SC notice on Centre’s plea to modify order that protected Great Indian Bustard

Updated on Feb 02, 2022 05:07 AM IST
The Great Indian Bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds, lacks frontal vision and cannot detect powerlines ahead of them from far, and cannot manoeuvre around power lines within close distances because of their weight.
The Great Indian Bustard is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its Red List of threatened species.(Photo courtesy: Asad Rahmani)
The Great Indian Bustard is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its Red List of threatened species.(Photo courtesy: Asad Rahmani)
ByAbraham Thomas

The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to consider an application filed by Centre seeking modification of an order of the top court passed last year directing undergrounding of power cables in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, which serve as the natural habitat of critically endangered bird – the Great Indian Bustard (GIB).

Citing technical objections for carrying out the court’s directions, the Centre in its application filed through the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) said that the decision of the court will have “far and wide ramifications” on the development of renewable energy sector as the order will apply to an area extending to 80,688 square kilometre in the two states which are crucial for development of renewable energy sources – wind and solar power.

The Great Indian Bustard is listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its Red List of threatened species. They are also protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

The Great Indian Bustard is one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, about a metre in height and wingspan of around seven feet. It has disappeared from 90% of the habitat except for parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Because the bird lacks frontal vision, they cannot detect powerlines ahead of them from far, and are unable to manoeuvre around power lines within close distances because of their weight.

Also Read | Guarding the great Indian bustard: Herders, farmers as a first line of defence

“The 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.

Representing the Centre, attorney general (A-G) KK Venugopal informed the court that the matter required consideration. There were other similar applications seeking modification of the court’s direction filed by solar developers’ association, wind independent power producers’ association and Rajasthan government.

A bench of justices Hemant Gupta and V Ramasubramanian issued notice on all applications and directed responses to be filed by the petitioner, noted wildlife activist MK Ranjitsinh, on whose petition the order was passed.

Venugopal informed the court that since the April 19 direction was passed by a three-judge bench, modification of it should also go before a bench of that numeric strength. The bench directed the matter to be placed before the Chief Justice of India (CJI) for constituting a three-judge bench for consideration of these applications expeditiously.

Senior advocate Shyam Divan, who appeared for Ranjitsinh, told the court that with great difficulty, the April 19 order was passed with an intention to save and preserve the existing population of the Great Indian Bustard. Though a time of one year was granted for implementing the order, Divan said that till date, there was no compliance by the Centre or state governments. The court granted liberty to the parties to mention the matter before CJI for getting a fixed date for hearing the applications.

The April 2019 order constituted a committee to examine feasibility concerns over laying power lines underground. It said, “The respondents while arranging to lay the powerlines underground shall proceed with the work right away. However, in case where the respondents find that there are issues relating to feasibility, the matter shall be referred to the committee with all relevant material and particulars.”

Further, the court held, “In all cases where the overhead power lines exist as on today in the priority and potential GIB area, the respondents shall take steps forthwith to install bird diverters pending consideration of the conversion of the overhead cables into underground power lines.”

The Centre constituted a study team drawing experts from various fields to consider implementation of Court’s order which submitted a report on July 23 identifying various challenges including technical issues, right of way, safety and environment issues, and commercial factors.

“Unlike overhead power lines, there is no manufacturer of underground/insulated cables for 765 kV in the world,” the study team said in its report, besides suggesting that the total project cost for undergrounding of power lines would be commercially unviable and its maintenance cumbersome.

As per assessment by solar power developers’ association (SDPA), renewable energy developers would be required to incur additional cost of almost 55,000 crore for carrying out the court order. These cables would have to pass through agricultural fields and there would be safety concerns as the cable could be punctured due to agricultural activities.

According to Wildlife Institute of India final report of 2020, the potential Great Indian Bustard habitat in Rajasthan and Gujarat extends to 80,688 square kilometre, which includes approximately 13,550 square kilometre priority habitat area. The WII report recommended undergrounding of around 200 km of overhead power lines and installing bird diverters on all other power lines to make them prominent for Great Indian Bustard.

The area falling in GIB habitat covers heritage districts of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur and parts of Bikaner and Barmer.

“This region is very crucial for the development of renewable energy. Considering its significance in providing green energy supply across India, the requirement to lay down underground power lines on the renewable energy projects situated in such a large geographical area will prove to be counter-productive for the development of renewable energy sector in India.” the Centre said in support of seeking a modification of the judgment in question.

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