Why are States unhappy with Dam Safety Bill?

July 29, 2019 05:23 pm | Updated August 12, 2019 07:18 pm IST

A view of Thumbe Vented Dam across Netravathi in Mangaluru.

A view of Thumbe Vented Dam across Netravathi in Mangaluru.

The Dam Safety Bill , aimed at developing uniform safety procedures for all dams across the country, has been introduced in the Lok Sabha for the third time.

It was first introduced in Parliament in August 2010 and was referred to a standing committee, which submitted its report in June 2011. After this, attempts to pass the Bill in the 15th and 16th Lok Sabhas failed due to opposition from the States.

What does the Bill say?

The Bill provides for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of dams to prevent disasters, and institutional mechanisms to ensure safety. It is applicable to all dams across the country which are over 10 metres in height, subject to specific design and structural conditions.

The Bill enables the setting up of a National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) to formulate policies and regulations regarding dam safety standards and to analyse causes of major dam failures to suggest changes in safety practices. To implement these policies, a National Dam Safety Authority will be set up.

At the State level, the Bill provides for the constitution of a State Dam Safety Organisation to take care of its dams, and a State Committee on Dam Safety to review its work, among other things.

Why are the States against it?

The Bill previously failed to be passed in Lok Sabha due to opposition from numerous States. Their objections to the Bill are two-fold, one of which is that since ‘water’ comes under the State list, it is an unconstitutional move aimed at taking control of their dams.

Tamil Nadu, one of the strongest critics of the Bill through the years, opposes it because under its provisions, access and information on four of its dams, including the conflict-ridden Mullaiperiyar, would have to be shared with Kerala, where they are located.

Many States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, have opposed the Bill because they say it encroaches upon the sovereignty of States to manage their dams, and violates the principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution. They see it as an attempt by the Centre to consolidate power in the guise of safety concerns. Kerala MP Shashi Tharoor also pointed out a conflict of interest in the Bill — the provision to have a representative of the Central Water Commission as a member of the NCDS (a regulatory body) would mean that CWC will function as both an advisor and regulator, which is impermissible under the Constitution according to the Supreme Court.

Tamil Nadu’s main concern stems from Section 23(1) of the Bill, according to which if the dams of one State fall under the territories of another, then the National Dam Safety Authority will perform the role of State Dam Safety Organisation, thus eliminating potential causes for inter-State conflicts.

This clause is particularly worrisome for the State which has fours dams — the Mullaperiyar, Parambikulam, Thunakkadavu and Peruvaripallam — that are owned by it, but are situated in neighbouring Kerala. Currently, the rights on these dams are governed by pre-existing long-term agreements among the States. The provisions in the Bill implies that the dam-owning State would not have rights over the safety and maintenance of the dam located in another State.

Why is the Union government introducing the Bill now?

There are 5,344 large dams in India, of which around 293 are more than 100 years old and 1,041 are 50 to 100 years old, according to Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat . Nearly 92% of these dams are on inter-State rivers, and accidents at many of them have spurred concerns as to the frequency and efficiency of their maintenance.

For instance, on July 3, 2019, 23 people were feared dead after the Tiware dam in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra’s Konkan region breached . Local elected representatives said that government had neglected their pleas for repair of the dam, built 14 years ago, even though they had complained that cracks had been spotted in the structure. A jurisdiction issue regarding which tehsil the Tiware dam falls in led to both Chiplun and Dapoli tehsil offices ignoring the villagers’ petition.

Issues like this has added fuel to the government’s argument for the establishment of a national authority to tackle the lack of legal and institutional safeguards in the country.

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