The oran (sacred grove) is an integral part of Rajasthan’s culture. Rich in biodiversity and usually with water bodies within, orans are akin to oases in the dry state. The orans in Jaisalmer, also a habitat of the great Indian bustard, are currently the site of disagreement between renewable energy companies and local residents.

Protesting against the proposed green energy infrastructure that could disturb the orans, residents of 10-12 villages, including Bhimsar, Devda, Rasla and Achla, marched 60 km in June to hand over a memorandum to the district collector, against the power companies.

The villagers allege that power lines, as part of a solar power plant project, are being proposed to be laid right in the centre of Jaisalmer’s Degrai oran. Sumer Singh Bhati, a resident of Sanwata village of Jaisalmer district, highlights the dangers of these high-tension wires in the Degrai oran, “The solar-power company has fixed the height of the high-tension wires at 20 feet.”

“Camels, one of the main sources of transportation, are themselves 10 feet in height, and if we add the height of the rider, around 3 feet while seated, it comes to a total of 13 feet,” Bhati said. “In this case, there is a gap of only seven feet between the wires and the rider, which is very risky for both the riders and the camels. Maximum numbers of camels in Rajasthan are found in this district as our livelihood depends upon them. I have 400 camels myself.”

Earlier, in June, the green energy companies that were setting up solar and wind projects in the vast expanse of the state were also faced with a Supreme Court order which asked for transmission lines in a part of Rajasthan to go underground and other actions to protect the critically endangered great Indian bustard.

Locals are protesting against the power line laid by a solar power company. Photo credit: Sumer Singh Bhati

Degrai oran dispute

According to the local environment and history enthusiast Parth Jagani, the history of the Degrai oran in Jaisalmer is 602 years old. According to old inscriptions on copper sheets (tamrapatra), King Vikiramdev came to bathe in Pushkar, Ajmer, in the year 1419 (Vikram Samvat 1476). As his witnesses, the Sun God and Moon God donated the area around the Degrai Mandir (around 38 km), as oran, estimated to be approximately 60,000 bigha. Henceforth, it was declared that no farming, cutting of trees or hunting would be permitted on the land, and it would be left untouched for the animals to graze on.

“Villagers have been following this practice for the last 600 years,” he added. “This oran holds religious and social importance for us. It is a dense jungle right in the middle of a desert. It provides pasture for cattle of around 12 villages.”

“We are protesting against the power line laid by the solar power company,” he said. “In the last decade, many large companies from other areas and countries have been eyeing this area. The government interference has also increased.”

Land misclassification

Wrong classification of oran land is perhaps where the issue started. Explaining the detailed reason to Mongabay India, Durjan Singh, secretary of Oran Bachao Samiti (Save Oran Committee) and Degrai Mandir Trust, said, “When the land was measured (chakbandi or Paimaish) after independence, the land was listed under farmland.”

“The villagers did not pay any attention to it either,” Singh said. “When a private solar power company started its project here and started felling trees in 1999, we looked at the land records and found the root of the problem. Despite several protests from our side, the government only listed 24,000 bigha areas of land as oran, out of 60,000 bigha. We are still fighting to get the remaining 36,000 bigha of land listed or classified as oran.”

He further added, “At first, the government allowed private companies to start their project in the 36,000 bigha land area. But now, they are also occupying the remaining 24,000 bigha listed as oran, by building towers and laying several high-tension lines, posing a threat to many species of large birds in this area.”

Villagers say the power lines pose a threat to the biodiversity of orans. Photo credit: Sumer Singh Bhati

Threat to bustards

The state bird of Rajasthan, the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), is a protected species under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in 2020 classified it as “critically endangered”. In the whole world, these endangered birds are only found in Rajasthan.

But here too, their numbers have reduced to 120-130 birds. The Wildlife Institute of India and other scientists are working to save the great Indian bustard from extinction, particularly from the threats of the network of power lines in the state.

“A great Indian bustard died in September 2020 after getting caught in the power lines,” Parth said. “The last time one was spotted here was in March 2021.”

As per a report published by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2020, the annual mortality of the bird was estimated at 83,868 birds, or about 20,000 annual mortality per 1,000 sq km area.

The power lines also pose threats to other animals. The report further adds that 3.22 birds die getting caught in the less than 33KV power line per km and the number rises to 6.25 birds per km for higher voltage lines.

High tension wires are a threat to critically endangered great Indian bustard in orans. Photo credit: Sumer Singh Bhati

Sumit Dookia, assistant professor at the School of Environment Management branch of the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University said, “We saw a media report saying great Indian bustard is a serious problem for India’s green energy goals.”

“Degrai Oran is adjacent to the Rasla village, which is also the satellite enclosure of the Desert National Park,” Dookia said. “We conducted a study in the oran of Degrai, between January and February and found that 45 large birds had lost their lives by being caught in the high tension wires in this Oran.”

“There are five power lines, between 33KV and 12MV, passing through the Degrai Oran,” Dookia said. “There is also a power station of 765KV for these companies.”

Talking to Mongabay India, Sunil Joshi, regional manager of ReNew Power Private Limited, working in this area said, “We are working within the legal framework. No rules or laws have been broken by our company.”

When Mongabay India reached out to the Divisional Forest Officer of Jaisalmer (Desert National Park), Kapil Chandrawal, for a comment, he said that the Degari oran does not fall under his jurisdiction and only the District Collector and Revenue Department have a say in the matter. But he acknowledged that villagers are facing huge problems due to renewable energy infrastructure set up by the companies.

Mongabay India reached out to the General Manager of Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation Ltd Sunil Mathur and District Collector Jaisalmer Ashish Modi, for their comments on the issue, but received no response at the time of publishing.

Orders not followed

Locals in Jaisalmer have filed cases in the Apex Court and the National Green Tribunal against power companies. Environmentalist MV Ranjit Singh, who filed a case in the Supreme Court in January 2019, said, “The case went on for two years. Finally, the Supreme Court ordered all the projects to cease operations and install reflectors on the power lines.”

He alleged, “The companies have disobeyed the court’s orders and continued their projects even during the lockdown.”

“They have installed some radium reflectors just for the sake of it, but they only glow when a light beam hits,” he said. “Since the great Indian bustards look in all directions while flying, they get caught in these wires mid-flight. It is mostly the males that are electrocuted as they fly more often.”

Dookia said that the Supreme Court ordered the companies to install power lines underground that were not installed very high. A three-member committee comprising Sutirtha Dutta, a scientist at Wildlife Institute of India, Rahul Rawat, scientist at Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and Devesh Gadhvi of Corbett Foundation, has been formed to explore the possibility of undergrounding the high-tension power lines.

Dookia said that the power companies have not sent their representatives to the committee yet. They know that they will have to bear considerable expenses to lay the wires underground and are just trying to buy time.

Mongabay India, in an email to the three-member committee, asked about the status of compliance of the Supreme Court order, whether the representatives of the green energy company appeared before the committee and whether the high tension power line is to be laid underground.

In response, the committee only said that the companies had not been given permission to install high-tension power lines over head.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.