Dam Safety Act will bring in unified policies: Jal Shakti Ministry official

Best possible means of finding a solution to Mullaperiyar row is perhaps in the Bill, says B.R.K. Pillai.

Published - December 04, 2021 12:30 am IST

The Rajya Sabha passed the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 on Thursday. This is one of the first legislation to be passed this week. The Bill prompted a four-hour debate in the Upper House as several members voiced opposition to the key aspects of the legislation. In an interview to The Hindu , expert on India’s dams and its policy, B.R.K. Pillai, who is Member, Krishna River Management Board, and a senior official of the Jal Shakti Ministry, explains the significance of the Bill. Edited excerpts:

The Dam Safety Bill appears to be about allowing dams to be inspected for safety. Isn’t this something that is being done by the States and how will an Act make this more efficient?

In the absence of a proper dam safety institutional framework, shortcomings of varying degrees may get ingrained in the investigation, design, construction, operation and maintenance of dams. Such shortcomings lead to serious incidents and sometimes dam failure. Beginning with the failure of the Tigra dam (Madhya Pradesh) in 1917, about 40 large dams are reported to have failed so far. The most recent case of failure of the Annamayya dam (Andhra Pradesh) in November 2021 is reported to have led to the death of 20 people. Collectively, these failures have caused thousands of deaths and economic losses of mammoth proportions.

There are many protocols, including pre and post-monsoon inspections, for ensuring dam safety. However, as of now these protocols are not legally mandated, and the agencies concerned (including Central and State Dam Safety Organisations) have no powers to enforce them. The Dam Safety Bill seeks to correct this anomaly by establishment of a technically sound and legally empowered dam safety institutional framework at both Central and State levels.

The need for a Central legislation on dam safety has been considered since long but has been recommended for a recast by the parliamentary committee. Could you explain what are the major points of contention in earlier attempts and how have they been resolved now?

The need for dam safety legislation was actually underlined by a technical committee in 1986. Attention at that time was on State-level legislation; but with little progress on that front the focus shifted to Central legislation. In 2007, the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal passed resolutions in Assemblies demanding dam safety legislation, regulated by an Act of Parliament. Thus, in 2010, the Dam Safety Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha under Article 252 of the Constitution, which restricted its applicability to the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, and only to such other States that would pass similar resolutions in their Assemblies. The Bill was later referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources.

No major contentious issue emerged in the discussions held by the committee. Recommendations of the committee (given in August 2011) were chiefly directed at furthering the strengths of dam safety institutional mechanism, and to empower the Act with clauses on offences and penalties. Nearly all of these recommendations were incorporated in the modified Bill, which however could not be placed in the (15th) Lok Sabha before its dissolution.

Meanwhile the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act (2014) came into effect. But neither of the bifurcated States was in favour of adopting fresh resolution for regulation of dam safety legislation by Parliament. With the route of Article 252 thus becoming unviable, a new Dam Safety Bill was proposed under Article 246 read with Entry 56 and Entry 97 of the List-I of the Constitution. The Dam Safety Bill (2019) was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 2, 2019. In comparison to the 2010 Bill, the 2019 Bill has nationwide applicability, and it also incorporates key recommendations of the parliamentary committee.

The Bill says that only dams higher than 15 metres or those from 10-15 metres, if they have certain design and structural conditions, will come under the purview of the Bill? Could you explain what percentage of India’s dams will be covered under the Bill and how many of these dams are built on inter-State rivers?

Underlining their hazard potential, the dams exceeding 15 metres in height and those between 10 to 15 metres with certain design criteria are globally classified as ‘large dams’. There are close to 5,300 large dams, most of which became operational in the early decades of irrigation development after India’s Independence; and about 400 dams are presently under construction. Small dams may number in tens of thousands. The Bill, however, mandates owners of small dams to undertake all measures necessary for the dam safety, and to also comply with measures specified by regulations from time to time. Given that about 92% of India’s land is spread over inter-State river basins, we can safely assume that majority of India’s large dams are on inter-State rivers.

The most significant flashpoint regarding dams is States’ apprehension over interference by the Centre? How does the Bill address this issue?

Apprehension about interference by the Centre seems unfounded. The Bill will lead to the establishment of the National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) and the National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA). The NCDS, with expert representations from both Central and State agencies, will evolve unified dam safety policies and protocols for the entire country. The NDSA will act as a regulatory body for ensuring the implementation of policy, guidelines and standards evolved by the NCDS. The focus of the two national institutions will be thus mostly on such dam safety issues that are generic in nature and of nationwide relevance.

Dam safety issues that are specific to an individual State will be essentially addressed by the concerned State Committee on Dam Safety (SCDS). Each SCDS will also have representations from both upstream and downstream States, so as to provide amicable solutions for the inter-State concerns as well.

Would you explain the roles of the Dam Safety Committee? Can its recommendations clash with those of various tribunals set up over the years to resolve dam dispute, particularly if it involves dam safety?

The question apparently refers to tribunals constituted under the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956. Such tribunal’s recommendations are generally for allocation of river water shares of individual States, and for prescribing such parameters of dams that are needed for withdrawing State-specific water shares. The structural and hydrological design of the dam is then carried out by dam engineers to meet the tribunal’s prescribed parameters. The parameters prescribed by the tribunal ensure intended function of the dam, while those set by design engineers ensure its safety.

Neither the National Dam Safety Committee nor the State Dam Safety Committee has any powers under the Bill for altering dam parameters prescribed by tribunals. The focus of dam safety committees will be essentially on structural and hydrological design parameters linked to its safety.

Among the most controversial dam safety disputes involves the Mullaperiyar dam? Does this Bill have a solution?

The Mullaperiyar dam is owned and operated by Tamil Nadu while the dam itself is located in Kerala. The dam has undergone rehabilitation and strengthening measures aiming for safe operations up to certain reservoir level, and further strengthening measures for full operational levels are also deliberated by Tamil Nadu. However, Kerala has time and again raised concerns on the safety of the century old dam, and it has reservations on further raising the reservoir level. Thus, the fundamental dispute between the two parties is essentially of the technical nature. But in the absence of a proper institutional framework, finding a permanent solution for the technical and dynamic issues of the Mullaperiyar dam may not be easy for the judiciary.

The best possible means of finding a permanent solution for the Mullaperiyar dam is perhaps laid down by the Dam Safety Bill. With the NDSA performing the role of a neutral dam safety organisation, it will be possible to bring transparency in dam safety data and mitigation measures — an essential requirement for the confidence building between two States. Access to a larger pool of dam safety knowledge and other needed resources (e.g., tools of investigations and mathematical modelling) will help Kerala in allaying its fears, and Tamil Nadu will have the benefits of improved mitigation designs. In the new scenario, Tamil Nadu will be able to seek greater cooperation from Kerala in undertaking added measures of dam strengthening; and Kerala will be able to seek quicker response from Tamil Nadu in emergency measures called for during floods.

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