Renewable Energy

An unusual contest: Great Indian Bustards vs great Indian green energy quest

Rajasthan's state bird, the great Indian bustard, might lose its last natural habitat to wind and solar power plants 

By Shuchita Jha
Published: Monday 18 April 2022
Windmills and solar plants have become a part of the Jaisalmer landscape threatening the natural habitat of the great Indian bustard along with other bird and animal species (Photograph: Radheshyam Vishnoi)

Degrai Oran is in the middle of a 13,000 square kilometre wide biodiversity-rich land that is among the last natural habitats of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). But what towers over everything else in the landscape of this oran — sacred groves — are windmills.

The open stretch of land, which receives long hours of sunlight and speedy wind, has become a hub of green energy with windmills and solar photoviltaic dotting it. More solar power plants and transmission towers are under construction.

“This is the largest and one of the last orans in the area,” said Masinga Ram, a camel handler from Sanwata village, adjoining the oran near Jaisalmer. For centuries, the trees in the oran, spread over 60,000 bighas (approximately 100 sq km), have remained untouched by the people in the villages.

For GIBs, Rajasthan’s state bird, it is a natural habitat. The species was considered ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2011.

“It is more than 600 years old and was declared a protected area by ruler Vikramdev in the 15th century. Felling of trees is forbidden in the area. We just collect the dead branches on the ground and pluck ripened fruits for ourselves, the rest is all for the animals and birds,” said Shivdan Singh Bhati, a farmer and a member of the Degrai Mata Trust, which looks after the temple inside the oran.


Source: ERDS Foundation, Jaisalmer

Residents say the renewable plants are destroying the sacred grove because the land is not correctly identified in the revenue records.

“We looked at land records only in 1999, when a power company started felling trees. We realised that the oran was registered as a farmland. After a long tussle with state authorities, we could only get 24,000 bighas (approximately 400 sq km) registered as oran,” said Bhati.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ordered that orans, treated as open natural ecosystems, should be declared deemed forests.

“So far there has been no development, and the state government is now welcoming power companies to the sacred groves, damaging GIB habitat,” said Sumit Dookia, wildlife biologist working for the conservation of the Thar Desert.

GIB is a large bird, about 1 m in height with a wing-span of 2 m, and an adult weighs up to 18 kg. As per the last count in 2018, there were only 150 GIBs in the country and 122 of them were in Jaisalmer.

The remaining 28 were sighted in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. “Since then, the population has declined further, and now less than 100 GIBS remain in the wild,” said Dookia.

In June 2019, the forest department in Rajasthan, along with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, started a GIB breeding centre in the Desert National Park situated north of the oran, where they collect eggs from the wild and hatch them in captivity. The initiative has started to restore the population.

“We have hatched 16 GIBs in captivity from eggs collected from the wild,” said Sutirtha Dutta, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India.

“GIBs are slow breeders and lay only one egg every year, that too in the wild. The eggs are sometimes destroyed by cattle, or eaten by larger animals. My question is, if the entire habitat were lost, once the fledglings grow, where are the authorities going to release them?” asked Radheshyam Bishnoi of Godawan Community Conservation Project, a community-driven initiative in the region.

“If we fail to protect the grasslands and the natural habitats of the bird, we will only be able to see it in captivity, like in zoos. Suppose the breeding centre is able to hatch 100 fledglings in the next five years, we will not be able to provide them with a suitable habitat because the whole area is covered in webs of high-tension transmis-sion lines,” said Dookia.

“Given their size, any collision with the power lines is fatal. They get electrocuted and die. The power lines have formed a web around the GIB habitat, leading to a sharp decline in their population in the last few years. We found a dead bird in September and many such accidents have occurred since these high-tension wires have been laid,” said Parth Jagani, a conservationist in Jaisalmer.

Blatant violations

Owing to the rising number of GIB deaths, wildlife conservationist MK Ranjitsinh Jhala filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2019 urging power companies to lay underground wiring in the GIB habitat in Jaisalmer. In April 2021, the apex court ordered power firms in Rajasthan to lay underground wiring for all projects and install diverters on existing lines in the region.

Jhala said underground wiring has been done in many states, including Delhi, as well as in other countries. “Even if the power companies use 2 per cent of their corporate social re-sponsibility funds, they will be able to meet the added expenses,” he adds.

In October 2021, Jhala and other environmentalists filed another petition in the apex court, stating that its April orders were being flouted by the power companies who continued the construction of overhead power lines in the area. The verdict is awaited.

“It has been well observed that transmission lines and GIBs cannot coexist. Even other birds like raptors, floricans, demoiselle cranes and migratory birds get killed because of the power lines. Except for the Pokhran field firing range and the Desert Park, there are transmission lines everywhere. Even the oran has not been spared,” said Bibhas Pandav, director, Bombay Natural History Society.

