The renewable energy industry is in a fix over what to do about a recent Supreme Court order which has ordered for the conversion of overhead power lines to underground in areas that are the habitat of the Great Indian Bustard.

Solar power projects in most parts of Rajasthan and some parts of Gujarat are impacted by this order. Industry insiders say that the order could effectively stop solar projects in Rajasthan. The wind sector is less hit immediately because there is hardly any wind project in the offing in Rajasthan.

According to industry sources, even if the additional costs, estimated at around ₹80,000 crore, is somehow absorbed, it is nearly impossible to implement the order, because of ‘right of way’ issues.

However, the order of a three-member Bench of the apex court comprising the then Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde, and Justices AS Boppanna and V Ramasubramanian, leaves little wriggle room. “There cannot be disagreement whatsoever that appropriate steps are required to be taken to protect the said species of birds,” the order says.

The Great Indian Bustard is a critically endangered species. According to the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature – India, there are only about 200 birds worldwide, most of them in the sub-continent.

Both the wind and solar sectors have had meetings with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy last week. The broad idea that has emerged from these meetings is that the Ministry would work with the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC), to see if the government could file a review petition to the Supreme Court.

Underground cables not feasible

Praveen Golash, Joint Secretary, Solar Power Developers Association, told BusinessLine that MNRE has said that the industry, in parallel, could approach the court on its own. Accordingly, the Association is in talking to technical experts to evolve a case that it could present to the apex court.

“The order affects a large number of parties; cost is one thing, but even technical feasibility (of implementing the order) is in question,” Golash said.

However, the judges seem to see it differently. They have observed that laying underground high-voltage power lines is “not impossible”.

“We are conscious that the laying of the underground power line, more particularly of high-voltage though not impossible, would require technical evaluation on case-to-case basis...” the judgment says.

It also notes that where overhead lines alone are feasible, bird diverters shall be installed.

The judges also do not seem to think much of the ‘high cost’ argument because they say that the developers may “muster the resources in accordance with law.” In effect, they have said that the developers could go to the state respective electricity regulatory commissions and ask for a tariff rise.

“Irrespective of the cost factor, the priority shall be to save the near-extinct birds,” the judgment says. It quotes a 2018 survey of the Wildlife Institute of India, which comes under the MOEFCC, which found that 100,000 birds (of many species, including the Great Indian Bustard) die every year due to collision with power lines, in a 4,200 sq km area in Rajasthan.

Environmental activist Leo Saldhana, who works for the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group, an advocacy body, observes that the entire conservation effort of India is poised on protecting forests and comprehensively treats grasslands as degraded (implying that the forest conservation measures do not apply to grasslands). “This is a huge blind spot that MOEFCC perpetuates. The Great Indian Bustard is a flagship of the grasslands and its sharp decline is indicative of this colossal fallacy that guides conservation in India.”