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Modify plan to protect Great Indian Bustard, it will work against climate goals, govt tells SC

Three ministries — Environment and Forest, New and Renewable Energy, and Power — have submitted a modification application with respect to an April 2021 SC order.

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New Delhi: The central government has filed an application asking the Supreme Court to modify its directions to put high-transmission power lines in Rajasthan and Gujarat underground in order to protect the “potential and priority” habitat of the great Indian bustard (GIB).

The modification application has been submitted jointly by three central ministries — Environment and Forest, New and Renewable Energy, and Power. The government’s lawyers mentioned it in court Monday.

The application, accessed by ThePrint, said the directions given in the 19 April 2021 order were without “adequate consideration of their implication and implementation” and that they would be “counter-productive for India’s climate change related goals”.

“Unfortunately, there was no assessment or study undertaken to apprise this Hon’ble court about the implications of undergrounding of transmission lines in the Priority GIB Habitat and Potential GIB Habitat on the development of the renewable energy sector and therefore these aspects could not be adequately taken into consideration,” the application said.

The GIB is a critically endangered bird, and a bench led by then Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde had in April issued binding directions that barred the laying of overhead power lines in GIB habitats in Rajasthan and Gujarat. 

The order was the result of a public interest litigation (PIL) that blamed overhead power cables for the steep decline in the birds’ population. It claimed that power lines were the biggest threat to GIB as the birds collide with them and die. 

The court had ordered immediate undergrounding of the cables, irrespective of the cost involved. To keep the birds clear of the cables until this undergrounding is done, the order further said that bird diverters should be installed immediately

Also Read: India’s green energy goals have a serious problem – the Great Indian Bustard

‘Ambiguity in order, technical difficulties’

To understand the possible repercussions of implementing the order, the Ministry of Power set up a study team comprising experts from various state power corporations, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, and the Wildlife Institute of India. The government has relied on this team’s findings in its modification application.

The application highlights the challenges posed by “certain ambiguity” in different paragraphs of the court order, apart from potential technical difficulties 

With no manufacturers of underground, insulated cables for high-voltage power lines in India, the central government submitted that the fault-finding process for such cables is cumbersome and time-consuming.

“Most of the cable failures occur at cable joints due to ingress of moisture/water and electrical partial discharge etc. In case of faults in underground cable networks, the fault-finding process is very cumbersome and time-consuming,” read the application.

Further, restoration of underground cable networks is also more expensive, it said, adding that the long runs of high-voltage underground cables increase network capacitance during non-generating or low-generation hours. This could lead to over-voltage situations, which may lead to failure of cables or equipment, it said.

Undergrounding of cables is practically impossible because the cost involved is four to 20 times higher than for laying overhead lines, depending on the voltage, claimed the application.

Undergrounding medium- or low-voltage lines over such a large area would also lead to high costs for renewable energy production, and adversely impact the environment because it would increase the country’s reliance on coal, the application said.

“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 remaining potential stays untapped, we will need an additional 93,000 MW of coal-fired capacity to replace the unutilised renewable energy in the future, which would cause an adverse direct impact on the environment,” said the application.

Moreover, underground cabling may also pose a safety risk to farmers as faults could lead to electrocution, and cables might be punctured as a result of agricultural activities, or become entangled with the roots of trees.

It could also give rise to disputes over “right of way” to lay the cables under private land, and lead to land acquisition litigation. This may hamper the implementation schedule of renewable power projects, which is usually quite compressed, the application said. 

On the court’s concern regarding conservation of GIB, the government said it has developed the National Bustard Recovery Plan, which various conservation agencies are currently implementing.

As of now, 18 chicks (including four aged between one and two months added this year) have been hatched under the new breeding programme. They are doing very well and growing up under the eyes of an expert project team at Rajasthan’s Desert National Park, the application said.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also Read: Rhino, snow leopard, red panda — the endangered species Modi govt wants to protect


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