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How a Bird Sparked a Conversation On Climate Rights in India

The Supreme Court of India recently acknowledged the fundamental right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change, making national headlines. This article explores how a petition demanding the conservation of a critically endangered bird led to this landmark statement, which sets an important precedent in climate justice cases around the world.

The Great Indian Bustard (GIB) is a large, endangered ostrich-like bird found on the Indian subcontinent. A little-known fact, even to most Indians, is that when the nation’s national bird was being selected, the GIB was a frontrunner. Government officials, however, believed that the potential mispronunciation and misspelling of the name could lead to embarrassment, and the peafowl was chosen instead. More recently, a writ petition brought before the Supreme Court of India (SC) concerning the conservation of the GIB brought the bird to the national spotlight.

The SC’s statement declaring that people also have a “right to be free from the adverse effects of climate change” caught national headlines. Why exactly did the SC make this statement in their ruling on the GIB case?

To fully grasp the significance of the statement regarding the conservation of the bird, it is essential to understand the background of the species in question, the actions taken for its preservation, and the context surrounding the petition associated with it.

Most GIBs are found in the state of Rajasthan as they typically occupy grasslands or arid regions. The GIB is named a “critically endangered species” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the IUCN’s system, there are only two graver classifications – “extinct in the wild” and “extinct”.

3 Great Indian Bustards or Indian bustards in a field

The great Indian Bustard, or Indian Bustard, is a bustard found on the Indian subcontinent. A large bird with a horizontal body and long bare legs, giving it an ostrich-like appearance, this bird is among the heaviest of the flying birds. Photo: Inside Indian Jungles/Flickr.

GIBs usually lay single eggs, which are exposed to predators like the mongoose and at risk of being trampled by cows and other large animals. The development of roads and electric lines, along with activities like mining, farming, hunting, and poaching have all led to shrinking GIB populations. Other threats include the apathy of local populations, agriculture, grazing and free-roaming dogs.

The writ petition sought for the Supreme Court of India to issue directions to frame and implement emergency response plans to protect and conserve GIBs, among other things. Some of the points included requesting an embargo on sanctioning new projects and renewing leases on existing projects, dismantling power lines, wind turbines, and solar panels in and around critical areas, and prohibiting the encroachment of grasslands in and around critical areas. 

In April 2021, the SC’s judgement imposed restrictions on setting up overhead transmission lines in a territory covering about 99,000 square kilometres. The SC created a committee to assess the feasibility of laying high-voltage underground power lines and replacing overground lines with underground ones. The Ministries of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, of Power, and of New and Renewable Energy filed for the amendment of this order in November 2021, contending that underground high voltage power lines would technically not be possible. Additionally, the 99,000-square-kilometre territory where restrictions had been imposed contained a very large proportion of the solar and wind energy potential of the country, meaning they would likely slow India’s energy transition away from fossil fuels. In a further affidavit, the Indian government described breeding measures and current conservation efforts to protect and develop GIB populations in order to highlight present efforts at preserving the GIB population.

Power transmission lines in Andhra, India.

Power transmission lines in Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The SC had the difficult task of identifying solutions for conserving the GIB while promoting sustainable development to reduce the overall effects of climate change. In its statement in March 2024, the court highlighted India’s international commitments toward sustainable development and climate action, and India’s domestic-level policy implementations. Critically, the SC also identified that, despite governmental policy and rules and regulations recognising the adverse effects of climate change and seeking to combat it, there is no single or umbrella legislation in India which relates to climate change and the attendant concerns. However, this does not mean that the people of India do not have a right against the adverse effects of climate change.”

The SC further drew that Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) and Article 14 (right to equality before the law and the equal protection of laws) of the Indian constitution were important sources of the right to a clean environment and the right against the adverse effects of climate change. Through the effects of climate change, poorer communities being disproportionately affected further perpetuates inequalities, leading to the infringement on the right to equality for these communities. These statements were celebrated by policy and climate experts who believe that recognising protection against the adverse effects of climate change as a fundamental right is key to promoting serious conversations on the matter.

In tandem with the praise is an ongoing conversation about the final paragraphs of the SC’s statement. The SC mentions that a holistic approach needs to be adopted while balancing the two goals: the conservation of the GIB and the conservation of the environment as a whole. Undergrounding the high-voltage cables could impede the development of solar and wind energy projects in the area, inadvertently allowing harm to the environment due to emissions of harmful gases from fossil fuels.

Concern about the approach taken by the SC in their verdict remains over the fact that, while focusing on human rights in the context of climate change, the conservation of vulnerable species like the GIB is pushed to the side. In this specific case, ensuring that India remains on track to achieve its energy transition goals and international commitments comes at the cost of further endangering the GIB. When attempting to tackle climate change, further marginalising communities in the pursuit of “sustainable development” must not be allowed.

In essence, the SC’s words about holistic approaches need to be taken at face value, “not sacrificing either of the goals at the altar of the other”, as the SC’s verdict read. We must maintain that approach in the quest for overall environmental justice and climate action. Ensure that every community, no matter how marginalised, does not become the victim of environmental injustice.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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