In today’s Finshots, we explain how the tussle between saving Rajasthan’s state bird and renewable power has led to the recognition of a new distinct fundamental right.

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The Story

The Supreme Court of India recently recognised a distinct fundamental right — the right against the adverse effects of climate change!

And it’s all thanks to one of India’s most critically endangered birds.


Okay, we’ll tell you what’s going on.

See, the Great Indian Bustard (or the Godawan) is the state bird of Rajasthan. It’s an ostrich-like creature that stands at ~4 feet tall and weighs 15 kilos. So you can imagine it’s not the most agile flying species. It’s quite slow in flight and when it does fly, it keeps its eyes focused on the scrubland in the desert.

And that creates a big problem for the bird. Because it often misses the newest predator in its habitat — Power lines!

Yup, the open lands of the Kutch and Thar deserts in western India that are home to the bird are also perfect for wind and solar projects. And the transmission lines carrying power crisscross across the region.

Now the unfortunate reality of this situation is that Bustards often fly into these lines and are killed. And even 1 such death is too many because there are less than 150 of them left in the wild. And as per estimates by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), even four power line-induced deaths a year would lead to its extinction by 2040.

That doesn’t sound good, does it?

Especially since this bird is found only in our country and that too in a very concentrated habitat.

And a couple of years ago, even the Supreme Court thought so. It intervened when it realised the looming extinction threat to this majestic bird. And it asked companies involved in renewable energy projects to fix things. It wanted them to move a large segment of their transmission lines in the region underground. In other cases, it wanted them to install bird diverters. Think of these as bright circles that dangle from the power lines to create a visually clearer warning of an object.

But the companies weren’t happy. They said it would cost a mammoth $4 billion in additional expenses. And that it would hurt projects that were already awarded. All their calculations would have to be tossed in the bin and projects wouldn’t even make economic sense anymore.

Even the government was displeased.

Why, you ask?

Well, the government is banking on renewable energy in the country.

You see, Indians are using a lot more electricity than before. The per capita consumption is rising at a fast clip. But unfortunately, 70% of our electricity needs end up being fueled by coal. Now we don’t need to explain to you that coal is a dirty fossil fuel that spews a lot of harmful emissions during its use. So you can’t claim that it’s environmentally friendly. Also, another issue is that we end up importing truckloads of coal to meet our needs — we spent a gargantuan sum of nearly ₹4 lakh crores last year on imports.

So by switching away from coal, we save costs. But there’s also something else.

We have sunlight in abundance and can simply tap into this free natural resource. Some reports say there’s no other country in the G20 — which is an informal organisation of some of the top 20 economies in the world — that receives more sunlight than us. In this way, we get to fulfil the renewable energy promises we’ve made to the world while saving our valuable foreign exchange reserves too

So the government appealed to the court highlighting the importance of renewable power from the region. It called it “essential for meeting rising power demand…and…India’s international commitments on climate change”.

And that prompted the Supreme Court to evaluate the situation again.

This time, it said, “Okay, we might have gone overboard with our previous diktat. Let’s reconsider this because what we actually need is an approach which does not sacrifice either of the two at the altar of the other. We need to save the Great Indian Bustard and we need to meet our renewable energy goals. So we’ll set up a committee to decide what’s the best way forward.”

Now we don’t know what will be the outcome of that. All we can hope for is that the committee comes up with a feasible plan to meet our twin objectives — saving the bird and meeting our renewable energy goals.

But amid this tussle, the Supreme Court also realised one other thing.

The reason why we’re hellbent on renewable energy is because we’re conscious about climate change. We know that burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow will literally mean we end up with no tomorrow. Global warming will change everything. Sea levels will rise and people in low-lying areas or the coast will be affected. Warmer waters will affect fishing and consequently hurt the livelihoods of people who depend on fishing. Erratic weather will spoil crop production and farmers will suffer.

Now we have Article 21 in the Constitution which gives us the ‘Right to Life’. And over the years, it has been expanded to include bits and pieces. For instance, in 1995, the top court had said every Indian had a ‘right to a clean environment.’ under the Right to Life too.

But the problem was that the environment is often impacted by climate change. And in order to make the Right to Life more complete, we need to address climate change too. Or rather, we need a “right against the adverse effects of climate change”. It’s as distinct a right as anything else.

That means we need to ensure that we have sustainable solutions that can help combat climate change. And renewable energy could be one of them.

So yeah, that’s how an endangered bird, the Great Indian Bustard, gave us a new fundamental right. But now it’s up to us to protect the bird’s right to life too.

Until then…

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