New power lines plan could further endanger the Great Indian Bustard

ByJayashree Nandi
Mar 04, 2023 01:22 AM IST

The draft notification appears to be an attempt to sidestep a 2021 Supreme Court order that seeks to protect the species

New Delhi A draft notification issued by the Central Electricity Authority last month on construction of electric lines in the habitat of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard in Gujarat and Rajasthan has raised concerns because it could endanger the species, less than 100 of which survive. The last date for receiving public comments on the draft regulation was March 3 (Friday). The power lines are critical for evacuation of solar power to the electricity grid.

The Great Indian Bustard has disappeared from 90% of its habitat except parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat (FILE)
The Great Indian Bustard has disappeared from 90% of its habitat except parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat (FILE)

The draft also appears to be an attempt to sidestep a 2021 Supreme Court order that seeks to protect a species that may have well become India’s national bird, if not for concerns over misspelling its name.

The draft Central Electricity Authority (Construction of Electric Lines in Great Indian Bustard Area) Regulations, 2023, seen by HT, proposed that electric lines of 33 kV and lower voltage, passing through the Great Indian Bustard area would have to travel underground , but that electric lines above 33 kV voltage passing through the area can do so overhead, as long as bird flight diverters are installed. These diverters are aimed at improving power line visibility for birds and reducing the risk of collision.

Technical specifications for bird flight diverters would be issued by CEA through a separate order, the draft said, adding that the authority would also have powers to relax some of these norms. “The Authority may, by order and for reasons to be recorded in writing, relax any of provisions of these regulations in respect of the matters referred to the Authority on case-to-case basis,” the draft stated.

GIB is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, about a metre in height and with a wingspan of around 7 feet. It has disappeared from 90% of its habitat except parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat . Overhead power lines are the biggest threat to the survival of the GIBs, according to the Wildlife Institute of India.

In response to a PIL filed by wildlife expert M K Ranjitsinh and others on preventing the extinction of the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican (another bird of the same family found in the region), SC said in its order of April 2021 that in all cases where the overhead power lines exist utilities and companies shall take steps forthwith to install diverters pending consideration of the conversion of the overhead cables into underground power lines. In all such cases where it is found feasible to convert the overhead cables into underground power lines the same shall be undertaken and completed within a period of one year and till such time the diverters shall be hung from the existing power lines, the order said.

The court also constituted a committee with two wildlife scientists and one scientist from the ministry of new and renewable energy to assess the feasibility of laying high voltage underground power lines. If there are issues relating to feasibility of laying certain power lines underground, the matter shall be referred to the committee with all relevant material and particulars, it added.

“This draft circumvents the SC order. Bird diverters are not adequate. They often do not show at night, they are vulnerable to damage or being blown away by strong wind in the region. These diverters haven’t proved successful and we cannot afford to lose even a single bird now. To say that we will breed them and then release them is also not a sound idea because you have to release them in their habitat where they will be impacted again by the overhead lines. We will respond in the court regarding this,” said MK Ranjitsinh, former bureaucrat, one of the main architects of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and petitioner in the SC case on conservation of GIB.

In its report titled “Power Line Mitigation, 2018”, WII stated that every year 1 lakh birds of multiple species die due to collisions with power lines. It concluded that unless power line mortality is mitigated urgently, extinction of GIBs is certain. WII surveys in Thar covering 80 km of power lines repeated 7 times over a year found 289 carcasses of around 30 species, including a few of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). The study estimated 3 bird mortalities/km/month for low-¬tension lines, 6 bird mortalities/km/month for high-tension lines, and about 1 lakh birds/per year within a 4200 area in/around Desert National Park, Rajasthan. There were around 128 birds remaining in the wild in 2018 according to the WII report .

The regulations shall apply to all power generating companies, transmission licensees, distribution licensees, the central transmission utility, and state transmission utilities who plan or own or operate or maintain electric lines in the GIB area.

HT reported on February 2, 2022 that the Supreme Court agreed to consider an application filed by Centre seeking modification of its order passed in 2021 directing undergrounding of power cables in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. “The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is working towards achieving the target set by government of India to install 1,75,000 MW (excluding large hydro) of renewable energy capacity by 2022 and further increase it to 4,50,000 MW by 2030,” the application said, citing its commitment under the Paris Agreement to achieve about 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030.

HT reached out to CEA for a comment but did not get one immediately.

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