Conservation and climate change: Will the balancing act save the giant flying bird?

With SC modifying its order of ban on overhead powerlines in Great Indian Bustard habitat, conservationists face new challenges in saving critically endangered species
Last Updated : 13 April 2024, 23:51 IST
Last Updated : 13 April 2024, 23:51 IST

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Jaipur: Taking to the sky gives an assurance of safety for most birds; a protection from the dangers lurking on the ground. But for one of the heaviest flying birds on earth, soaring high could mean falling to death. 

Tall metal towers supporting high-tension power lines fill the horizon as one travels through the wild outback of Rajasthan and Gujarat. It is on this arid landscape that the last few Great Indian Bustards struggle to survive yet another sunset.  

Having a large wingspan of around seven feet, the Great Indian Bustard is an avian species seen mostly in the arid landscapes of Rajasthan and Gujarat. As its natural habitat is increasingly being filled with high-tension power lines, which feed the country's increasing appetite for electricity, this large bird is looking at an existential threat.

When it comes to protecting these birds, Indian conservationists are staring at a 'paradoxical' situation, which has taken them on a clash course with the renewable energy sector in the Thar and Kutch regions.   

Dwindling numbers

Classified as 'critically endangered' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2011, the species has become extinct in over 90% of its former range including protected areas in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra.  

"Only about 100 remain in the open natural ecosystem around Jaisalmer," says Debadityo Sinha, the lead conservationist heading the Climate and Ecosystems team at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

The Rajasthan government had in 2013 estimated that only 125 individual birds were present in the state.

There are multiple factors behind the dwindling numbers and low reproduction rate of the existing population. Pollution, climate change, predators and competition with invasive species are among the many threats that exacerbate the challenges faced by this vulnerable bird. 

One of the major existential threats for the Indian bustard comes from overhead transmission lines. Due to their lack of frontal vision, the bustards often hit the power lines during their flight and are too heavy to fly around them in close quarters. 

Humans battle for a bird

Concerned at the severity of the matter, a retired IAS officer M K Ranjitsinh filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 2019 seeking directions to conserve the species. The petition urged to frame and implement an emergency response plan to protect the Great Indian Bustard. He had sought dismantling of overhead high-tension power lines, wind turbines and solar panels in and around critical habitats.

In 2021, the apex court ordered a blanket ban on overhead transmission lines in a vast swathe of 99,000 sq kms to protect the bird species. It also directed the power companies to look for alternatives such as laying underground power lines. 

The court also appointed a committee for assessing the feasibility of laying high-voltage underground power lines in Kutch and Thar desert, where production of renewable energy from sun and wind is on the rise.  

Obviously, the SC order had big ramifications for the power sector in India as the country is seeking to increase its renewable energy capacity to 450 GW by 2030.

Power sector cries foul

In January 2024, a number of solar and wind energy companies moved the Supreme Court, pleading that its 2021 order was interfering with their ability to set up business in the Thar and Kutch regions.

Presenting its side before the three-judge bench led by CJI D Y Chandrachud, the central government explained the practical and financial difficulties involved in implementing the court order. The Centre urged the court that there needed to be a balance between conservation and energy production. 

Responding to the plea, the apex court sought a comprehensive status report that would take into account both the conservation aspect and the renewable energy commitments of India at the international level.

Renewables get more rights

In March 2024, the Supreme Court constituted a seven-member committee which has been tasked with suggesting conservation and protection measures for the Great Indian Bustard in a 'priority area' spread across 13,000 sq km where underground power lines could be considered. The committee has to submit its report by July 31.

Further, in April 2024, the apex court expanded the scope of Articles 14 and 21 to include "the right against adverse effects of climate change".  "Article 21 recognises the right to life and personal liberty while Article 14 indicates that all persons shall have equality before law and the equal protection of laws. These Articles are important sources of the right to a clean environment against the adverse effects of climate change.”   

Laying emphasis on renewable energy sources, the court said: "...transitioning to renewable energy is not just an environmental imperative but also a strategic investment in India’s future prosperity, resilience and sustainability."

The bench also said it was essential to harness power from sources of renewable energy in Rajasthan and Gujarat to meet the rising power demand in the country in an expeditious and sustainable manner. "This is also necessitated by India’s commitment with respect to climate change.” 

'Paradoxical and confusing'

The court's recognition of the "right against adverse effects of climate change" establishes a significant legal precedent with far-reaching implications, feels the conservationist Sinha. "The SC ruling is paradoxical and confusing. It is likely to deeply impact public conversations on environmental issues and could shape forthcoming governmental policies." 

With regard to the Great Indian Bustard, according to Sinha, the judgment endorses the government’s affidavit that other factors such fecundity, poaching, habitat fragmentation, loss of prey are more responsible for their dwindling population rather than the transmission lines.

"This is when the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), reported at least six GIB deaths in the Thar region alone from 2017 to 2020, and has been for years calling for the mitigation of the powerline threat. The report titled ‘Powerline Mitigation, 2018’ also says at least one lakh birds from 30 different species are killed every year due to collisions with these power lines in Thar."

Given that the Indian bustard is a slow-breeding animal, with only a few numbers left, every individual in the wild counts, says Sinha, who is not ready to pin hope only on captive breeding efforts at Sam and Ramdeora.

"Captive breeding and breeding in the wild are different. One cannot revive an entire generation through captive breeding and they would not be able to perform the same ecological role in the habitat compared to those born naturally,” he says.

Published 13 April 2024, 23:51 IST

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