Supreme Court Relooks Order on Undergrounding Power Lines in GIB Habitat

Limiting the impact to the Priority Area will come as a relief for developers


In what could come as a big relief for renewable energy developers, the Supreme Court has considered limiting the undergrounding of power transmission lines to the Priority Area of 3,163 sq km of the endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB) habitat.

The three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud also constituted an expert committee to determine the scope, feasibility, and extent of overhead and underground electric lines in the area identified as a Priority Area by the Wildlife Institute of India in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

However, the easing of restrictions in the Potential Area is subject to the condition that the expert committee lay down parameters covering Priority and Potential areas. The committee would also have to make recommendations for installing bird diverters.

In an effort to balance the conservation imperative of conserving the bird species and the interests of renewable energy development, the court said recalibrating its April 2021 directions relating to undergrounding of high and low-voltage power lines was required.

Its earlier order covered an area of 80,000 sq km, which included both the Priority Area and Potential Area of the GIB habitat.

The expert committee has been given time until July 31, 2024, to submit its report.

Since 2019, when a petition was filed seeking the court’s intervention to save the GIB and the Lesser Florican, both species feared to be on the verge of extinction, several solar and wind energy projects in the two states have been stranded. Rajasthan and Gujarat are among the states in India with the highest renewable energy potential.

According to a Ministry of New and Renewable Energy estimation presented to the court in 2021, 65 GW of renewable energy projects lie in the GIB habitat in the two states.

Among others, the uncertainty surrounding the GIB issue is cited as a reason for solar installations falling 44% to just 7.5 GW in 2023 from 11.7 GW in 2022.

Developers of these projects faced the burden of the expensive undergrounding of the lines following the Supreme Court’s 2021 order, which wanted the exercise completed within a year. It had also directed that bird diverters be hung from the overhead lines temporarily.

Conservationists believe that the GIB was colliding with transmission lines and dying because of its poor eyesight.

In its latest order, the Supreme Court’s remit to the expert committee included determining the need for adopting conservation and protection measures for the GIB and other fauna in relation to the topography and desert features and identifying measures to be adopted in the Priority Areas to ensure the longevity of survival of the bird species.

The committee has also been tasked with identifying sustainable alternatives vis-à-vis the laying of power lines in the future, which will balance the conservation of the GIB with India’s international renewable energy commitments.

On its part, the Government of India submitted that undergrounding power lines was impractical and would contribute little to protecting the GIB.