Weakening of rules protecting endangered Indian bird will benefit Adani
Mar 24, 2023
The body of a Great Indian Bustard killed by overhead powerlines is inspected by wildlife conservationist Radheshyam Pemani Vishnoi.

The Adani Group is destined to be the major beneficiary of draft regulations issued by the Indian government recently for the installation of overhead powerlines in habitats of a critically endangered bird. Wildlife experts and an environmental lawyer say that the regulations are at odds with the intent of a 2021 Supreme Court order requiring most such powerlines to be laid underground in order to minimise deaths of the bird from collisions and electrocution. The Adani Group is the single biggest developer of energy projects requiring such powerlines in the most important habitats for the majestic Great Indian Bustard.

The Great Indian Bustard, a critically endangered species. Image Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi.

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has issued a set of draft regulations for laying overhead electricity lines in habitats of the Great Indian Bustard. These regulations are contradictory to orders issued two years ago by the country’s apex court, the Supreme Court of India. The regulations, issued by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), the country’s premier technical advisory organisation in the power sector, are destined to specifically benefit Adani Group as it is the biggest player in under-construction renewable energy projects in habitats of the endangered bird in India’s north-west.

The draft guidelines were issued by Modi government on 3 February 2023, barely a week after US-based investment research firm, Hindenburg Research, released a report alleging the Adani Group had carried out the ‘biggest con in corporate history’ through stock-market manipulation.

The intense impact of powerline infrastructure on the arid environment in the habitat of the endangered Great Indian Bustard.

The extensively arid areas of Thar and Kutch in India’s northwestern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, respectively, are considered ideal for generating renewable energy such as solar and wind power. As a result, India’s central government has allowed construction of numerous renewable projects in these two areas. However, certain pockets in these areas are also the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard, a large bird of the bustard family which is also one of the heaviest flying birds. According to India’s Union Ministry for New and Renewable Energy, nearly 65 Giga Watts (GW) of solar and wind energy projects are in the habitats of the Great Indian Bustard in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Powerlines and turbines jostle for space with endangered species and traditional users.

The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) is supposed to be accorded the highest protection as it is not only listed under Schedule I (endangered species that need rigorous protection) of India’s Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, but is also listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The bird is also categorized as critically endangered under the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Great Indian Bustard in its natural habitat.

Long corridors of overhead powerlines that are being constructed in Thar and Kutch for transmission of electricity generated from renewable energy projects to consumers in other parts of the country have increasingly threatened the very existence of the bird. Large number of casualties of the Great Indian Bustard have been resulted from collision with or electrocution from the overhead power lines. Apart from the Great Indian Bustard, wildlife biologists say, the ecological conditions of Thar and the Kutch are well suited for a wide range of birds, which are equally threatened by the maze of electricity lines.

‘The largest number of Great Indian Bustards are to be found in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan,’ Rajasthan-based wildlife activist, Peera Ram Vishnoi, told this correspondent.

One less of an endangered bird. Another Great Indian Bustard is killed by collision with or electrocution by powerlines (October 2022).

‘The birds are big and due to the peculiar nature of their vision are unable to notice overhead electricity lines in their flightpath. Most deaths of the birds result from collisions with the high-tension electricity lines. Electrocution of birds from low-tension electricity lines have also been noticed in the area.’

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Vishnoi’s arguments are substantiated by a report of the government-owned Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the country’s premier wildlife research organization. The report titled Power-Line Mitigation to Conserve Bustards 2018 states that the ‘majority’ of the population of the Great Indian Bustard ‘is in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan’. According to the report, overhead powerlines are the most significant threat to the survival of the Great Indian Bustard. The study found overwhelming evidence of bustard deaths caused by collision with and electrocution from overhead powerlines.

A Great Indian Bustard in flight over community land of Jaisalmer district in Rajasthan.

