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2 months after SC ruling, new bird diverters still missing in Great Indian Bustard habitats

With RE firms looking to challenge the SC ruling, installation of diverters and underground power lines to protect endangered GIBs will be further delayed, say experts

For almost two months Sumit Dookia, a wildlife biologist at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in New Delhi, has been on the ground in Jaisalmer looking for new bird diverters on power lines after an SC ruling made them mandatory. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found any

The Supreme Court judgement dated April 19, 2021, issued guidelines for laying underground power transmission lines and installing bird diverters in the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) habitats in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Dookia had a little hope that cables would move underground cables because of the time and money that would cost. He was, however, quite sure that bird diverters would be installed swiftly after the SC ruling. 

Reportedly, renewable energy (RE) companies are seeking a revision of the SC judgement. This means that there would be further delays in the process, says Dookia.

What is the Apex court’s ruling?

A group of environmentalists in 2019 had filed a writ petition in the nature of public interest in the SC, seeking protection and conservation of two bird species–GIB and Lesser Florican–which are on the verge of extinction. It was contended that due to a collision with the overhead power lines, the species are getting killed and it has become a “hazard” for them.

In its judgment, the Apex court directed the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan to convert existing overhead power lines in the priority and potential habitats of GIB into underground power lines. All future power lines have to be installed as underground cables, the judgement stated.

According to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), priority areas are those where all power lines have to be underground and potential areas are those where power lines can be laid with proper mitigation measures such as using bird diverters. 

A three-member committee was also formed to assess the feasibility of laying high voltage underground power lines.

Power-line mortality poses the biggest threat to GIB

GIB was listed as ‘critically endangered’ in 2011 by BirdLife International and the IUCN Red List. The species has disappeared from about 90% of its habitat except in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan.

According to the World Wide Fund (WWF) report, in 1969, their number was around 1,260 and it declined to 745 by 1978 and 600 in 2001. WII claims that the current global population of GIB is around 150, most of which live exclusively in India.

In the past, hunting and egg collection were responsible for the decline in the GIB population and the loss continued as their dry grass habitat was marginalised as ‘unproductive wasteland’ and diverted to other land uses. New irrigation techniques along with infrastructure development such as power projects and roads have led to significant degradation of their habitat. Power lines that are difficult to detect from afar and GIB’s “poor frontal vision” add more woes to the low and heavy flyers. 

The Ministry of Power, in their affidavit dated March 15, 2021, also admitted that since they are one of the heaviest birds, they are unable to manoeuvre across power lines within close distances making them vulnerable to collision with power lines. 

In the case of low voltage lines, electrocution is often the cause of death due to smaller phase-to-phase separation distance. High voltage lines do not cause death due to electrocution, but due to collision, the affidavit stated.

A WII report published last year said that power-line mortality is currently the biggest threat to the species. It revealed that six detected GIB deaths were recorded in Thar between 2017-20. The main cause was power-line collisions and some of them were connected to wind turbines. It says that this additional mortality can cause GIB extinction within the next 10-20 years.

Source: Conserving GIB Landscapes Technical Report 2020

Cost of underground cabling and diverters installation

According to the SC judgement, in Rajasthan, a total of 1,342 km of power lines have been prioritised for mitigation. Out of which, 104 km of overhead power lines need to be converted to underground cable whereas on the remaining, bird diverters need to be installed. 

The total cost of implementation has been estimated at ₹287.16 crore by WII–₹58.88 crore on underground cabling and ₹228.57 crore on diverters.

However, WII claims that this cost could be reduced to approximately ₹150 crore by opting for economic, but quality diverters.

Officials at state-run power distribution company Paschim Gujarat Vij Company Ltd (PGVCL), which supplies power to Saurashtra and Kutch region, told CarbonCopy that it will take approximately ₹183.22 crore to convert 2,894 km of high tension (11kV) overhead wires into underground cabling in Gujarat. For 600km of low tension wire (less than 400 V), the cost is approximately 57.09 crore. However, there might be some changes in the figures, the official said.

CarbonCopy tried contacting Gujarat Energy Transmission Corporation Limited (GETCO) for information on the cost of laying underground cables, but there has been no response so far from their end.

Are underground cabling and diverters efficient?

