May order undergrounding of low tension cables, use of diverters to protect GIB: SC

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New Delhi, Mar 15 (PTI) Concerned over death by electrocution of the endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the Supreme Court Monday said it may consider ordering undergrounding of low tension electricity cables in Rajasthan and Gujarat and installation of bird diverters at certain places to save it.

A bench headed by Chief Justice also questioned the Union Power Ministry for its stand that undergrounding of high tension electricity cables was not feasible and it can only be done with respect to low tension cables.

“So far as the high power lines are concerned their undergrounding was not feasible, but the low voltage cables can be laid underground,” Attorney General K K Venugopal old the bench, which also comprised justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.

“Why so? This has no basis in physics or electricity, why you are saying that that high voltage lines cannot be made underground,” the bench observed during the hearing conducted through video conferencing.

The top law officer said he would put the issue and the assertion of senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for the petitioner M K Ranjitsinh, that even high tension electricity cables can be laid underground as done in other parts of world, before the officials concerned.

He also said that a report of experts may be filed on it. “So far as the low tension lines are concerned, they can be made underground and at places where high tension lines are there, bird diverter devices may be used,” the bench observed and fixed the matter for further hearing next week.

The bench made clear that its observations are subject to further hearing.

The bird diverters are flaps installed on power lines and they work as reflectors for bird species like GIB which can spot them from a distance of about 50 meters and change their path of flight to avoid collision with power lines.

“In principle, we see the importance of making the (electricity) lines underground, but we cannot order undergrounding of all the cables,” the bench said while taking note of the views of the Centre.

'We would like know the routes taken by birds for navigation and lines passing through those areas can be ordered to be made underground,' it said.

Divan said the birds are on the verge of extinction and they can be saved by ensuring the undergrounding of electricity cables and use of bird diverters.

“This the obligation of the State and the present generation that these birds should not go extinct. And the electric lines must be put underground,” he said.

Earlier, the apex court had sought to know the views of Venugopal on laying of underground cables and source of its funding for protecting the endangered birds-- the GIB and Lesser Florican (LF).

The top court had asked Venugopal to not think on commercial lines and explore the possibility of funds for laying of underground cables from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

It was hearing a plea for installation of bird diverters and laying of underground cables to protect endangered birds-- the Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican. On February 18, last year the top court had asked the Rajasthan government to consider laying underground cables to protect the two endangered birds saying that they are large birds and it is difficult for them to manoeuvre due to the high-tension power lines which obstruct their flight paths. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had earlier told the top court that there is no other option but to lay power cables underground to protect GIB and LF. On July 15, 2019, the court had taken serious note of alarming extinction of the GIB and the LF and constituted a high powered committee to urgently frame and implement an emergency response plan for the protection of these species. It had constituted a 3-member panel comprising Director of Bombay Natural History Society; Asad R Rahmani, former Director of Bombay Natural History Society and Dhananjai Mohan, Chief Conservator of Forests of Uttarakhand. Later, three more members were added in the panel as suggested by the petitioner.

It had sought responses from the Centre and state governments including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, where these two species of birds are prominently found, on a plea of wildlife activists. Ranjitsinh, a retired IAS officer and others had sought the court's directions for an urgent emergency response plan to protect and recovery of both bird species. Ranjitsinh, who has served as the director of Wildlife Protection, has contended in his plea that over the last 50 years the population of the GIB has recorded a decline of over 82 per cent, falling from an estimated 1,260 in 1969, to 100-150 in 2018. 'The population of the Lesser Florican (also known as the likh or kharmore) has seen a sharp decline of 80 per cent over the past few decades, from 3,530 individuals recorded in 1999, to less than 700 individuals in 2018,' the plea said. It added that both the birds are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 but despite being accorded the highest level of protection under national law; the birds face the threat of imminent extinction. The plea blamed various reasons for the threats faced by the two endangered birds including -- mortality by collision with infrastructure, particularly power lines and wind turbines, depletion of grasslands, hunting, development of mines and human habitation in and around their habitats and ingestion of pesticides. PTI SJK SA