Bird paradise Kutch turned avian graveyard by power lines

Thousands of birds are estimated to be dying annually in Gujarat’s Kutch district due to collisions with power lines.

The Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, the only breeding site for flamingos in Asia, has been dubbed "Flamingo City." Image: Hari K Patibanda, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

About 30,000 birds are estimated to be dying annually, due to collisions with power lines, in the Abdasa region of Gujarat’s Kutch district, according to data from ongoing work by The Corbett Foundation, a wildlife conservation nonprofit.

These power lines also threaten the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (GIB). The problem is expected to turn grave as Gujarat is pursuing more energy projects, which may not adequately protect the birds.

At present, Gujarat’s total installed capacity of power stations is about 44.12 gigawatts (GW), which includes about 17.1 GW of renewable power projects. However, Gujarat has a major thrust on renewable power and the installed capacity of renewable power projects is estimated to cross 60 GW by 2030. The majority of these renewable power projects in the western Indian state are expected to come up in Kutch.

In December 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also the former chief minister of Gujarat, laid the foundation stone for a 30 GW capacity hybrid renewable energy park spread over 72,000 hectares of land in Kutch.

The park, once completed, is expected to be the world’s biggest renewable energy park. It is, however, near the ‘Flamingo City’ of the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary – the only breeding site for flamingos in Asia.

Our constitution is unique and exemplary where it is highlighted that the preservation of the natural heritage of this country is not only the duty of citizens but also their right.

M.K. Ranjitsinh, former chairman, Wildlife Trust of India, 

Environment and wildlife experts note that in the absence of proper safeguards, the region, which is a critical habitat for birds, would suffer enormous damage due to power lines needed for the evacuation of power generated as well as from increased human interference.

Birds deaths by power lines also common in Rajasthan

In India, Gujarat’s installed capacity for renewable energy projects is second only to Rajasthan, which also has seen cases of birds dying due to collisions with power lines. According to a Wildlife Institute of India study, an estimated 100,000 birds die annually in Rajasthan’s Thar region due to collisions with birds.

The death of birds due to power lines is also being considered in an ongoing case in the Supreme Court of India. In April 2021, the Supreme Court issued an order to underground the power lines for the protection of the GIB in the priority and potential habitat of Gujarat (including Kutch) and Rajasthan and directed for installation of bird diverters on all power lines.

Navinbhai Bapat, a birdwatcher and activist in Kutch, told Mongabay-India that they had to approach the Supreme Court only because the Gujarat government “had not taken any actions for the long-term conservation of birds.”

“Several requests were made at the local and state level in the last two decades, but no action was taken for the GIB. We are not at all against development or power production. The villagers and farmers must get electricity. What we are requesting is just a change in the mode of transmission. Undergrounding will be beneficial to the last surviving GIBs and other threatened bird species of this landscape.” Bapat said.

During 2012-13, to protect flamingos in the Khadir region of Kutch, the Gujarat Energy Transmission Corporation Limited (GETCO) laid 66-kilovolt (kV) power lines underground for 10 kilometres. Now, according to Devesh Gadhavi, Deputy Director, The Corbett Foundation, the same company is taking another 66-kV power line underground near Kunathiya village to protect the GIB, following the order of the SC.

On this, Gadhavi questions that if the government can underground the power lines why can’t private companies follow suit. During an ongoing case in the Supreme Court regarding taking power lines underground in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the private companies have voiced their opposition to the idea stating that it will make their projects financially unviable.

“We do everything to save the cultural heritage and monuments of our country. We restrict any development around such monuments if they are going to affect our heritage adversely. In the same way, wilderness areas and forests are also our natural heritage, and they should be preserved with equal commitments.”

“Why can’t we leave a small area of our natural heritage devoid of such linear infrastructures? Are we ready to compromise everything in the name of development?” questioned wildlife expert and former chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, M.K. Ranjitsinh, who is also one of the petitioners in the SC case.

“Our constitution is unique and exemplary where it is highlighted that the preservation of the natural heritage of this country is not only the duty of citizens but also their right. In the matter of protection of the GIB, there is no question of stopping the electricity supply of power production.”

“The only matter is to change the mode of transmission into underground power lines. If not done, then we will be facilitating the extinction of the GIB. Thus, it may become the first species of India that was deliberately made extinct despite knowing the scientific steps to save it,” he told Mongabay-India.

Can translocating the GIBs solve the problem?

In the present case in the SC, the Gujarat government’s energy department is advocating the translocation of four female GIBs out of the Kutch region.

Yuvraj Sinh Zala, the Deputy Conservator of Forests (Kutch-West) in Gujarat’s forest department, told Mongabay-India that meetings have been held with the concerned power department companies on the death of birds and action is being taken to protect them.

“In the present situation, it is important and a priority to protect the surviving female GIBs and preserve their habitat. Gujarat forest department is taking necessary steps to prevent harmful activities in the protected area and sensitising the staff about the conservation of birds,” he told Mongabay-India.

Shyamal Tikadar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the Chief Wildlife Warden of Gujarat told Mongabay-India that “moving the Great Indian Bustard is a long way off.”

“Even if we go to catch it, it will die. However, bringing a male GIB from Rajasthan is the only suitable option for Gujarat to protect species in the state,” he said.

Meanwhile, Devesh Gadhavi, who is a member of the IUCN SSC (International Union for Conservation of Nature-Species Survival Commission) Bustard Specialist Group working for the GIB conservation for more than 12 years, said that in 2020, Gujarat hosted the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, an internationally significant convention for the migratory species where the Great Indian Bustard was the mascot.

“Kutch, especially Abdasa, is not crucial for the GIBs but is also home to more than 25 threatened species of birds which are important from the CMS perspective as well. Therefore, it is crucial to make this habitat safer; not only for GIBs but also for numerous other migratory species for which Gujarat and India both have given international commitments. GETCO has started laying underground power lines as per the SC order. The other power agencies must also follow this to reduce power line-induced bird mortality,” Gadhavi told Mongabay-India.

Why is it crucial to ensure environmental safeguards?

According to an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the Gujarat government’s energy and petrochemical department in April 2022, GETCO has initiated the tender process for the purchase of 18,000 bird diverters, installation of which is expected to end by June 2022. The estimated cost of these bird diverters is about Rs. 29.25 crores (Rs. 292.5 million).

Pankaj Joshi, a biodiversity researcher, said “any rapid development either in block or linear will be a major threat to the movement of many wildlife species and may change the macro and microhabitats for several threatened species such as wild ass, chinkara, desert cat, jungle cat, desert fox, Indian foxes, hyenas, wolves, caracal, honey buzzard, porcupines, etc.”

“The approach road network in and around important fringe areas of Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann of Kutch will be very harmful to the movement of small and larger mammals; including many migratory seasonal bird species such as flamingos … and there could be an increase in incidents of road kills,” Joshi told Mongabay-India.

In addition, he said, due to probable changes in the surface water flow, many grasslands in the region may get impacted too. “Grass species such as Dichanthium, Sporobolus, Cenchrus, Chloris, Echinochloa, etc., which are supporting many herbivores’ requirements may get impacted too due to impact on water flow,” Joshi noted.

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