100 bustards and the challenge to India’s solar flight path

The Great Indian Bustard.  (Devesh Gadhavi, the Corbett Foundation)
The Great Indian Bustard. (Devesh Gadhavi, the Corbett Foundation)


  • The Great Indian Bustard, an endangered bird, is found in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The bird’s habitat also holds great potential for renewable energy generation. At times, the birds collide with high and low tension overhead wires and die. Save the birds or the climate?

New Delhi: In the early 1960s, India was on the lookout for a national bird. Renowned ornithologist, the late Salim Ali, also known as the ‘birdman of India’, favoured the Great Indian Bustard, a four ft tall bird that resembles an ostrich. The large and heavy bird is found in the extreme west of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Eventually in 1963, the government of India settled for the peacock. Though there is no way to know for sure, the government, back then, feared the name ‘bustard’ would be misspelt, the media had reported.

Almost six decades later, the bustard is battling an existential crisis. Its biggest threat is India’s burgeoning renewable energy industry. The bird’s habitat in the desert is also the region that holds great potential for wind and solar energy generation. Already accounting for the bulk of the country’s renewable energy capacity, it is the spearhead in India’s battle against climate change—a priority for the government.

Hundreds of kilometres (km) of high and low tension overhead wires have sprung up in the desert over the last decade to transmit the energy generated from the wind turbines and solar panels. The bustard, among many other species of birds, finds itself at the mercy of these wires, colliding mid-flight and dying.

Without solar and wind power from the two states, India would struggle to meet its ambitious targets of renewable energy generation—500 gigawatts by 2030.


Environmentalists took the issue to court.

In April 2021, a three-member jury in the Supreme Court, headed by then chief justice S.A. Bobde, ordered overhead wires in an 80,688 sq. km area to be pushed underground. Only this could save the birds.

Environmentalists, expectedly, cheered the judgement but the industry, and the government, were dismayed. Undergrounding cables is expensive and would make business unviable, they argued. And without solar and wind power from the two states, India would struggle to meet its ambitious targets of renewable energy generation—500 gigawatts (GW) by 2030. India produced only 134 GW in 2023.

Multiple review petitions were filed. Last month, another three-member jury, headed by sitting chief justice D.Y. Chandrachud, re-looked at the earlier judgement and relaxed the provisions. The jury also appointed a seven-member committee to suggest the way forward.

The area mandated for undergrounding overhead wires has now been reduced to a ‘priority’ area of 13,663 sq. km, a major relief for existing and under construction solar power projects in the region, totalling 60 GW in capacity and worth 1.5 trillion.

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud.
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Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud. (PTI)

The ‘priority’ area is where the Great Indian Bustard is mostly found. The habitat also consists of a ‘potential area’ or places the bird could potentially relocate or fly to.

“There is no dispute in regard to the fact that the Great Indian Bustard is seriously endangered as a species. At the same time, it has emerged in the course of the hearing that there is no adequate basis to impose a general prohibition in regard to the installation of transmission lines in an area as wide," the court said on 21 March.

This time, the environmentalists were disappointed while the industry lauded the court’s pragmatism.

“This order provides relief and clarity for wind energy project owners, and we believe it will go a long way in building a more sustainable renewable energy sector in the country," a spokesperson from Suzlon, a renewable energy company, told Mint.

Against a multi-billion dollar industry restless to expand and grow and a government eager to further embellish its green stripes, can the birds find a way to fly?

Life and death

The number of bustards may have dwindled to 100 from 1,500 from half a century ago.
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The number of bustards may have dwindled to 100 from 1,500 from half a century ago. (Devesh Gadhavi, the Corbett Foundation)

Half a century ago, there were over 1,500 bustards in the country. The number dwindled to just 250 by 2011 and according to the last census by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), there were less than 150 of these birds in 2018. The number may have gone down further to 100 now, renewable energy companies operating in the bustard habitat acknowledge.

WII is a Dehradun-based autonomous body funded by the government of India.

That the bird is endangered has been known for sometime. It was included in the critically endangered species list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2013. Then, in February 2020, at the behest of India, the bird was among the seven species classified as ‘endangered migratory species’ and added to Appendix I of CMS COP13 (Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals). Under this, signatory countries are expected to strictly protect the animals in the list.

Bustard deaths by electrocution with overhead wires isn’t unique to India. Nearly a third of the bustards in South Africa’s Denham die annually from power-line collisions, according to a paper published by the International Journal of Avian Science. In Spain, 8.5km stretch of power-line killed a minimum of 25 great bustards in one year alone, as per J.C. Alonso, a research professor at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, Spanish Council for Scientific Research. A review of nine studies covering six bustard species from different parts of the world estimated seven bustard mortalities per 10km power line per year.

Unless power line mortality is mitigated urgently, extinction of the Great Indian Bustard is certain. —Wildlife Institute of India


WII conducted surveys in 2018 covering 80km of power lines in the Thar desert and found 289 carcasses of around 40 species, including the Great Indian Bustard. The study detected eight and six carcasses for every 10km of high and low-tension wires respectively. It extrapolated the findings to cover 4,200 sq. km of the Desert National Park in Rajasthan, coming up with a staggering figure of 84,000 bird hits per year.

For Great Indian Bustards, WII put the mortality figure at 16 per annum in the 13,163 sq. km of priority bustard habitat. The area has 150km of high tension lines and it suggested undergrounding of at least 104km of those wires and diverters for the rest.

Bird diverters are plastic flaps installed on power lines. They reflect light allowing birds to spot them from a distance of 50 metres. Birds can, therefore, change their flight paths in time to avoid a collision.

