Will India’s RE push kill the critically endangered great Indian bustard?

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Listed under Schedule I of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the bustard is also accorded the highest protection under India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. For years, conservationists have been crying themselves hoarse over the loss of their habitat due to a multitude of threats, such as hunting, natural predators, intensive agriculture, and industrial development. Now, renewable energy is increasingly being labeled as one of the bustard’s biggest threats. Overhead power transmission lines that crisscross its habitat are sounding the death knell for this low-flying, ground-dwelling species.

The latest memorandum by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) makes it mandatory for builders of power transmission lines to deploy bird diverters on conductors. They must also paint the tips of wind turbine blades with orange to be visible to birds —  policies that once again stoke the bustard-versus-renewables debate.

India is the only home of the great Indian bustard; at last count, it had a total population of fewer than 150 birds. The majority of the surviving birds live in the fragmented grasslands of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra — the biggest states behind India’s renewable dreams. The present government has a target of electrifying power-deprived villages with mazes of power lines, while generating 100 GW of solar power by 2020. But while the bustard’s habitat loss did not begin with the renewables push, conservationists believe clean energy is the proverbial last nail in the bustard’s coffin.

Declining numbers

In 1969, the bustard population stood at approximately 1,260, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the status of the natural world. The birds were spread across 11 states, including Haryana, Punjab, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. When their numbers had dwindled to about 250-300 birds by the 1990s, the authorities finally woke up. Conservation India, a nonprofit organization, started a campaign to save the birds, while the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) launched an ambitious Great Indian Bustard Species Recovery Program, in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and states that were still home to the birds, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Suggestions and ideas started pouring in. Conservation India suggested replacing overhead power lines with underground cables, while MOEF&CC mulled mandatory identification of critical power transmission lines and wind farms in bustard habitats, to make them more bird-friendly.

Dr. Asad Rahmani — the former director of the Bombay Natural History Society and current chairman of Wetlands International — has long fought on behalf of the great Indian bustard, as he has studied the birds for nearly 30 years. Rahmani has been pushing the Indian central government to start Project Bustard, along the lines of the country’s highly successful Project Tiger and Project Elephant initiatives.

In 2014, a state-level action plan — Project Great Indian Bustard — was launched to restore the bird’s population. The plan was jointly hammered out by the Rajasthan government, WII and the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).

Squabbling over semantics

Surprisingly, part of the threat boils down to semantics. Under archaic pre-independence British land-use laws, vital grasslands were defined as “wasteland.” To this day, they are still not given the strict environmental scrutiny they deserve before developmental projects are sanctioned. The grasslands on which the bustards survive are among the most neglected ecosystems in India; they remain unprotected unless identified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 or the Indian Forest Act of 1927.

Speaking with pv magazine, Ritesh Kumar — conservation program manager for Wetlands International South Asia — began with the need to redefine land. “Under the British regime in India, any land that was not productive was deemed ‘wasteland’ and it is time we erased that land category, because no land is ‘waste’,” says Kumar, who emphasized the need to simultaneously meld growth, progress and conservation. “Growth is essential, but not at the cost of the extinction of a species.”

However, not everyone views renewable energy as a threat to the birds. Prof. Kasturi Rangaian — chairman of the Indian Wind Producers Association — pooh-poohs the debate over the birds as “media hype” driven partly by coal and petroleum lobbyists. “This hype is merely to scuttle the growth of renewable energy, which will negatively impact the profits of agencies generating energy through coal and petroleum,” he says.

Describing MNRE’s plan to retrofit power lines with bird diverters as a “good preventive measure,” Rangaian questions the feasibility of underground cables as a solution. “India’s renewable energy developers are struggling with finances and investors are hard to come by,” he told pv magazine. “Underground cables cost 10 times more than overhead power lines and it is foolish to add that cost to a money-starved industry.”

The debate over the impact of renewables on the great Indian bustard rages on. But India is not the only country arguing about dead birds. Worldwide, wind turbines kill between 1,50,000 and 3,20,000 birds per year, and studies have shown high mortality rates of several bustard species because of power-line collisions.

The great Indian bustard, one of the heaviest of the world’s flying birds, was once a contender to become India’s national bird. The peacock ran away with that glory, but some say that the bustard may have been rejected because its name could be so easily misspelt or mispronounced  —  nobody wanted the national bird’s name to be “bastardized.” Had semantics not been an issue, the great Indian bustard’s fate may have been different.