“The solar companies have taken up our oran, uprooting native trees and grasses that have not even been documented properly. We know that India is committed to achieving ambitious solar and wind energy capacity by this year. But what we are losing in the process is irreplaceable,” said Sumer Singh Bhati, a conservationist from Sanwata.

The birds cannot be expected to stay within a protected area. They fly out and so there is a need to make the adjoining areas secure for them, he adds.

Once seen in large flocks, the great Indian bustard is now a rare site in JaisalmerWeak push

In response to the April 2021 Supreme Court verdict, the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has filed an interlocutory application where it has alleged underground transmission will make renewable projects untenable.

It said the project costs will in-crease by four to 20 times and as a result, derail the country from realising its renewables goals.

“So far, only a miniscule 3 per cent of the estimated potential of around 263 GW of renewable energy in this area has been tapped. If the remain-ing potential stays untapped, we will need an additional 93,000 MW of coal-fired capacity to replace the unutilised renew-able energy in the future,” reads the application.

Admiting that 65 GW of solar and wind energy projects lie in the GIB habitats in Rajasthan and Gujarat, it said no company globally manufactures underground cables for 765 KV that is ideally needed for transmitting electricity from the plants.

Additionally, pushing the wiring underground may lead to disputes over “right of way” to lay the cables under privately owned land, risking land acquisition litigation and causing delays in the projects.

There are also safety issues as faults may cause electrocutions in the area.

The Centre has set up a three-member committee, as directed by the apex court in its April 2021 verdict. The committee comprises of Dutta from the Wildlife Institute of India, Rahul Rawat, scientist at MNRE and Devesh Gadhvi of the Corbett Foundation and will look into the possibility and technical aspects of undergrounding the high-tension power lines.

Down To Earth sought responses from O2 Power Private Limited, ReNew Power, the National Solar Energy Federation of India and Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation Limited, the major players in the region, on emails as to why they were not adhering to the apex court's verict. But none of them responded. Madhur Kalra, head of communications at Re-New Power, refused to comment, saying the matter is sub-judice.

The cost of green

Challenging the notion “green is always good”, conservationists insist on looking at solar and wind projects objectively. They say situations like the one in Jaisalmer need careful scrutiny and that renewables should not be supported blindly.

“Power companies are not doing this for environmental reasons. They are doing this for profit. In fact, in India, renew-able energy companies are some of the most unregulated in the world,” said Abi T Vanak, ecologist and senior fellow with Ashoka Trust for Research In Ecology and The Environment (ATREE).

In the US and Europe, wind and solar compa-nies are subject to environmental impact assessments just as any other development project. Large-scale studies are con-ducted on avian flyways before situating wind farms and power lines. “If we had kept the stringent provisions here, I suspect we would not be having this conversation,” he said.

MD Madhusudan, conservation scientist with the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, said that unlike forests, there are no conservation laws that protect against diversion of biodiversity-rich open natural ecosystems, other-wise termed as wastelands, and governments try to make them “useful and productive” by allowing solar and wind parks on them.

This is unfortunate as research has shown that under certain environmental conditions, open natural ecosys-tems can sequester more carbon than if trees were planted on them.

“The value of such ecosystems is being undervalued and the benefits of renewable energy are being overstated. If we talk about solar energy, we need to see not only the gains, but also the pains,” said Madhusudan. The inclination towards solar energy also involves the “political economy of power generation”.

“In the case of the hydroelectricity, the public sector controls over 90 per cent of both installed capacity and power generation. But in the case of solar and wind power, around 95 per cent of it is in the hands of the private sector,” he said.

Better alternatives

Conservationists agree that the country needs to invest in green energy. They insist it does not have to be at the cost of biodiversity. The advantage of solar energy is that it can be distrib-uted and decentralised.

The government simply needs to follow its own rooftop solar policy, and modify it to become a “grey-top” solar policy, which means setting rooftops on top of industries and factories that are spread over large spaces.

Madhusudan and Vanak say that unlike rooftop solar on residences, large industrial spaces generate enough electricity to make economic sense to connect to the grid.

Such localised generation and utilisation will also cut transmission loss-es. Rooftops of public buildings can also be used for solar installations, as has been done with railway stations in some cities.

They also suggested agrivoltaics, the practice of using farmland for generating solar power and agriculture simultane-ously, as an option to increase the area under renewables.

“Deploying solar panels in a manner that allows for cultivation below them has dual benefits. The shade from the panels reduces evapo-transpiration and saves water, and the panels themselves benefit from increased efficiency due to the cooling effect of the plants growing below them,” said Vanak.

The Alliance for Reversal of Ecosystem Service Threats, a project under ATREE, has identified 11 million hectares of de-graded agricultural land in the semi-arid and sub-humid regions of India. If such areas were used for agrivoltaics, it could potentially transform rural economies of these regions.

This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated 1-15 February, 2022)

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