“Unless power line mortality is mitigated urgently, extinction of the Great Indian Bustard is certain," WII noted in its report.

Expensive affair

“The state as well as the central government have a duty to preserve the endangered species and as such the expenses incurred will have to be provided by them either under the schemes available or by earmarking the same in such manner," the Supreme Court noted in April 2021, while directing undergrounding of cables. The court added that “it would also be permissible to pass on a portion of such expenses to the ultimate consumer."

Undergrounding, nonetheless, isn’t easy to implement; nor is it inexpensive. It would cost over 50,000 crore and potentially lead to escalation of power tariff in both states, according to a petition from the industry. For future projects, underground wires would push the cost by upto 80% rendering them unviable.

Considering India’s renewable energy targets, the country cannot afford to let these businesses slip. According to the industry, the region has a wind and solar energy potential of 263 GW.

“Underground wires are simply not feasible here. You can do it in urban centres for shorter distances but here, you need them for hundreds of kilometres," said Varun Gupta, chief investment officer at SAEL, a renewable company with more than 20 projects in various states in India. “With abundant sunlight, scanty rainfall and vast expanse of barren land, this region has the highest potential for solar power generation. It will be unfortunate if it remains out of bounds for the industry," he added.

In the three years since the Supreme Court order, not much undergrounding was achieved. The court had set up a three-member technical committee to grant exemptions from undergrounding on a case by case basis. In a status report, submitted to the court on 16 January 2023, the committee said that it had not received any application for exemptions of existing transmission lines in Rajasthan. Only a 10-km segment of a much longer 66 KV transmission line in Gujarat had been laid underground.

Taking a toll

The bustard habitat has some of the largest solar parks in the country—the likes of the 2,200 Megawatt (MW) Bhadla Solar Park, the 1,500 MW Fategarh Solar Park and the 925 MW Nokh Solar Park among others.

The Supreme Court judgement of April 2021 had an impact on fresh renewable energy investments in the region. As a result, the pace of growth in India’s overall solar energy capacity addition slowed, analysts underline.

In 2023, India only added 7.5 GW of solar energy capacity, a 44% drop from the record 13.4 GW added in 2022. Barring the pandemic ravaged 2020, this was the lowest annual capacity addition since 2016.

“We have deliberately stayed away from projects not just in the primary bustard area but also in the ‘potential’ area," said Gupta of SAEL. “Rajasthan has the best radiation in the country and waste land is also available in plenty. This makes it perfect for solar energy production. But, we are backed by foreign investors and are compliant with IFC and WorldBank standards on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) norms. This means we can’t even think of investing in areas populated by the Great Indian Bustards," he added.

The U-turn

The bustard habitat has some of the largest solar parks in the country.
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The bustard habitat has some of the largest solar parks in the country. (Devesh Gadhavi, the Corbett Foundation)

Following the 2021 order, the raft of review petitions put the court in an unenviable position—of trying to strike a balance between saving a bird and the climate at large.

The ministries of new and renewable energy, power, and environment forests and climate change filed an interlocutory application on 17 November 2021 seeking modification of the April 2021 judgement. They stated that the judgement has “vast adverse implications for the power sector in India and energy transition away from fossil fuels" and that “undergrounding high voltage power lines is technically not possible."

On 19 January this year, multiple solar and wind energy producing companies also filed applications in the Supreme Court claiming that the April 2021 order was interfering with their ability to set up business in the Thar and Kutch regions. In the court, the central government appeared before the bench led by Justice Chandrachud and highlighted the practical, technical and financial difficulties involved in implementing the decision and pushed for a balance between conservation and renewable energy efforts.

On 21 March, the court struck down the mandatory undergrounding of wires in the 80,688 sq. km area, restricting it to 13,663 sq. km of ‘priority’ area.


“The entire area where the court’s order is to operate has solar power generating units. There are high tension wires running overhead. Undergrounding of wires will require them to be joined at places which can be hazardous," said lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who, along with Mukul Rohatgi, India’s former attorney general, represented solar energy producers.

Compared to 2021, the court struck a more conciliatory tone this time. “We are conscious that we are dealing with an issue involving development where India has to achieve alternate energy goals. Our order has to balance both interests," said the bench on 19 January. Apart from Justice Chandrachud, the bench comprised justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.

On 21 March, the court struck down the mandatory undergrounding of wires in the 80,688 sq. km area, restricting it to 13,663 sq. km of ‘priority’ area. Like we mentioned earlier, a seven-member committee of experts was also formed to suggest conservation and protection measures for the Great Indian Bustard. It also has to identify areas in the ‘priority’ area where power lines can be constructed. The committee will submit its report on 31 July.

The Thar region has a wind and solar energy potential of 263 GW.
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The Thar region has a wind and solar energy potential of 263 GW.

“It does not have to be an either-or. In my six decades of advocacy for the environment, I have realized it is all about compromises," M.K. Ranjitsinh Jhala, a former bureaucrat and the main petitioner in the case, said. “What do I want? For the bustards to be able to live, if undergrounding of the wires solves the problem, it is a small price to pay," Jhala, who is from the royal family of Wankaner in Saurashtra, said. “But if it feels excessive for the entire region, at least commit to the core zone of 13,000 sq. km. That could be a middle path. But let’s not haggle over it and lobby for exceptions," he added.

Queries sent to prominent wind and solar energy companies in the region, like Adani Green Energy, Acme Solar Holdings and ReNew, went unanswered. The ministry of new and renewable energy did not respond either.

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