agriculture has dropped is not because of people selling land off to wind turbines. "The reason agriculture is not being adopted is that people are finding better jobs after getting education," he explained.

A just transition?

The energy transition in the region has been smooth and mostly peaceful. But as Tamil Nadu gears to meet clean energy targets with new plans, it becomes vital to study the long-term social impacts of renewable energy projects to develop a roadmap for a transition that is also just for the people and environment. Narrating a recent incident, residents of Tirunelveli say a few months ago, a young man climbed over a transformer in a wind farm to steal a copper wire. But he didn't know that high tension cables could be dangerous to touch. He died because of electrocution. This was not the first event of this kind, the people shared. Attempts to steal copper wires from transformers of wind farms are common in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

The security guards at such wind farms are often older people who have no other choice of jobs. Ganesan N., 65, a resident of Aralvaimozhi near the Muppandal wind farm, who has been working as a security guard in a private wind farm for about five years, has a hectic schedule. He shuttles between morning and night shifts, braving both hot temperatures in the day hours and an eerily empty, remote space during the night. His wife Saraswathi G., 58, who is scared for her husband's safety during the night, hesitantly says that she has gotten used to this lifestyle as there are no other jobs available for them in their old age. The couple, however, said that although there are no farmlands left for the locals to practice agriculture on, the younger generation would get jobs if more wind farms were erected.

There are also instances where people working in wind farms in this region had to quit, for different reasons. Kamal Kannan (name changed), who used to work in a wind farm in Muppandal as a crane operator involved in erecting and de-erecting turbines, quit his job. "Men from other northern states are being employed for a lesser salary. But crane operation is a demanding job with huge risks. I had to move for salary growth," he said. He now works in a metro city in building construction.

Sasikala K., 42, who used to work as an accountant at a private wind farm, had to quit her job too. "The wind farms are situated at very isolated locations, not close to the town centres. I had to drive back alone during the late evening hours after work. After I had children, I felt that I needed to be safe, not just for me, but for them too. Therefore, we set up a small shop here for basic goods," she said.

As Sasikala narrates her story, another pattern, common to many other renewable energy projects across the country, becomes clear – safety and accessibility for women is a common concern. Jobs for women in the wind or solar power sector, thus, are limited. Thangaraj, who works on a wind farm, gives his view on this, "I acknowledge that women can't feel as safe in crane operation or security jobs at wind farms. But there are many women in factories producing electrical components that are used in wind turbines. That counts as a green job too."