In an important development, the Supreme Court of India has directed the appropriate authorities to install diverters in the habitats of the Great Indian Bustard and convert the overhead cables to underground powerlines wherever feasible.
The conversion to underground powerlines should be completed within one year from the date of the order, and until such time the diverters should be hung from the existing powerlines.
The matter should be referred to a committee appointed by the Supreme Court to decide feasibility.
The court heard public interest litigation filed by a few environmentalists seeking to protect two species of birds, the Great Indian Bustard and the Lesser Florican, which are on the verge of extinction.
The petitioners said that the overhead powerlines had become a hazard. The birds were dying colliding with the powerlines. The petitioners requested the court to direct the Gujarat and Rajasthan governments to ensure predator-proof fencing, controlled grazing in the enclosure development, and direct the respondents not to permit installation of overhead powerlines, construction of windmills, and solar infrastructure.
However, the Supreme Court refused to accept the request of the petitioners to stop the development of solar and wind assets in the habitats of the two bird species.
The Supreme Court said that the state and central governments were duty-bound to preserve the endangered species and bear the expenses incurred.
The bird species should be preserved by laying underground powerlines, and the cost of such projects passed on to the ultimate consumer subject to the approval of the regulatory authority.
Considering the various factors affecting the preservation project, the court spoke of the need to strike a balance between protecting the rare species of birds and allowing the transmission of power appropriately.
Citing a study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India, the Court noted that it was not feasible to lay underground power cables in certain areas. The conversion of the already existing cables cannot be made in certain locations. In such locations, bird diverters should be installed, and underground powerlines should be installed wherever feasible.
The Supreme Court added that with the implementation of the Compensatory Afforestation Act, substantial funds were available with the national and state authorities, and the Act provides for the utilization of the fund for measures to mitigate threats to wildlife.
“The laying of underground powerlines, particularly of high-voltage though not impossible, would require technical evaluation on a case-to-case basis and general conclusion cannot be reached laying down a uniform method unmindful of the situation,” it said.
Commenting on the order, Aditya K Singh, Associate Partner, Link Legal Law Services, said, “The Supreme Court has made it very clear that all powerlines in the potential Great Indian Bustard area have to be laid underground, if technically feasible. If the committee determines that underground lines are not feasible, then only diverters will be installed.”
“The court has given a strict timeline for implementation, i.e., one year from the date of the order. It will be interesting to see how the distribution companies (DISCOMs) are going to bear the cost. Every entity that has contractual protection of the ‘Change in Law’ will claim the compensation. DISCOMs being a revenue-neutral entity, will pass the expenditure to the consumers unless there is assistance from the government,” he said.
Singh referred to the court’s remarks about certain central and state funds and hoped that these funds take care of the burden of DISCOMs. “The Supreme Court has relied on sustainable principles to take care of the interest of the environment and the economy. The governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan should utilize their environmental funds to lay the underground cables to ensure the continuous flow of the electricity,” he said.
In February 2019, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) issued a circular for retrofitting transmission lines and wind turbines to avoid bird collision in Great Indian Bustard habitats of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
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