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Rajya Sabha passes Dam Safety Bill, which took 34 years to draft. Here’s why it is important

According to Central Water Commission, safety of dams is important for ensuring continuity of benefits derived from projects and national water security, among other things. 

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New Delhi: India might rank third in the world, after the US and China, when it comes to having large dams but the country has not had dam safety legislation for over 70 years now.

All this is now set to change with the Rajya Sabha passing the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, Thursday. The Lok Sabha had already passed the bill on 2 August 2019.

According to 2019 data available with the National Register of Large Dams, there are currently  5,745 large dams in India, of which 293 are over 100 years old. Besides, 1,041 dams are between 50 and 100 years old. 

According to the Central Water Commission (CWC), the ageing of dam assets warrants serious concern on their safety aspects in terms of meeting prevalent norms. Ageing dams may also serve as a cause of concern for people living in the areas nearby.

“Safety of dams is important for safeguarding 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 accessed by ThePrint.  

It is also important in the emerging scenarios of India’s water crisis, linked with its growing population as well as climate change, the CWC has noted. 

It was to address these issues that the government decided way back in 1987 to draft India’s first dam safety law. 

The Dam Safety bill has been in the making for the last 34 years. It has gone through several back and forths since then. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha for the first time in August 2010 but was withdrawn following several changes recommended by the standing committee where it was referred.

A modified bill was introduced subsequently introduced but it lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. The bill was introduced afresh in the lower house again in 2019.

Also read: Shift focus from dams, what India needs is better water management: Top water conservationist

Why is a dam safety law needed?

Introducing the bill in the Lok Sabha in August 2019, Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had said that some 40 dams have collapsed in India 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), and have taken up measures for ensuring dam safety in their respective jurisdictions.

Some 18 states and five dam-owning organisations — National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, Bhakra Beas Management Board, Damodar Valley Corporation, Kerala State Electricity Board and Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam — have created their own DSOs.

In the absence of a central law, however, the safety regulations vary from state to state. 

How is Centre legislating on water, a subject under the state list?

Though water is under the state list, the Centre 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 Parliament to legislate on any matter enumerated in List I of the Union list in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Entry 56 allows Parliament to make laws on the regulation of inter-state rivers and river valleys if it declares such regulation to be expedient in public interest. Entry 97 allows 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 Thursday, several opposition MPs vociferously opposed the proposed legislation, which they said encroaches on the states’ rights.

The Congress’ Shaktisinh Gohil said the bill is unconstitutional and ultra vires as water comes under the state list. “By bringing this law, the Centre is encroaching on states’ jurisdiction,” he said.

Several other leaders including those from the RJD, MDMK, TDP, TMC also opposed the bill, on the grounds that it will put water and dam management under the Centre’s control.  Many opposition MPs also demanded that the bill be sent to the select committee for further scrutiny.

Also read: Mysore’s chief engineer built a dam long before Nehru wanted a modern ‘temple’ in India

What will the dam safety bill do? 

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, which will be headed by CWC chairman, and include 10 representatives of central government not below the rank of joint secretary, nominated by the Centre, and seven representatives of state government. 

A National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) shall also be established within a period of 60 days, which will implement policy, guidelines and standards evolved by NCDS. Any decision taken by the NDSA shall be binding upon all the parties.

At the state level, 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 constructed before or after the commencement of this Act, which are above 15 metres in height, measured from the lowest portion of the general foundation area to the top of the dam, or between 10 metres and 15 metres in height and satisfies at least one of the following: 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 cubic metre), the maximum flood discharge dealt with by the dam is not less than 2,000 cumec (cubic metre per second), 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 discharge of functions under this Act, 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 also be taken if the offence is committed by a government or government official, company or corporate, officials of the company. 

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: How dams can help control floods — what experts said after 2013 Uttarakhand disaster


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