When India was choosing its national bird in the early 1960s, the late Dr Salim Ali, the country’s preeminent ornithologist, backed an unlikely candidate – the great Indian bustard (GIB).
Its numbers were falling and Dr Ali felt the exalted status would accord one of India’s heaviest flying birds the protection it rightfully deserved.
But the choice was shot down as some felt its name, just a vowel away from an expletive, would invite affronts to India’s pride. So it was the peacock, with its foolproof spelling and abundant cultural significance, that strutted past its less glamorous competitor to become the national bird.
Since then, the GIB, which is officially accorded the same level of protection as tigers, has been cursed with the short end of the stick in conservation efforts.
While the tiger has thrived and its habitat nurtured, the population of this grassland bird continues to shrink and its habitat marginalised in government records as “revenue wasteland”. After its habitats were devoured by agriculture in the past, the last few have now been passed to renewable energy developers that have criss-crossed the region with deadly power lines.
Fewer than 150 of these birds remain in India, and it is estimated that 18 die each year due to collision with power lines, the current biggest threat to the species.
These critically endangered birds are found mostly in the arid western regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat, a territory also coveted for its abundant solar and wind energy potential.
Power plants have come up in GIB habitat areas in recent years as energy developers attempt to catch up with the government’s ambitious target of installing 175 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by next year.
With around 80GW still left to go and renewable sources accorded high priority in India’s proposed climate-friendly energy mix, the pressure has been growing on this species that is at the doorstep of extinction.
Some respite came in April when the Supreme Court ordered power companies to lay lines underground – irrespective of the cost – not only in priority GIB habitats, but also within a much wider territory that had been earmarked as a potential habitat for these birds in Rajasthan, where the GIB is the official state bird, and in Gujarat.
But conservationists tracking developments in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district, the epicentre of this conservation conundrum, say companies continue to work unabated, flouting the court’s order.
Geotagged photographic evidence shared with The Straits Times shows ongoing work to put up overhead power lines as recently as June 18 in potential GIB habitat areas. ReNew Power, one of the country’s top renewable energy companies, even issued a notice in a newspaper in Jaisalmer on June 16 to announce its upcoming work of laying overground wires in certain villages within the demarcated potential habitat.
The court has permitted new overground wires in priority and potential habitats only in cases where undergrounding is ratified to be technically unfeasible by a court-appointed committee. This committee told ST on July 2 that it had not given any permission yet to a power developer to lay overground lines in these territories in either of the two states. A representative from ReNew Power said the firm did not wish to comment on a matter that is sub judice.
“The Supreme Court order is our last resort,” said wildlife biologist Sumit Dookia. “If the top court’s order is not respected, then it is up to God to save the species.”
Dr Dookia and a network of volunteers have been documenting the GIB’s presence in priority and potential habitats in Jaisalmer, as well as tracking ongoing work by renewable energy companies within this territory.
The court judgment, while welcomed by conservationists, sent shock waves through the renewable industry.
National Solar Energy Federation of India (NSEFI) chief executive Subrahmanyam Pulipaka said it was premature to put any monetary value on the impact, but added that the repercussions will be significant. “It is safe to assume that at least 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the (renewable) projects that come up in our country in the next five to 10 years will be in that part of the country,” he told ST.
Industry representatives have also claimed that undergrounding power lines will lead to challenges such as longer downtime when faulty cables have to be repaired.
Undergrounding hundreds of thousands of kilometres of wires, said Mr Pulipaka, will also have a considerable impact on local flora and fauna, including living organisms below the soil.
Since the judgment, NSEFI has been collecting evidence of how overground measures, such as bird diverters, in other countries have reduced bird mortality due to collision with power lines. It plans to approach the government and other stakeholders to replicate such measures, besides supporting GIB hatcheries and protecting natural breeding sites.
But the effectiveness of bird diverters has yet to be established on GIBs, known to have narrow frontal vision and poor in-flight manoeuvrability because of their weight.
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