The story so far: The Dam Safety Bill, 2019, which provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of all specified dams across the country, and has been debated for decades, finally got the nod of the Rajya Sabha on Thursday (December 2), after a four-hour discussion. In August 2019, the Bill was approved by the Lok Sabha .
Why is a law on dam safety required?
India ranks third globally with 5,745 large dams in operation. According to the National Register of Large Dams prepared in June 2019 by the Central Dam Safety Organisation (CDSO) in the Central Water Commission (CWC), 67 dams were built prior to the 20th century and 1,039 dams during the first 70 years of the 20th century. For stakeholders of the water sector, ageing of dams in the country has been a matter of concern. Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat told the Rajya Sabha that since 1979, there were 42 instances of dam failure, the latest being Annamayya reservoir in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh that led to the death of at least 20 people in November 2021.
Even though the CWC, along with the CDSO, has been functioning as the apex body to advise States on issues of dam safety, there is no specific Central law that governs the subject, given the situation that the ownership of dams and their maintenance predominantly falls in the purview of the States. In July 1986, a panel of experts recommended to the Centre that a legislation be framed. In 2007, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal Assemblies passed resolutions empowering Parliament to come up with a law on dam safety, under Article 252. Since 2010, different versions of the Bill were introduced.
What does the legislation seek to do?
The Bill covers those dams having the height of over 15 metres and between 10 and 15 metres with certain stipulations. It seeks to create two national institutions -- National Committee on Dam Safety to evolve dam safety policies and recommend necessary regulations, and the National Dam Safety Authority to implement policies and address unresolved issues between two States. The legislation also envisages the formation of State Dam Safety Organisations and State Committees on Dam Safety. Dam owners will be held responsible for construction, operation, maintenance and supervision of dams.
Why has the Bill become contentious?
In the last 10 years, several States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, opposed the legislation on the ground that it encroached upon the sovereignty of States to manage their dams. Critics also raised the constitutional validity of the legislation in the light of water being a State subject. The silence on the payment of compensation to people affected by dam projects was cited as another shortcoming.
Tamil Nadu has all along been a critic of the legislation as it fears that it will lose its hold over four of its dams, which are located in Kerala. The dams include Mullaperiyar, whose structural stability and safety are being debated for over 40 years, and Parambikulam, an important reservoir that caters to irrigation requirements of the western districts of Tamil Nadu including Coimbatore.
Taking a cue from the 2011 report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources to invoke Entry 56 of the Union List, the Centre framed the legislation, declaring that “it is expedient in public interest that the Union should take under its control the regulation of uniform dam safety procedure for specified dams.” In his speech in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, Mr. Shekhawat contended that Entry 17 of the State List (dealing with “water”) was no bar for the Union to frame a law on the subject.
However, the PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, opined that even then, “it is unclear how Parliament would have the jurisdiction to frame a law for dams on rivers where the river and its valley are entirely within a State.” Another point adduced in support of the legislation is that inter-State basins cover 92% of the country’s area and most of the dams, making the Centre competent to enact such a law.
What is the way forward?
Given the sentiments expressed by a number of parties, including the AIADMK, an ally of the BJP, on the Bill, the Centre can hold talks with the States to allay their fears and frame rules suitably for legislation.