A study was done to analyse the success of underground cabling and marking of powerlines in the Austrian and Hungarian parts of the West-Pannonian distribution range, which is home to the Great Bustard (Otis tarda). It found that the two measures led to a significant decrease in the mortality rate of Great Bustards in the study area.

Although power line marking appeared to reduce the collision risk, underground cabling was the major reason behind reduced mortality, the study says.

It also notes that underground cabling of high-voltage power lines appears to be not practicable due to tremendously high costs. It recommends underground cabling of medium-voltage power lines as one priority conservation measure in Great Bustard areas, while high-voltage power lines should be equipped with markers. 

But will laying of underground cables hurt the GIB habitat? Sujit Narwade, a project scientist at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), explained that laying of underground cables will hurt the habitat for a short term. 

“In the short term, it will cause disturbance during the cable laying process, but in the long run, it will only benefit the bird. This is something that is vital for ensuring the survival of GIBs,” he told CarbonCopy.

WII, in its report, recommended undergrounding the most dangerous power lines in GIB priority/critical areas as a permanent solution, to ensure long-term survival.

Parth Jagani, coordinator of ERDS foundation, which works for conservation of GIB in Jaisalmer, says that putting underground lines is the only solution that can save the critically endangered species. “Nature should be the main priority,” he adds.  

Moreover, most of the diverters are installed near the highways and roads and not in the interior where maximum cases of the GIB collisions are happening, he complains.

How renewable energy firms reacted to the development

The SC ruling has ruffled the feathers of RE firms because they thought they had clean slates until now, says Dookia. 

The judgement will affect the largest hybrid renewable energy park that is coming up in Kutch. Reportedly, the hybrid project developers of  Rajasthan and Gujarat have estimated an additional amount of around ₹22,000 crore that will be required for undergrounding the power lines and have requested a tariff hike of 10-15%.

In a letter to Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation Ltd, Rajasthan Solar Association said, “The GIB potential area covers a very large geographical space and the main areas of conservation of GIB in western Rajasthan overlap with one of the main renewable energy hubs of the country, which is very crucial for the green energy supply of the country.” 

The letter also states that since land acquisition is a very challenging task, the companies will not be able to adhere to the timelines of 12-18 months given by the SC ruling for undergrounding the transmission lines.

On financial feasibility, RE developers have raised valid concerns on cost escalation, says Rishabh Jain, who works with the Centre for Energy Finance (CEF) of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a not-for-profit research organisation.

“Some of these concerns can be addressed with support from central and state government funds earmarked for the power sector and conservation of wildlife. In addition, state and central regulators can act proactively and design a framework for the pass-through of costs under the change in law clause,” he adds.

Exemption from EIA: A boon or bane?

At present, India does not have a regulatory framework to govern solar and wind energy projects. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006, does not cover wind and solar and other renewable sources. The new draft EIA 2020 also excludes these energy sources. 

These projects do require clearance under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, if forest land is to be used. But if the land is not forest land, there is no question of environmental assessment at all, let alone biodiversity assessments.

According to Narwade, an EIA with respect to native biodiversity, especially areas where the last remaining individuals of threatened species like GIB are surviving, would have been useful before planning energy infrastructure, he says.

The area categorised as priority and potential for GIB overlaps with solar and wind hotspots in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In this particular case, MoEFCC had undertaken several initiatives in Rajasthan and Gujarat to save GIB. For instance, it issued a notification to colour the tip of wind turbines, deploy bird diverters, identify critical power transmission lines and make them GIB-friendly, says Jain. 

Despite these measures, challenges have remained and the lives of birds are being impacted. “It is possible that undertaking some of the corrective measures would have provided the developers with the EIA clearance, but the Hon Supreme Court could have still asked the developers to underground the lines if the expected impact was not achieved,” he adds.

According to Dookia, the exemption from the EIA encourages RE companies to purchase a vast swathe of land without any assessment. They buy the land through a network of tehsildars, property dealers and patwaris, who paint a picture that is far removed from reality on the ground, he says. 

“The companies based in Mumbai, Gurgaon and Delhi are presented with a false picture,” the wildlife biologist told CarbonCopy. And now they say that the birds are coming in between their projects. 

“The birds,” he says, “have always been in the picture, but too often they get obscured by the touts (looking to sell the land).”

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