Coal, Glasgow, and the future of the Great Indian Bustard
In just about 20 years, habitat loss and powerlines (on which the bird collides, falling to its death) have rendered the populations down to less than 100 birds
In 2020, India hosted the United Nations-led conference on migratory species in Gujarat. The Great Indian Bustard (GIB), a critically endangered grassland bird, was its mascot. At the Conference of the Parties, an action plan for the GIB was finalised to great applause. And in November 2021, India has made serious commitments under the Glasgow Climate Pact, pledging a phase-down of coal.
The two commitments do not appear to be confrontational, but have tragically been placed at loggerheads.
Named after India, GIB was once found over the Deccan peninsula, west and northern India. In just about 20 years, habitat loss and powerlines (on which the bird collides, falling to its death) have rendered the populations down to less than 100 birds – now found predominantly in Thar (Rajasthan) and Kutch (Gujarat).
These are the last known viable breeding populations of the bird in the world. The Wildlife Institute of India has found that 16% of GIB die each year from collision or electrocution on powerlines in Thar. Similar studies find that at current rates of mortality, its population in Thar may go extinct in 10-20 years.
In April, taking note of the dire straits of the Bustard, the Supreme Court (SC) ordered that powerlines should be taken underground in existing and potential GIB habitats. Now, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change along with the ministry of power and the ministry of new and renewable energy have approached the SC with an application asking to modify the order.
The argument is that India needs to reap renewable energy, failing which it will not be able to reduce coal-based energy. The implication is that taking lines underground is too difficult. This unfairly pits the critically endangered GIB against the spectre of coal.
Solar and wind energy (among others) are needed for India to phase-down coal, part of our Glasgow pact commitments. While this in itself is logical, the siting of projects does not always follow logic. In an abundantly hot country, solar energy can be sited just about anywhere. It needn’t always be in the shape of huge solar farms, spanning hundreds of square kilometres — it can also be solar capacity on rooftops. Additionally, we can use existing systems for renewable power. Ecologist Abi T Vanak, who works on grassland ecosystems, suggests deploying large-scale solar capacity on existing infrastructure within industrial parks and Special Economic Zones.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s panchamrit (five commitments) announced at COP26 in Glasgow, 2030 is a prominent benchmark. By 2030, he said, India would produce 50% of our energy through renewable power. By then, the plan is that we will also reduce one billion tonnes in projected carbon emissions. This is the technological side of the climate action story, and should not be seen in isolation from existing goals of species and ecosystem protection. The false narrative of pitting the saving of a wild species on the one side and coal on the other is like saying we can’t make buildings without cutting down trees on the pavement. Climate action has to do better than we have done before, on at least two counts.
First, following the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is trying to build back better. This includes creating systems that are intelligent, just and cognisant of social and environmental realities. Building around (and not through) the last habitats of the last of a species would be sustainable, and just.
Second, the Glasgow Pact, of which India is a part, also recognises the importance of wild habitat. It “emphasizes the importance of protecting, conserving and restoring nature and ecosystems, including forests and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems, to achieve the long-term global goal of the Convention by acting as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases and protecting biodiversity, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards”.
The natural ecosystem of the desert — an important ecosystem that attracts monsoon winds — should be valued for what it is, as should its endemic wildlife. In terms of social safeguards, it is also to be noted that local communities are fighting to save their sacred places from massive renewable power projects that are larger than cities.
In Rajasthan, villagers have approached the National Green Tribunal against powerlines, deforestation and land grab near Deg Mata Rai Oran. In September, a female GIB — 1% of the global population — died after colliding with electric lines near Oran. Wires in deserts are killing other birds too, and in many places, diverters put up to alert birds have not worked.
In October, several other birds died after a collision, including migratory Demoiselle cranes that come to India from Mongolia, flying over the Himalayas. Among the birds that have died in the same area from powerlines in the last year are Cinereous vultures, Griffon vultures, Egyptian vultures and tawny eagles.
Unlike many other recognisable wild animals, the GIB does not carry the convenience of popularity. As a cryptic, wide-ranging bird that is seen mostly in its breeding season, now relegated to India’s hottest places, it is incumbent on India to save the last breeding habitats of this bird. What India does — or finds too difficult to do — will make or break the GIB. And if the power ministry stands up for power, it is also incumbent to ask which ministry will stand up for the Indian bustard.
2030 is a benchmark year for our climate commitments. Let it not be the year of the extinction of the wild GIB.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild and Wilful- tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species
The views expressed are personal