‘Surveys conducted by the WII in Thar covering 80 km of power lines repeated seven times over a year found 289 carcasses of around 40 species, including the Great Indian Bustard. The study detected 8 carcasses/10 km for high-tension powerlines and 6 carcasses/10 km for low-tension powerlines,’ states the above report.

Carcass of Demoiselle crane that died after being electrocuted by a 33-kV overhead electricity line

At least 57 renewable-energy projects are in various stages of construction in the Jaisalmer area of Rajasthan alone, according to the Renewable Energy Monitoring Division of the Central Electricity Authority. These include projects being set up for deriving electricity from solar energy as well as from wind energy. It also includes hybrid energy-projects which derive electricity from both solar and wind energies.

The Adani Group is the single biggest developer of solar energy in Jaisalmer, the most important habitat of the Great Indian Bustard, with as many as 22 under-construction projects in the district. It has four solar energy projects in Kutch and another one in the Jodhpur district of Rajasthan, all of which were under construction as of December 2022. It has a separate under-construction hybrid-energy project in Jaisalmer. In addition, it has three wind-energy projects in the Kutch area, all of which are under construction.

Wind-energy projects are being developed in the Kutch area of Gujarat and in Rajasthan.

In January 2018, the Adani Group announced a joint venture with the Rajasthan government to develop the largest integrated solar-power facility in India. The joint venture, known as Adani Renewable Energy Park Rajasthan Limited, was formed by the Adani Group with Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation Limited as its equity partner. An MoU was entered into by the Adani Group with the Rajasthan government to develop solar parks with a cumulative capacity of 10,000 MW through this joint venture company. A 1500 MW capacity solar park is being developed by the joint venture firm in Fatehgarh, in Jaisalmer, as per the terms of the MoU. In August 2021, local communities in Jaisalmer faced off with the Adani Group for alleged encroachment into lands that have traditionally been used for grazing cattle.

A senior scientist of the WII, who was associated with the compilation of the 2018 report on the Great Indian Bustard, said approximately 1500 to 2000 kms of overhead powerlines had already been laid for renewable-energy projects in Thar and Kutch by the time the Supreme Court issued its order in April 2021.

‘Overhead powerlines have been laid for transmission from the project sites to sub-stations and thence for distribution to end-users,’ he told this correspondent.

‘This has resulted in a maze of wires, threatening the very existence of the Great Indian Bustard. As of 2018, the total number of the birds in Rajasthan was 128. There could have been around 19 birds more or less than this figure at the time that we undertook the study. It has been reported that, in the Kutch area of Gujarat, only three females of the species were surviving at the time we undertook the study The bird is not migratory in nature, but it can easily move up to 100 km.’

'A maze of wires' for the birds, including several rare or threatened species, to navigate.

It was on the basis of a writ petition filed by Peera Ram Vishnoi and other activists that the Supreme Court of India issued an order in April 2021 for immediate installation of bird diverters on the overhead electricity lines. Even more significantly, the court also directed that all existing and future overhead electricity lines, both high-tension and low-tension, were to be shifted underground. Recognising the difficulties in shifting high-voltage electricity lines underground, the court constituted a three-member expert committee to technically evaluate the feasibility of the process on a ‘case-by-case basis’.

Additionally, the Supreme Court issued directions for fencing off areas that were being used by the Great Indian Bustard for laying eggs. These areas were to be kept strictly off limits even for the purpose of underground cabling.

Great Indian Bustards (all male) on community land in Jaisalmer district, Rajasthan. Image Radheshyam Pemani Bishnoi

‘ … we are conscious that the laying of the underground power line more particularly of high-voltage, though not impossible, would require technical evaluation on a case-by-case basis and an omnibus conclusion cannot be reached laying down a uniform method and directions cannot be issued unmindful of the factual situation,’ a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by the then Chief Justice of India, Sharad Anand Bobde, stated in its order dated 19 April 2021.

