The Supreme Court judgement (dated 19 April 2021) directs for power lines to be taken underground in Great Indian Bustard (GIB) habitats. 

Welcoming the order, Kedar Gore, director, The Corbett Foundation (TCF), says that while new renewable-energy parks have been planned in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and other states, the hope is that ‘the companies involved have taken appropriate measures in their planning stages to create infrastructure as mandated by the SC order on the power lines in GIB habitat.’ Seconding this, Dr Bivash Pandav, director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), says ‘no stone should be left unturned in safeguarding the remaining Bustard habitats in the Thar desert.’

The Great Indian Bustard is a critically endangered bird with its last viable breeding population in India. About 100 of these magnificent grassland birds remain in the world. Though habitat loss and degradation have been responsible for this bird’s decline in the past few decades, their deaths due to collision with overhead power lines are today the biggest direct threat. 

The GIB needs grasslands and semi-arid areas to survive. Most of these areas are unfortunately categorised as ‘revenue wastelands’ in governmental records, and therefore given away for solar and wind energy projects in India. Large renewable-energy projects across GIB habitats, mainly in Rajasthan and Gujarat, have put these already threatened species at the grave risk of extinction. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) estimates that 18 of these birds die each year due to collision with power lines.

In light of the conservation needs of this critically endangered species, the Supreme Court’s direction in MK Ranjitsinh vs Union of India, dated 19 April 2021, is significant as it gives specific binding directions that have to be mandatorily followed in GIB habitat. It makes it mandatory for all power lines in both ‘potential’ and ‘priority’ habitats of the GIB to be laid underground in future. 

The court has directed that lines be taken underground immediately, stressing that irrespective of the cost factor the priority shall be to save the near-extinct birds. Until the lines are made underground, bird diverters are to be installed on all lines. Only for those high-voltage power lines where technical feasibility issues are found in undergrounding, the SC has constituted a three-member expert committee to examine the feasibility. Significantly, the court has also given specific direction to protect the nesting sites of the GIB. 

For the undergrounding of power lines, the Supreme Court has given a time limit of one year from the date of the order within which the undergrounding is supposed to be completed. It is important to note that renewable-energy units already existing in the area have not been asked to move from sites or stop work in Rajasthan or Gujarat. Instead, they have been asked to take their lines underground and, till then, install bird diverters. 

These are important steps to conserve – and prevent the extinction of – a bird that is named after India, and was once spread all over West India and the Deccan plateau. Today, the GIB’s regular breeding sites are only in Thar desert landscape (Rajasthan) and Kutch landscape (Gujarat). A few birds are found in Pakistan, moving between the two countries. For this reason, India recently proposed a Concerted Action Plan for the GIB under the aegis of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). This was approved by the CMS in the last CMS Conference of Parties meeting, held in Gujarat in February 2020. Even in this plan, emphasis has been given on minimising collisions by relocating, realigning, or redesigning the infrastructures of power lines, windmills and solar panels, and bringing renewable-energy projects under the umbrella of strict environmental impact assessment (EIA). 

In order to fulfil its commitments towards the GIB, India has pioneered a Conservation Breeding Program in Rajasthan. This has been successfully implemented by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in collaboration with Rajasthan Forest Department, and several chicks are currently being raised at this centre. These chicks eventually have to be released in GIB habitats not only in Rajasthan but in all its former range as well. For this to happen, it is essential that large swathes of safe and secured habitat is made available to GIB in future.