Bijli-sadak-paani are the basic needs for a decent quality of rural life. Villages in the remote grasslands and deserts of India have long suffered and lacked these amenities. But times are changing. On one hand, Chayn Singh, a forest guard from Sam village in the Thar desert, recalled how he travelled for hours to fetch drinking water in his youth. This is unfathomable to his children, as tankers get water to their houses. On the other, the Great Indian Bustard, an ambassador of grasslands and deserts, and could-be national bird (if not for the objections that its name was open to misinterpretation) was once widespread across the dry rural landscapes of India. It has now disappeared from 90 per cent of its former range.
Justifiably, electricity, road and water facilities for rural households are the main agenda for development programmes. The present government has a target of electrifying seven lakh power deprived villages with mazes of power lines. About 1.7 lakh villages will be connected by constructing and upgrading 7.5 lakh kilometres of roads. The water needs of 80,000 sq km of agricultural land will be quenched through funding for irrigation projects. Bijli-sadak-pani will finally reach remote rural households.
However, this change has come at a cost to wildlife conservation. Many remote rural landscapes are also important wildlife habitats. The influx of infrastructure has modified these lands and wildlife is not amenable to such rapid changes. The expanding infrastructure in grasslands and deserts has been a death knell for the Great Indian Bustard. With just 200 bustards left, they are precariously close to extinction. Why is the bustard disappearing? The devil is in the details. Those who have travelled the interiors of Kutch or Thar about a decade ago will now find these landscapes transformed by bijli-sadak-pani. First, there is a change in farming practices as a perennial water supply (brought by the Indira Gandhi Nahar Project in Thar and by bore-well irrigation in Kutch) ensures land is cultivated intensively all through the year. Earlier, farming was only done during monsoons and this spared lands for bustards, antelopes and foxes.
Second, mazes of power lines are laid along aerial corridors. Bustards are on a collision course as they have narrow frontal vision that does not allow easy spotting of wires and being not very agile flyers they have poor manoeuvring skills.
The only breeding male in Nannaj Sanctuary that was radio-tracked by Wildlife Institute of India is one of the many birds that succumbed to electrocution and/or the impact of a collision. This is not only about the death of an individual bird but mathematical projections based on the bustards’ demography found that these accidental deaths are sufficient to cause bustards to go extinct. Yet, prime bustard habitats between Sam and Mokla in Thar and between Naliya and Bitta in Kutch are allocated for wind and solar power projects. These renewable power projects, touted as “green energy”, are actively pursued by the present government. An ambitious target of generating 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2020 means that about 2,000 sq km of land will be lined with solar panels that will be placed mostly in grasslands and deserts. In a final effort to save the bustard, conservation agencies have joined hands to restore its habitats and secure a captive bred population as an insurance against extinction. But reviving the bustard requires the importance of grasslands and deserts to be recognised.
Indian environmental laws mandate that infrastructure projects be scrutinised on the basis of environment impact assessments before granting clearances. Safeguards are suggested to reduce ecological damage, and their implementation is monitored. The problem is that forest-centric environmental governance does not recognise grasslands and deserts as worthy of conservation attention. This is an imprinted notion that is derived from an archaic colonial policy. Grasslands and deserts were not regarded as resources for the British economy — the notion of unproductive “wastelands” that are better diverted to “more productive” uses continues to this day. But grasslands and deserts support biodiversity that is so unique that their loss cannot be compensated by conserving forests. The 11th Five-Year Plan recommended that grasslands and deserts be brought under the ambit of environment impact assessment and consolidation of these habitats as “protected areas”. The second policy shortfall was the sole focus on “protected areas”, wherein efforts to protect the bustard inside sanctuaries went kaput as the same birds were dying outside during their wide expeditions. Many voices call for conservation policy to transcend “protected areas” and to manage land uses in “unprotected” biodiversity-rich areas. This transition is necessary since ecological processes are spatially interlinked and small protected areas lose their functions when processes are disrupted in surrounding rural landscapes.
The way forward need not be viewed through a lens of “this or that” — whether bijli-sadak-pani or conservation; development or environmental laws; protected or unprotected. It is more often a question of where and how to implement infrastructures in rural-wildlife habitats while trying to meet wildlife concerns. Rajasthan has pioneered the initiative of participatory land-use planning in bustard habitats. In a recent meeting, officers from the state forest department, revenue department, energy department and wind and solar power firms have agreed to avoid new power lines and renewable power projects from coming up on prime bustard habitats.
There is no doubt that balancing rural development and bustard conservation is one of the most formidable challenges we face. By confronting this challenge, we are at the tipping point for how land-use planning and environmental stewardship is possible in other parts of India.