Power transmission lines from a number of renewable energy projects in western Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat have been disrupting the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). This has had a detrimental impact on the population of the GIB, which has declined from about 600 in 2001 to less than 150 today. The Wildlife Institute of India has estimated that about 18 GIBs die every year in Rajasthan from electrocution and collision with power lines.
Story so far
In March 2021, the Supreme Court of India decided to find a way to prevent the further dwindling of the GIB population. A bench led by the Chief justice of India, Sharad A. Bobde, was established to look into potential solutions.
When discussions began, the replacement of overhead power cables with underground ones emerged as the most popular solution. In response, representatives of the Ministry of Power (MoP) stated that while this solution may be viable for low voltage cables (33 kV and 66 kV), it would not be possible for higher voltage ones (220 kV and above). The court suggested the installation of bird flight diverters to guide the birds away from the power lines as an alternative, but noted that these devices would have recurring costs, which would make them more expensive than installing and maintaining underground cables.
Following a month of deliberation, the Supreme Court passed an order directing the Gujarat and Rajasthan governments to ensure that all transmission lines for current and future projects passing through the identified GIB habitat would be underground, wherever feasible. In response to the concerns raised by the MoP, the apex court said that despite the difficulties in laying high voltage underground cables, it is not impossible. The order also mentioned that the process of moving cables underground must be completed within one year.
The Godawan Community Conservation Project, set up to protect the GIB, estimates that about 82 per cent of the critically endangered species occupy a region near the Desert National Park in the western front of Rajasthan. Located in this area are the 2,200 MW Bhadla Solar Park, the 1,500 MW Fategarh Solar Park, and the 925 MW Nokh Solar Park, among others, which are at various stages of construction. In addition, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) and NTPC Limited have recently launched tenders for 3 GW of solar projects in Rajasthan. The Central Electricity Authority has also reported that many of these projects require high voltage transmission lines, adding to the difficulties in shifting the lines underground. Although it is not clear how many of these projects fall within the habitat of the GIB, it is certain that many will face delays following the Supreme Court order.
While Rajasthan hosts a large proportion of the country’s GIB population, the remaining (about 30 birds) are located in the Kutch region of Gujarat. This area is home to a number of wind farms that are being developed under SECI’s interstate transmission system tenders for stand-alone wind projects. The GIB population in Kutch has declined rapidly over the past five years, primarily due to collisions with transmission lines. In 2018, it was reported that only one male GIB remained in the Kutch area. Going forward, it is important to ensure that the same does not happen in Rajasthan as well.
In 2021, as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit, some solar developers asked for extensions of about three to four months in commissioning dates due to the effects of state lockdowns and unavailability of labour. Even as construction starts picking up, developers and transmission companies are now faced with the mammoth task of moving transmission lines underground. According to various media reports, this process is estimated to cost roughly Rs 200 billion, which will be borne by the developers and transmission utilities, pushing up power costs by as much as 20 per cent. Combined with the poor financial condition of discoms leading to payment delays and the expected imposition of basic customs duties, this could eventually result in huge losses for developers unless the government steps in.
In hindsight, the extent of expected losses could have been avoided with prior planning. The lessons from Gujarat were not taken into account when the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) exempted solar projects from having to obtain environmental clearance. Although the move was meant to increase the pace of solar development, it seems to have backfired. The MoEFCC also allotted a mere Rs 330 million for the initiative to save the GIB last year, which is a fraction of what the developers and transmission utilities are set to incur.
In the coming months, solar developers in India are expected to draft an appeal to the Supreme Court. From the evidence so far, it can be argued that the responsibility of saving the GIB must not fall only on developers, especially for current projects.
By Rithvik Kumar