Is it too late to save the Great Indian Bustard?

Despite an order by India’s top court, power companies do not seem to be interested in saving the critically endangered bird

March 26, 2023 by Rashme Sehgal
The Great Indian Bustard. Photo:

What if I told you that a magnificent creature could disappear from the face of our planet, never to be seen again? Time seems to be running out for the Great Indian Bustard. Only 122 birds remain in the Desert National Park in the State of Rajasthan, while the remaining few are found in the grasslands of Gujarat.

As per the data available, only four females of the species are in the Kutch area of Gujarat. The situation is even more critical because no male bustards have been reported in Kutch since 2018.

The alarmingly decreased number of these birds has been attributed to their frequent collisions with power lines. Dr. Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist and expert on the subject at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), points out that most of these deaths have occurred because of the high-power transmission lines that criss cross these areas, which the birds inadvertently collide with, courtesy of their lateral vision—eyes on the sides of their head. Being rather heavy—among the biggest in the world—these birds find it difficult to change their flight course. When they finally spot a live wire, it is usually too late.

Research done by the WII has shown that 18 Great Indian Bustards die yearly because of collisions with overhead power lines for renewable energy, especially the windmills in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert.

The Supreme Court issued a directive on 19 April 2021 ordering all power lines in the GIB habitat to be placed underground and diverters installed.

As the first step, the Supreme Court identified 250 km of priority area in Rajasthan and another 280 km in Gujarat, where power lines needed to be moved underground. Following this, the top court ordered underground lines in their potential habitat. This is about the bird’s historical habitat, which extended over 13,000 sq. km in Rajasthan, while it covered above 200 sq. km in Gujarat.

The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has argued that placing power lines underground is an expensive business. Placing a high voltage line underground costs around Rs 5 to 6 crore per km, while the cost of a low voltage line works out to around Rs 1 crore per km {INR 1 crore=US$ 120,500 approximately}

In response to the Supreme Court’s order, the Gujarat energy department, in an affidavit, has made the extraordinary suggestion that since there are only four female GIBs left in the Kutch area, therefore, the “option of relocating the remaining GIBs may be explored”.

Wildlife expert Dr YV Jhala who was heading the conservation initiative to save the GIB at the WII, shoots down this suggestion. “Where would they want these birds to be relocated? These are wild birds, and relocation is no option. They have a high degree of spatial correlation. If we put them in captivity, they are as good as dead,” he says.

“These birds are primarily found in two locations and move between one another. The critical area they move in has around 250 km of power lines crisscrossing it. Putting them underground is a perfectly doable solution. These power companies can use their CSR funds for this purpose,” Dr Jhala says.

Dr MK Ranjitsinh, the lead petitioner in filing a PIL in the Supreme Court in 2019, is extremely upset with the demand that the GIBs be relocated from Kutch.

Not one to mince his words, Ranjitsinh declared, “Relocating these birds would mean the death knell of the GIBs.”

He counts 17 power companies which have a strong presence in the critical habitat of the GIB. These companies, he says, have made a profit of Rs 29,000 crore in the last year.

“These profits and their CSR funds can easily be utilised to put lines underground. If they refuse, it would be well within rights to rap them on their knuckles for contempt of court,” says Ranjitsinh.

The Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary in Kutch, spread over two square kilometres in Abdasa Taluka, is the smallest wildlife sanctuary in the country by area. Yet it has often been called among the finest habitats for the species. The bustard’s habitat is spread over around 2,000 sq km in Kutch.

To make matters worse, the CEA in the first week of March submitted a proposal to the central government to allow all electricity transmission lines above 33 KV to be laid overhead throughout the habitat of the GIB with the caveat that bird diverters would be installed as a safety precaution.

Dr Ranjitsinh immediately issued a rebuttal demanding these draft regulations be withdrawn as this seemed one more attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court order. His statement emphasized that not only was such a regulation “falling foul of the Supreme Court order but it contradicted the wealth of material evidencing the feasibility of undergrounding power lines up to 400 KV”.

The Supreme Court had given a one-year deadline to complete the undergrounding of all low voltage lines that fell in the GIB habitat areas and ordered a three-member committee to monitor and guide how and where high voltage lines of 130 KV and above should be laid. Dr Rahul Rawat, a scientist at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Devesh Gadhavi, scientist and deputy director of the Corbett Foundation and Dr Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist at the WII, were appointed to the committee.

Power companies generate power and transmit it to substations, from where it is distributed to other states and homes. A vast web of power lines crisscrosses the entire region, and government-owned energy companies are largely involved in the distribution. The WII reported that apart from the GIB, many other birds are also dying due to collisions and electrocution with wires. Around ten bird deaths per km per month and nearly 100,000 bird deaths annually in an area extending to 4,200 sq km have been estimated. These are adding to the toll taken by habitat loss and degradation on the GIB population. Diverters are beneficial for other birds, and WII has estimated that they can help reduce bird mortality by as much as 60%.

Dr Jhala believes the ultimate motive is to ensure de-notification of the sanctuary once the GIBs are moved out. But this is something scientists have warned will be the final nail in the coffin. It would mean that government bodies have actively facilitated the dire situation.

A scientist said on condition of anonymity, “The government has spent hundreds of crores to reintroduce the cheetah, which had become extinct in our country. Now, instead of making the necessary financial allocation to save the GIB, it will be the first species in India allowed to go extinct. There is enough scientific information available on how to save them, but there is little political will.”

Refusing to take matters lightly, Dr Ranjitsinh plans to go to the Supreme Court with a review petition to ensure its orders are not circumvented.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal. The article first appeared on NewsClick.