Saving Great Indian Bustard; SC asks why high tension electric cables cannot be undergrounded

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New Delhi, Apr 6 (PTI)The Supreme Court Tuesday asked the Centre, Rajasthan and Gujarat governments as to why the undergrounding of high tension electricity cables cannot be done to save endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the heaviest flying bird on the planet.

A bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde also reserved its verdict on a plea of Ranjitsinh, a retired IAS officer and others, seeking court's directions for an urgent emergency response plan to protect and ensure recovery of numbers of GIB and Lesser Florican (LF).

The bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, was told by the Central Power Ministry that there was technical problem in undergrounding the high voltage electric cables.

The ministry said it is not done in other parts of the world as well. “You tell us why the high voltage line cannot be undergrounded,” the bench observed.

Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for the former IAS officer, referred to various apex court's judgements and reports and said that the principle that polluters should pay can be applied in the instant case and money can be arranged for taking steps to save the endangered birds.

“Our approach should be eco-centric and not human-centric and other species also have the right to live,” he said, adding that the GIB is the “heaviest flying bird on the planet” and India being their habitat has a great responsibility towards the world at large to ensure their survival.

Divan also asserted that even high tension electricity cables can be laid underground as done in other parts of the world.

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Centre, said that she would be assisting the bench as Attorney General K K Venugopal has quarantined himself after one of the reatives of his staffers has tested positive for COVID-19.

She referred to the affidavits of the Centre and said that the government was not adversarial to the litigation and was putting the fact that undergrounding of high tension electric cables was technically not feasible.

Earlier, the top court had expressed concern over death by electrocution of the endangered birds and had 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 them.

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 had said while taking note of the views of the Centre.

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 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 three-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. He has served as the director of Wildlife Protection and 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 RKS RKS