The upper house of the parliament of India, the country that has not had dam safety legislation for over 70 years, passed the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, today. The Lok Sabha had passed the bill already on 2 August 2019.
As of 2019, the National Register of Large Dams says there are 5,745 large dams in the country, of which 293 are over 100 years old. Apart from that, 1,041 dams are between 50 and 100 years old.
The Central Water Commission (CWC) says that the ageing of dam assets is a serious safety concern, as the prevalent norms are not met. Ageing dams are a threat to the lives of people living in the catchment areas too.
“Safety of dams is important for safeguarding the huge public investment in critical physical infrastructure, as well as for ensuring continuity of benefits derived from dam projects and national water security,” the CWC has said in an internal note.
The CWC says dam safety is important also in the emerging scenarios of India’s water crisis, linked with its growing population as well as climate change. The government decided way back in 1987 to address these issues and began drafting India’s first dam safety law.
Thus, the Dam Safety Bill has been in the making for the last 34 years, with the files gathering dust are being passed for better language from one office to another since then. The Lok Sabha saw the bill for the first time in August 2010, but it was withdrawn following several changes recommended by the standing committee that it was referred to.
A modified bill was introduced subsequently, but it lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. The bill was introduced afresh in the lower house again two years ago.
Introducing the bill in the Lok Sabha in August 2019, then-Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had said that some 40 dams had collapsed in India by then since Independence. One of the worst disasters took place in Gujarat in 1979 when the Machhu Dam collapsed resulting in the loss of thousands of lives.
Following the disaster, several states and public sector undertakings (PSUs) that own dams in the country set up their own dam safety organisations (DSOs). They took steps to ensure dam safety in their respective territories.
Some 18 states and five dam-owning organisations, namely National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, Bhakra Beas Management Board, Damodar Valley Corporation, Kerala State Electricity Board and Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam, created their own DSOs.
In the absence of a central law, however, the safety regulations vary from state to state. Though water is under the state list, the union government has brought the legislation under Article 246 of the Constitution read with Entry 56 and Entry 97 Of List I in the Union list.
Article 246 empowers the parliament to legislate on any matter enumerated in List I of the Union List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Entry 56 allows Sansad to make laws on the regulation of inter-state rivers and river valleys if it declares such regulation to be expedient in the public interest. Entry 97 permits the parliament to legislate on any other matter not enumerated in List II or List III including any tax not mentioned in either of those lists.
During the debate on the bill today, several opposition MPs vociferously opposed the proposed legislation, which they said encroaches on the states’ rights. The INC’s Shaktisinh Gohil said the bill was unconstitutional and ultra vires, as ‘water‘ came under the state list. “By bringing this law, the Centre is encroaching on states’ jurisdiction,” he said.
Several other leaders, like those from the RJD, MDMK, TDP and Trinamool Congress, opposed the bill, on the ground that it will put water and dam management under the Centre’s control. Many opposition MPs demanded that the bill be sent to the select committee for further scrutiny.
The bill provides for “surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of the specified dam for prevention of dam failure related disaster” and also makes provision for “institutional mechanisms to ensure their safe functioning”.
There will be four layers of monitoring — two at the central level and two at the state level — to ensure dam safety.
A National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) will be set up at the central level. The CWC chairman, and include 10 representatives of central government not below the rank of joint secretary, nominated by the union government, and seven representatives of state government will head the NCDS.
A National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) will be in place within 60 days. The said authority will implement policy, guidelines and standards evolved by NCDS. Any decision taken by the NDSA shall be binding upon all the parties.
Each state government shall establish a State Dam Safety Organisation (SDSO), which shall be constituted within a period of 180 days.
The SDSO shall keep perpetual surveillance, carry out inspections and monitor the operation and maintenance of specified dams falling under their jurisdiction. States will also have to constitute a State Committee on Dam Safety.
The bill will cover all dams of the following specifications constructed before or after the commencement of this Act: Dams…
- above 15 m in height measured from the lowest portion of the general foundation area to the top of the dam, or
- between 10 m and 15 m in height, satisfying at least one of the following conditions:
- The length of the crest is not less than 500 m
- the capacity of the reservoir formed by the dam is not less than 1 MCM (million m3)
- the maximum flood discharge dealt with by the dam is not less than 2,000 cumec (cubic m3/s), or
- the dam has specially difficult foundation problems or the dam is of unusual design.
The bill provides for stringent penalties in case of violations. If anybody is found obstructing any officer or employee of the central government or the state government or person authorised by National Committee or Authority or the state committee or the SDSO in the discharge of functions under this law or refuses to comply with any direction given by them, shall face a maximum of two years jail, or a fine, or both.
Action will be taken even if the offence is committed by a government or government official, company or corporate, officials of the company.