Easing an albatross off the neck of the Great Indian Bustard

Power companies, State governments have not taken steps to comply with April 2021 Supreme Court order directing low-voltage power lines to go underground around the endangered bird’s habitat: report

February 04, 2023 07:10 pm | Updated February 05, 2023 12:11 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Power lines have been harming the Great Indian Bustards, which have been dying by colliding into them or getting electrocuted. File

Power lines have been harming the Great Indian Bustards, which have been dying by colliding into them or getting electrocuted. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

A Supreme Court appointed-committee has recommended that, in order to protect the endangered Great Indian Bustard, close to 800 km, or about 10% of the length of proposed power lines in the Thar and Kutch deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat should be re-routed or made to go underground.

Moreover, despite a Supreme Court order directing that low-voltage power lines go underground, no significant steps appear to have been taken by power companies and State governments to comply with them, according to the report, which has been seen by The Hindu.

Explained | Protecting the Great Indian Bustard

The nearly 7,200 km of overhead lines are meant to transfer solar power into the grid but existing lines have been harming Great Indian Bustards, which have been dying by colliding into them or getting electrocuted. Only about 150 of these birds are still left, most of them in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.

Bird conservation vs solar power

The deaths of these birds, and the danger to them from power lines and renewable energy projects, triggered a petition in the Supreme Court in 2019, by environmentalists who asked that all overhead lines — existing and prospective — be made to go underground. Private and public power companies, supported by the Centre’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), contended that shifting all overhead lines underground would be expensive and impractical, and would significantly hike the cost of solar power, undermining India’s commitment to green growth.

The Centre has so far sanctioned the development of solar projects with a capacity of nearly 39,000 MW, but only a fourth have actually been commissioned so far, R.K. Singh, Minister for New and Renewable Energy, told the Rajya Sabha in December. He cited “environmental issues” — including the Great Indian Bustard — as one of the causes.

In April 2021, the court directed that all low-voltage power lines in areas demarcated as “priority and potential habitats of the Great Indian Bustard” in the Thar and Kutch deserts be pushed underground. “Priority zones” are areas where the birds are known to live and “potential regions” are those where conservation programmes, such as breeding the birds in captivity, are ongoing.

Bird diverters: stop-gap solution

High-voltage lines in these zones were also expected to follow suit. However, if power companies found undergrounding technically infeasible, they could approach a Supreme Court-appointed three-member committee for permission to go ahead with overhead lines with modifications. These modifications include installing “bird diverters”, which are flaps installed on power lines that work like reflectors and are visible to the flying birds from about 50 metres away, giving them a chance to swerve out of the path of a power line.

Also read | Great Indian Bustards adapt to produce 2-egg clutch

The Great Indian Bustard is a relatively heavy bird, nearly a metre in height, and with frontal vision that makes it hard to avoid collisions. Low-voltage lines are more likely to electrocute the birds, but they are more likely to die from high-voltage lines due to collisions. Bird diverters are, however, considered to be a stop-gap measure, as they cannot entirely guarantee an end to bird hits.

90% of overhead lines cleared

The SC-appointed committee — whose members are Rahul Rawat of the MNRE, Suthirtha Dutta of the Wildlife Institute of India and Devesh Gadhvi of the Corbett Foundation — perused applications for about 3,260 km of prospective power lines in the area of Rajasthan where the endangered birds live, and made decisions on the fate of 2,356 km. The committee ratified plans to build 98% of the length as overhead lines with modifications, and denied ratification of 2% of the line in areas which passed through “priority zones” and where recent bird mortalities have been reported.

The committee also recieved applications for about 4,132 km powerline in the endangered bird’s habitats in Gujarat and made decisionsd on 4,094 km of it. Roughly 82% of the line’s length has been ratified for overhead laying with bird flight diverters, while 18% was not ratified. There are more applications from power companies which are still being scrutinised.

Two of the committee members, Dr. Dutta and Dr. Gadhvi, said in a note that the committee had not received any application for existing transmission lines in Rajasthan to be exempted from undergrounding and, save for a 10 km segment of a 66kV transmission line in Gujarat, no existing power lines had yet been routed underground.

‘Expedite underground lines’

“Given the high mortality risk and recent evidence of two [Great Indian Bustard] mortalities in the Prioritized Area of Rajasthan, and frequent movements of both species of bustards in the Prioritized Area of Gujarat, the above members request the Hon’ble SC for necessary directions to concerned agencies for expediting the underground laying of transmission lines inside the Priority Areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat,” said their report submitted on January 16.

The companies who have sent applications for exemptions include both public and private sector power companies.

Only a small proportion of the proposed power lines lay in the priority zone, MNRE Secretary Bhupinder Bhalla told The Hindu. “Bird diverters add only a small cost, but undergrounding is much more expensive. The companies however have to comply with the Supreme Court order and while many applications are still pending, I think they should begin installing [bird diverters] very soon,” he said.

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