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On Climate Change as a Fundamental Right

Context:

The recent ruling by the Supreme Court of India, recognizing the right to be protected from the adverse impacts of climate change as a distinct fundamental right, marks a significant stride towards promoting a healthy environment and sustainable development within the nation. While the apex court had previously acknowledged the right to inhabit a clean environment as inherent to the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, it now asserts that safeguarding individuals from climate change and ensuring a wholesome environment are intricately intertwined.

Relevance:

GS2-

  • Indian Constitution
  • Fundamental Rights
  • Judgements & Cases

GS3-

  • Conservation
  • Environmental Impact Assessment

Mains Question:

Right to be free of climate change effects comes amid a conservation dilemma. Analyse in the context of the conservation status of the Great Indian Bustard in India. (15 Marks, 250 Words).

More on the Ruling:

  • With the escalating threat posed by climate change becoming increasingly evident year after year, the Court contends that it is imperative to delineate the right to be shielded from its adverse effects as a separate and essential entitlement.
  • The Court elaborates on how the unpredictable manifestations of climate change, such as escalating temperatures, intensifying storms, prolonged droughts, and the resulting food shortages stemming from crop failures and shifts in disease vectors, detrimentally impact human life and well-being.
  • Moreover, should environmental degradation and climate change exacerbate food and water scarcity, the right to equality itself stands compromised, particularly affecting economically disadvantaged and underserved communities who lack the resources to effectively navigate such adversities.

Background:

This heightened focus on climate change emerged within the context of a legal case juxtaposing concerns over the mass fatalities of the Great Indian Bustard due to collisions with solar power transmission lines against India’s international commitments to mitigate emissions and augment its energy capacity through non-fossil fuel sources.

The Great Indian Bustard:

  • The Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps), revered as the State bird of Rajasthan, stands as India’s most critically endangered avian species.
  • It serves as a symbol of the grassland ecology’s vitality, being hailed as the flagship species representing these habitats.
  • Although primarily found in Rajasthan and Gujarat, smaller populations inhabit Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.

Vulnerability:

  • This majestic bird faces persistent threats, including collision/electrocution with power transmission lines, hunting (still prevalent in Pakistan), and habitat loss due to extensive agricultural expansion.
  • Additionally, the Great Indian Bustard’s slow reproductive rate adds to its vulnerability, with a reproductive cycle characterized by laying a few eggs and an extensive parental care period lasting nearly a year. These birds typically reach maturity over a span of 3-4 years.

Protection Status:

Designated as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, listed under Appendix I of CITES, and included in Appendix I of the CMS. Furthermore, it holds Schedule I status under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Steps Taken to Conserve the GIB:

Species Recovery Programme:

Under the aegis of the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the GIB is a focal point of the species recovery program within the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats initiative.

Firefly Bird Diverters:

Installation of firefly bird diverters on power lines serves as a protective measure. These flaps act as reflectors, aiding bird species like the GIB in spotting power lines from a distance of approximately 50 meters, thus altering their flight path to avoid collisions.

Artificial Hatching:

  • Commenced in 2019, the conservation breeding program involves collecting eggs from the wild for artificial incubation. Notably, the first chick, named ‘Uno,’ hatched on June 21, 2019, marking the beginning of this initiative.
  • Subsequently, eight more chicks were successfully hatched and reared under close monitoring. Presently, a total of 29 GIBs are housed across two breeding centers in Rajasthan.

National Bustard Recovery Plans:

Ongoing implementation of comprehensive recovery plans for the bustard species is underway through various conservation agencies.

Conservation Breeding Facility:

A collaborative effort between MoEF&CC, the Rajasthan government, and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) culminated in the establishment of a conservation breeding facility within the Desert National Park at Jaisalmer in June 2019.

Project Great Indian Bustard:

Initiated by the Rajasthan government, this project aims to construct breeding enclosures and develop infrastructure to alleviate human pressure on GIB habitats, thereby contributing to the species’ conservation efforts.

Supreme Court on the Protection of the Great Indian Bustard:

  • Through this case, the Court grapples with the complex interplay between environmental conservation, sustainable energy practices, and the imperative to address climate change while ensuring equitable outcomes for all segments of society.
  • The scenario presents a dilemma that is unique to certain regions of the country. The Bench found itself confronted with a petition filed by three Union Ministries — Environment, Power, and New and Renewable Energy — seeking alterations to the Supreme Court’s directive issued in April 2021.
  •  This directive aimed to safeguard the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard from fatal collisions with power transmission lines erected by solar energy companies in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
  • The earlier mandate had stipulated the installation of all low-voltage power lines in both ‘priority’ zones (where the bird is known to inhabit) and ‘potential’ areas (where conservation efforts are underway) to be underground, with existing overhead lines to be converted accordingly. Additionally, it had ordered the relocation of high-voltage lines in identified regions underground.
  • However, the requested modification was necessitated by the impracticality and exorbitant costs associated with converting to underground lines, particularly detrimental to the renewable energy sector. This is especially significant as the area holds substantial potential for solar and wind energy generation.
  • In response, the Court has delegated the responsibility to an expert committee to determine the appropriate balance between underground and overhead lines, while also rescinding its prior directives.

Conclusion:

It is regrettable that the imperative to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and the necessity to protect a critically endangered species appear to be conflicting goals. Urgent resolution of this dilemma is imperative, with a swift and equitable solution being the optimal path forward.


 

June 2024
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