The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought assistance of the Attorney General K K Venugopal in exploring the possibility of extending the jurisdiction of the National Green Tribunal under Wildlife Protection Act, a view shared by the top law officer who said it should have been done. Venugopal assured the top court that he would look into the issue straightaway.
A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justice AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, which is hearing a plea for installation of bird diverters and laying of underground cables to protect endangered birds-the Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican, told the Attorney General to consider exploring the possibility of extending the jurisdiction of the NGT to Wildlife Protection Act. When senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for Petitioner M K Ranjitsinh — a retired IAS officer — said that the NGT is also seized of an identical plea, the bench said that if the green tribunal is looking into it, then there is no need for creating multiplicity of litigation. Divan said that though NGT has jurisdiction under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, it does not have jurisdiction under Wildlife Protection Act.
The bench then told the Attorney General to do something on the issue and said that it is a reasonable thing which can be done. Venugopal replied that it should have been done and he will look into the issue straightaway. The bench also asked Divan as to why the petitioner has not arrayed the power company which had put the overhead line for power transmission and added that it will ask the firm to bear the costs for laying of underground cables. Divan further informed the bench that as directed by the top court in its order of last year, an expert committee has been constituted and terms of reference may be issued for the panel.
The bench asked Divan to mark the habitat area of the Great Indian Bustard and the routes where the underground cables need to be laid. It posted the matter for further hearing in the second week of January, 2021. On February 18, the top court has asked the Rajasthan government to consider laying underground cables to protect the two endangered birds saying that they are large birds and it is difficult for them to manoeuvre due to the high-tension power lines which obstruct their flight paths.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had earlier told the top court that there is no other option but to lay power cables underground to protect the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) and Lesser Florican (LF). The top court had said that one of the dangers is the presence of high voltage power lines, which obstruct the flight path of the GIB and one of the solutions suggested is to avoid any collision in its flight path by laying over-head wires underground. It had asked the Rajasthan government to look into modifying the contract of private companies for laying down the power cables underground.
On July 15 last year, the court had taken serious note of alarming extinction of the GIB and the LF and constituted a high powered committee to urgently frame and implement an emergency response plan for the protection of these species. It had constituted a 3-member panel comprising Director of Bombay Natural History Society; Asad R Rahmani, former Director of Bombay Natural History Society and Dhananjai Mohan, Chief Conservator of Forests of Uttarakhand. Later, three more members were added in the panel as suggested by the petitioner. It had sought responses from the Centre and state governments including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, where these two species of birds are prominently found, on a plea of wildlife activists. Ranjitsinh and others had sought the court's directions for an urgent emergency response plan to protect and recovery of both bird species. Ranjitsinh, who has served as the director of Wildlife Protection, has contended in his plea that over the last 50 years the population of the GIB has recorded a decline of over 82 per cent, falling from an estimated 1,260 in 1969, to 100-150 in 2018.
"The population of the Lesser Florican (also known as the likh or kharmore) has seen a sharp decline of 80 per cent over the past few decades, from 3530 individuals recorded in 1999, to less than 700 individuals in 2018," the plea said. It added that both the birds are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 but despite being accorded the highest level of protection under national law; the birds face the threat of imminent extinction.
The plea blamed various reasons for the threats faced by the two endangered birds including — mortality by collision with infrastructure, particularly power lines and wind turbines, depletion of grasslands, hunting, development of mines and human habitation in and around their habitats and ingestion of pesticides.