However, the draft issued by the CEA on 3 February 2023 contains a set of ‘omnibus’ directions for laying of electricity lines in areas populated by the Great Indian Bustard. The draft Central Electricity Authority (Construction of Electric Lines in Great Indian Bustard Area) Regulations, 2023 also addresses the need for installation of bird flight diverters on those electricity lines. But the draft regulations say that electricity lines with voltage of 33 kV and below will necessarily have to be placed underground while those above 33 kV shall be overhead with bird flight diverters installed upon them. These regulations will be applicable to power-generating companies, transmission licensees, distribution licensees and central and state transmission utilities.

India has set an ambitious target of setting up 175,000 MW of renewable energy capacity by the early 2020s.

Further, the CEA has, through these draft regulations, assumed upon itself the role of adjudicating upon cases where relaxation is sought against the norms for installation of electricity lines. This is contradictory to the Supreme Court order which had appointed a three-member expert panel for the purpose of deciding on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.

‘It is pertinent to note that the Supreme Court has emphasised the need to assess the installation of fresh overhead electricity lines to be examined by the committee on a case-by-case basis,’ said environmental lawyer Parul Gupta.

‘No blanket relaxation in this matter was given [by the Supreme Court] either to power producers or to state governments. The clause within the draft regulations which allows for overhead installation of all 33-kV power lines is completely contradictory and in conflict with the orders of the apex court. The executive should have refrained from formulating any regulations concerning this matter till it is finalised by the court or if there is specific direction or observation by the Supreme Court in this regard.’

Gupta emphasized that these regulations not only violate various other Supreme Court judgments but also the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

An Indian vulture, which is critically endangered, in Bhadariya Oran area of Jaisalmer district.

The Indian government has set itself an ambitious target of building a cumulative capacity of 450,000 MW of renewable-energy projects in the country by the year 2030 in a bid to reduce the country’s dependance on fossil fuels. In the Union Budget for the financial year 2021-22, the central government made several provisions for the renewable-energy sector.

‘As part of Paris Climate Agreement, India has committed to install 40% of its electricity generation capacity from non-fossil fuels by 2030. For achieving this goal, India has set an ambitious target of setting up 175,000 MW of renewable energy capacity, including 100,000 MW of solar power, by 2022. Further, a target of 450,000 MW installed renewable-energy capacity by 2030 has also been fixed,’ said the 2021-22 budget statement.

In the budget estimate for 2023-24, the central government allocated over US $1.2 billion for the renewable energy sector in the country.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy argued in the Supreme Court that a requirement to place transmission lines underground would make renewable-energy projects unviable, thereby impeding realization of the country’s goals for renewable-energy generation.

In its order dated 19 April 2021, however, the apex court also discussed the financial implications of underground cabling of overhead electricity lines and mobilisation of resources for the purpose, which included the prospect of passing on the increased cost to end-users.

A flock of Demoiselle cranes in Jaisalmer district, Rajasthan.

‘The State as well as the Central Government, therefore, have a duty cast to preserve the endangered species and as such the expenses incurred will have to be provided by them either under the schemes available or by earmarking the same in such manner. Needless to mention that … the preservation is by undergrounding the powerlines and in that context if cost is incurred, it would also be permissible to pass on a portion of such expenses to the ultimate consumer, subject to approval of the Competent Regulatory Authority,’ the court said.

The Supreme Court further drew the attention of privately-owned renewable-energy developers in Thar and Kutch to the provisions of India’s Companies Act, 2013 that impose corporate social responsibility upon companies as well as the duty to work towards protecting the environment. The court set 20 July 2022 as the deadline for all power producers in Kutch and Thar to complete installation of bird diverters. Details of power lines identified for installation of bird diverters in both regions were also listed.

A Steppe Eagle.

In the last hearing of the case, on 30 November 2022, the court noted that compliance by various power producers with its earlier order was not satisfactory.

