Explained: Why A Supreme Court Judgment To Protect An Endangered Bird Species Is Bad News For Solar Energy Projects In Rajasthan
A Supreme Court judgment focussed on conserving the Great Indian Bustard has posed a problem for solar energy projects in western India.
A Supreme Court order is asking for transmission power lines to go underground in the wide-open flat grasslands of India’s western region to save the Great Indian Bustard from flying into power cables.
The order of a three-member bench of the apex court, which included the then-Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde, as well as Justices AS Boppanna and V Ramasubramanian, says: “There cannot be disagreement whatsoever that appropriate steps are required to be taken to protect the said species of birds.”
The court emphasised the importance of balancing human growth with the rights of other animals. But while attempting to strike a balance between the two sides, it granted the critically endangered species more weight and said that “irrespective of the cost factor, the priority shall be to save the near-extinct birds”.
However, the judges said that the three-member Bench is aware that constructing subterranean power lines, particularly high-voltage lines [though not impossible], would necessitate a case-by-case technical assessment. They also said that where only overhead lines are feasible, bird diverters must be installed.
The immense size of the Great Indian Bustard makes it difficult to manoeuvre in flight. It has weak frontal eyesight and has the unpleasant habit of studying the soil as it flies across India's western grasslands. That combination puts it on a collision course with electricity lines much too often.
The bird is a critically endangered species as per the IUCN Red List and the National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016). According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), there are only about 200 birds in the world, with the most of them found in India.
This judgement has an impact on solar power projects in much of Rajasthan and some sections of Gujarat. According to solar power industry sources, the ruling has the potential to effectively halt solar projects in Rajasthan.
The companies assume that the regulation could cost an additional $4 billion (a little less than Rs 30,000 crore) in costs and risk roughly 20 gigawatts of solar and wind projects. Currently, the wind sector is less affected as there are not many wind projects in the region of Rajasthan.
The wide-open region in the western side of the country is an ideal location to set up renewable energy projects but the problem is that this region is also the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard.
Apart from the occasional poaching outside the protected areas, the frequent collision with high tension electric wires is a concerning issue. But the efforts to save the bird may jeopardise India's renewable energy goals, which rely significantly on the availability of wastelands like the bird's domain for erecting solar panels and wind turbines.
As reported by the Business Standard, Parag Sharma, who is the CEO of O2 Power Pvt., a Temasek Holdings-backed developer that is building a 780-megawatt solar project in the western Indian town of Jaisalmer, said that due to order the entire renewable energy industry, particularly solar, might come to a halt.
Adani Green Energy Ltd., ReNew Power Pvt. and Acme Solar Holdings are among the other companies with projects in the area. Sharma said that “you won’t find land that easily anywhere else in the country.”
Last week, the representatives from the wind and solar industries met with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), which later decided to engage with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) to examine if the government could submit a review petition with the Supreme Court.
India intends to nearly five-fold its renewable energy capacity to 450 gigawatts by the end of this decade. The majority of the new installations are projected to be solar and wind, which combined account for about 90 per cent of the country's renewable generating potential.
As per the renewable industry experts, burying lines can increase project costs and power rates by roughly 20 per cent and obtaining lenders to fund the additional spending, estimated at roughly 300 billion rupees ($4 billion), could be difficult due to regulatory delays. It means that the developers will have to put up their own money and then wait years to get compensated.
Praveen Golash, who is the Joint Secretary at Solar Power Developers Association, told Business Line that MNRE has suggested that the renewable energy industry can approach the court on its own. Additionally, the Association is in contact with technical specialists to develop a case that it may present to the Supreme Court.
“The order affects a large number of parties; cost is one thing, but even technical feasibility (of implementing the order) is in question,” he added.
The latest judgement stems from a petition filed in 2019 by M K Ranjitsinh Jhala, a former bureaucrat turned wildlife activist. The judges based their decision on a report by the state-run Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which stated that unless power line mortality is urgently mitigated “extinction of the Great Indian Bustard is certain”.
As per the 2018 survey conducted by the WII, which is part of the MOEFCC, it was discovered that 100,000 birds—various species, including the Great Indian Bustard—die each year as a result of collisions with power lines in a 4,200 square km area in Rajasthan.
Environmental activist Leo Saldhana, who works for the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group, argues that India's whole conservation effort is focused on conserving forests, while grasslands are treated as degraded in general. It suggests that the forest conservation measures do not apply to grasslands.
Saldhana said: “This is a huge blind spot that MOEFCC perpetuates. The Great Indian Bustard is a flagship of the grasslands and its sharp decline is indicative of this colossal fallacy that guides conservation in India.”
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