Supreme Court orders the laying of high-voltage power lines underground in great Indian bustard habitats in Gujarat and Rajasthan

Published : April 24, 2021 20:09 IST

A female great Indian bustard that was killed after it collided with power lines in Kutch. Photo: Devesh Gadhavi, The Corbett Foundation

 

There’s good news for the great Indian bustard (GIB). The Supreme Court has directed the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan to lay high voltage power lines underground in the habitats of the bird to aid in its conservation efforts. The bird, found only in India and certain areas of Pakistan, is classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Power lines have long been a threat to the GIB and is also one of the prime reasons behind the steep decline in the GIB population in the past decade. Research studies conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India have shown that nearly 18 GIBs die every year because of collision with power lines in the Thar region, Rajasthan.

In 2013, when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had visited Kutch and said “the Great Indian Bustard is a unique gift of nature to Kutch district and the government of Gujarat is committed to its protection”. Ironically, between 2013 and 2021, the population of GIBs has declined speedily in Kutch, the only place in Gujarat where GIBs survive today. The two documented deaths of GIBs between 2014 and 2018 because of collision with overhead power lines proved beyond any doubt the severity of the threat power lines pose to the GIB. Since 2018, there has been no trace of male GIBs in Kutch and this is a matter of grave concern.

There are an estimated 100 GIBs in India and most are in Rajasthan’s Thar desert. If the threat of power lines is not dealt with, this bird will become extinct soon.

A public interest litigation (PIL) for the protection of the bird was filed two years ago in the Supreme Court by Dr M. K. Ranjitsinh, former bureaucrat and the architect of India’s Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972; Piraram Bishnoi, a concerned local wildlifer from Rajasthan; Navinbhai Bapat, a well-known birder from Gujarat; Santosh Martin, a wildlifer from Karnataka; and The Corbett Foundation. The PIL asked for power lines in critical bustard habitats to be buried underground and for the installation of bird diverters on all power lines in semi-critical habitats.

There were other pleas in the PIL relating to habitat protection and its proper management; control over the disturbance caused by free-ranging dogs and other predators; the conservation breeding programme of GIB; and control of any further development/expansion of wind farms and solar parks in the bustard habitat. Even the local people of Kutch and Rajasthan have repeatedly complained about the threat these power lines pose to various other bird species such as the Lesser Florican in addition to the GIB.

Responding to the PIL, the Ministry of Power stated that the low voltage lines (66 kV and below, as per the affidavit filed by the Ministry) could be easily laid underground while the high voltage lines (130 kV and above, as per the affidavit) were slightly more difficult and expensive to be laid underground.

On April 19, 2021, a three-judge bench comprising S.A. Bobde, Chief Justice of India, Justice A.S. Bopanna and Justice V. Ramasubramanian passed an order that will ensure that all power lines passing through the identified GIB habitats in Rajasthan and Gujarat go underground. Replying to the Power Ministry’s contention, the court stated that laying high voltage lines (130 kV and above) underground may be difficult but not impossible. The court has ordered that all the low-voltage lines (66 kV and below) be buried underground in the identified GIB areas with immediate effect and within a maximum time period of one year. The court also ordered that all the power lines in the future in the areas identified in the order should be laid underground.

A three-member committee has been formed to monitor and instruct how and where the high-voltage lines (130 kV and above) should be laid. Dr Rahul Rawat, Scientist at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Dr Sutirtha Dutta, Scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India and Devesh Gadhavi, Scientist and Deputy Director of The Corbett Foundation, have been appointed as the members of this committee. Until the lines are buried underground, the court ruled that bird-diverters should be installed on the power lines with immediate effect. Bird-diverters are basically flaps installed on power lines which birds can see from a distance of 50 metres, allowing them time to change their flight path.

The remaining issues in the PIL are still being heard, but wildlifers are delighted with the order that was given after just two major hearings. Appreciating the court’s order, Kedar Gore, Director of The Corbett Foundation, and Member, IUCN Species Survival, said: “GIBs are struggling to survive and it is our moral responsibility not only to prevent their extinction but also to ensure a safe and a secure future for these heaviest flying birds of Indian grasslands.”

Devesh Gadhavi, Deputy Director of The Corbett Foundation and Member, IUCN Species Survival Commission (Bustard Specialist Group), said: “The European countries have already undergrounded their power lines for the safety of the Great Bustards and as a result of this action the population of Great Bustard has increased significantly.”

Navinbhai Bapat, noted birdwatcher and a petitioner in the case, said: “I trust that the Constitution of India, the law of this great country and the joint efforts by the conservationists will surely save this species from extinction. Rampant development on the grasslands and pasture land in Kutch will prove detrimental for livestock and wildlife in the long run. Power lines passing through various grasslands and pasture lands are also responsible for the numerous fire incidents resulting in the loss of fodder and grass.”

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