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Why India's Attempts at Coming up with Uniform Dam Safety Mechanism May Fail Again

Representative image.

Representative image.

Introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2019, the Dam Safety Bill provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams in India via a regulatory body.

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Aditya Sharma

New Delhi: On Monday, India’s third attempt to put in place a uniform safety mechanism for dam safety failed. Upon insistence by the Tamil Nadu government, the Centre consented to hold the Dam Safety Bill 2019 in abeyance in Parliament, sources told News18.

Introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2019, the Dam Safety Bill provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams in India via a regulatory body. The dams that come under the scope of the Bill have to be more than 15 metres in height with specified design considerations.

The discourse and discussion on dam safety, which first began in the early 1980s, first attained its legislative form in 2010. It was introduced under Article 252 of the Constitution which allows Parliament to make laws on state subjects. However, a parliamentary panel back then had suggested significant changes in it.

A second attempt to legislate dam safety was again made in 2018 but that too failed. The Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. The Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha in August earlier this year, was the latest attempt at this.

The Bill proposes to create two national bodies — the National Committee on Dam Safety and the National Dam Safety Authority. While the former is expected to draw policies and recommend regulations regarding standard of safety, the latter’s functions include implementing policies of the national committee.

The authority is also expected to offer technical assistance to the State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs) and resolve disputes of state-owned dams. The SDSO and a State Committee on Dam Safety are also to be established under the purview of the Bill to monitor, operate and maintain dams within the local region.

At present, India has 5,745 large dams of which 5,675 are operated by states, 40 by central public sector undertakings and five by private entities, a legislative brief on the Bill by the PRS Legislative Research noted. An overwhelming majority of these dams are located in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Ever since it was introduced in Parliament, the Bill received strong opposition from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Odisha and has also made environmentalists anxious. The Tamil Nadu Assembly had passed a unanimous resolution in June 2019 urging the Centre to defer a discussion on the Bill.

The main objection of state governments is the nature of the Bill. If passed, it shall put water and dam management under the control of the Centre and no more a state subject.

As per law, Entry 17 of the State List allows states to make laws on issues of water supply, irrigation and canals, drainage, water storage and water power. On the other hand, the Centre’s control on rivers and water is limited only to laws it can make on the regulation of inter-state rivers and river valleys. This is mandated under Entry 56 of the Union List.

Given this clash with existing legislation, states like Tamil Nadu have raised concerns over Clause (24) of the Bill. It provides for central control over a dam owned by one state but located in another state. The NDSA is expected to regulate such dams.

However, experts have raised other operational concerns over the Centre’s control of dams. When the Central Water Commission (CWC) had declared in September a crisis at India’s third largest reservoir, the Gandhi Sagar Dam, leading to overtopping due to heavy rainfall, Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDR) had blamed faulty management.

“The Gandhi Sagar dam was filled to full capacity a few weeks ago. Why was the dam filled up with almost a month of monsoon to go? This violated many of the dam management rules. Sudden heavy rains only made things worse,” he had told News18.

Even during the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, experts had raised concerns about the failure of proper management. Here, the CWC’s role, under the jurisdiction of the new Bill, both as a policy maker and regulator by heading the NDSA, is raising questions.

The Bill also includes a provision to change functions of authorities via a notification. According to experts, this allows the Centre to change functions of these authorities without prior amendment of the Act by Parliament. This, they say, sets a dangerous precedent.

Despite these concerns, Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat on Monday assured the AIADMK leaders, who met him that day, that the Bill will not alter ownership, maintenance and control of dams.

India needs to safely manage its dams in accordance with Constitutional provisions. Whether water is will be ruled as a central subject is not known yet, but the fact that the broad mechanism of control of the proposed bill, if passed, shall have local effects.

A question to ponder is whether an overarching national, systematised control on water, via a bill on dam safety, may be sensitive to local needs and its share in resources.


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