‘The status report which has been placed on the record indicates that the installation of bird diverters in priority areas is yet not complete, though some progress has been made on the ground. The direction for estimating the required member of bird diverters based on the actual length of transmission lines is still to be complied with though, among the respondents GETCO [Gujarat Energy Transmission Corporation] has filed the requisite details in an affidavit dated 14 April 2022,’ said the bench headed by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud.

The draft regulations were released by the CEA even as the Supreme Court was considering whether the government of India could launch a ‘Project Great Indian Bustard’, along the lines of ‘Project Tiger’, which has been a successful programme for tiger conservation in the country. Chief Justice Chandrachud, during the hearing of the case on 30 November 2022, asked the central government of India to consider if it would be possible to launch a programme for the conservation of the Great Indian Bustard.

Non-compliance with the Supreme Court order, and the subsequent regulations issued by the CEA, has left the petitioners miffed.

‘There are only three breeding sites of the Great Indian Bustard left in the country,’ MK Ranjitsinh, lead petitioner in the Supreme Court case on conservation of the Great Indian Bustard, told this correspondent.

‘All three sites are in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan. It is the state bird of Rajasthan but is facing extinction in the state due to overhead powerlines that are being laid rampantly for renewable-energy projects. If the bird goes extinct, it will be first species to become extinct in India after the cheetah. The government does not seem to be working in the public interest in issuing regulations that are contradictory to court orders.’

Ranjitsinh, an avowed wildlife activist, wrote to the CEA in March 2023 on behalf of all other petitioners in the case, requesting withdrawal of the draft regulations. The letter states:

‘By giving a blanket exemption to all powerlines above 33 kV from being placed underground, this clause falls foul of the Supreme Court’s orders. This also contradicts the wealth of material evidencing the feasibility of undergrounding powerlines up to 400 kV, which was accepted by the Supreme Court, and furnished by the CEA itself to the [court-appointed three-member] Committee. No technical reasons have been furnished to justify this exemption being given to all powerlines above 33 kV … The Draft regulations would have the unfortunate consequence of permitting many powerlines in areas crucial to the survival of the Great Indian Bustard, posing a threat to this critically endangered bird and scores of other species of birds, many of which are rare species.’

The Supreme Court order of 19 April 2021 had identified areas critical to the survival of the Great Indian Bustard based on the study conducted by the WII. The study categorised habitats of the bird into ‘priority’ and ‘potential’ areas. A senior scientist at the WII told this correspondent that ‘priority’ areas are those which are already used by the Great Indian Bustard for its habitat while ‘potential’ areas have ecological and climatic conditions suitable for the bird.

The CEA regulations circumventing the Supreme Court order also come in the teeth of a program that was launched in the year 2019 by the Congress-led Rajasthan government to conserve the bird. The state government has set up a conservation breeding facility with incubator, hatcher, chick rearing and housing for captive birds at Sam in the state’s Jaisalmer district. The programme has been undertaken by the Rajasthan government with the help of scientists from the WII, the forest department of Rajasthan and the International Fund for Houbara Conservation and Reneco in Abu Dhabi. A total of 22 Great Indian Bustards have been bred at this facility. In addition, the central government has also identified a site in Rajasthan’s Kota district for habitat improvement and conservation breeding of the Great Indian Bustard.

A set of queries asking about steps taken by the Adani Group to implement the Supreme Court order for protecting the Great Indian Bustard in areas of its operation in Thar and Kutch was emailed to its corporate communications department. This article will be updated if/when any responses to the queries are received.

Note from the editor: AdaniWatch supports the installation of renewable energy to substitute for the burning of fossil fuels. But the developers of renewable energy do not have a blank cheque for destroying the habitat of endangered species. Development of renewable energy should occur with community consultation and with the implementation of environmental safeguards. Unfortunately, AdaniWatch has been made aware of several examples in India where these basic steps are not occurring, and the Adani Group is one of the main culprits.