As Renewable Firms Prepare For Appeal, It’s ‘Progress’ Vs Species For the Great Indian Bustard

As Renewable Firms Prepare For Appeal, It’s ‘Progress’ Vs Species For the Great Indian Bustard CERC case

It has become clear in recent weeks that the relevant solar developers and their associations will shortly file a review petition in the Supreme Court, for an order on April 19, where the court declared that power lines in the area considered native for the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), must be built underground, to prevent deaths of the bird from overhead powerlines. The other bird involved here, the lesser florican also faces extinction.

For Solar developers that hoped to develop projects in the region, spread across Rajasthan and up to Gujarat, the order came as a rude shock, as underground power lines for the projects planned in the area would take up costs by upto Rs 30,000 crores by some estimates. And places almost 20 GW of solar and wind projects at risk. Developers involved range from  Adani Green Energy, ReNew Power, Acme Solar and O2 Power to many more who hoped to build in the area. For the Ministry of New and renewable Energy (MNRE), usually supportive of developers, the issue is a piquant one, as it had also supported the move in an earlier order in Feb 2019.

The power line issue came up due to the GIB’s unique traits. Ata height of 1 metre, and weighing upto 18 Kgs for adults, GIB’s can fly, but do so without the agility of smaller birds, and combined with poor frontal vision, that makes them at higher risk of hitting aerial objects, or in this case, power lines or wind energy blades. Both usually turn out fatal for the bird.

With the species on the verge of extinction (numbers are claimed to be under 50 now), the SC was constrained to order drastic measures, and hence the move to shift power lines underground by a three judge bench of SS Bobde, AS Bopanna, and V Ramasubramanian. The order also mandated diverters for existing lines, with a committee to decide on the feasibility of the underground option for all upcoming lines. The committee itself is a three member body consisting of a member each from the MNRE, The Corbett Foundation, and the Wildlife Institute of India.

The court judgement went in to great detail to lay down ground rules for what have been described as priority and potential areas in the region for the bird’s habitat. While priority areas require fencing to protect the bird eggs (it lays them on the ground) from predators, the potential areas is where the court has decreed underground lines as priority. Technical objections have been brushed aside, with the example of the 10 km underground power lines by GETCO for the safety of Greater Flamingos in the Khadir Region of Kutch.

So what is the probable way out here? It is obvious that an extended legal tussle will do as much damage, considering the time it would take developers to apply for and get compensation by citing a ‘change in law’ event. Price increases of upto 20 percent have been estimated, should developers need to build transmission underground where feasible.

As seen by the court’s approach to existing overhead lines, where ‘diverters’ have been mandated, it is obvious that the court is actually quite willing to be ‘pragmatic’ about the issue, having touched upon financing the whole exercise of fencing too, from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), which has enough funds.

However, the fact remains that to many people, the poor bird will be seen as a cost to pay for progress, and in this case, green energy, that makes it a stronger case in their view. Plus, they will contend that this will hardly close the chapter for good, as not only is survival of the GIB species susceptible to many other risks, other development pressures like more roads, railways etc will not abate in the near future.

Countering that is a view that the whole approach of viewing grasslands as ‘wastelands’ effectively, that do not need to be seen from the prism of environmental impact is incorrect, as these arid and semi-arid grasslands do support a wide variety of unique flora and fauna. That is an issue where even the court has been consistent with previous court attitudes, which frankly do not quite appear to be as convincing on the weight of scientific evidence.

The GIB species, on a per member basis, has probably become one of the most prized species in the country. There is a strong case for a much better funded, targeted conservation effort here.

One hopes that a quick solution, which requires all stakeholders to cooperate, will involve ‘abatement’ of some costs at state and central government level, matched by slight increases allowed to developers (bids have been amongst the lowest for projects in this region) , and yes, use of the CAMPA funds as they were meant to be. It is no one’s case that with extreme climate  events increasing in intensity, underground infrastructure is not necessarily simply a more expensive option. It can also be more resilient, and in doing so, preserving a prized bird species that has been under assault  for centuries should be considered a bonus.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International