After a four-hour debate, the Rajya Sabha passes the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, which allows for the monitoring, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all defined dams throughout the country and has been debated for decades. The Lok Sabha passed the Bill in August of this year.
With 5,745 major dams in operation, India is ranked third in the world. According to the Central Dam Safety Organisation (CDSO) of the Central Water Commission (CWC), 67 dams were constructed before the twentieth century, and 1,039 dams were built during the first 70 years of the twentieth century, according to the National Register of Large Dams published in June 2019. The ageing of dams in the country has been a source of concern for stakeholders in the water sector. According to Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, there have been 42 dam failure instances since 1979, the most recent being the Annamayya reservoir in Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa district, which killed at least 20 people in November 2021.
Despite the fact that the CWC, along with the CDSO, has served as the apex authority to advise states on dam safety issues, there is no specific central legislation that governs the matter, given that dam ownership and upkeep is mostly a state responsibility. A team of experts suggested to the Centre in July 1986 that legislation be drafted. The Assemblies of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal approved resolutions in 2007 authorising Parliament to draught a dam safety bill under Article 252. Various versions of the bill have been introduced since 2010.
The bill applies to dams with a height of more than 15 metres and a height of between 10 and 15 metres, subject to specified conditions. It aims to establish two national institutions: the National Committee on Dam Safety, which will develop dam safety policies and suggest required legislation; and the National Dam Safety Authority, which will put policies into action and settle unresolved issues between two states. The law also calls for the development of state dam safety organisations and state dam safety committees. Owners of dams should be held liable for their construction, operation, maintenance, and oversight.
Several states, notably Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Odisha, have resisted the Act in recent decades, claiming that it infringed on state autonomy over dam management. Critics also questioned the legislation’s constitutionality, pointing out that water is a state matter. Another failure was the lack of payment of compensation to people impacted by dam development.
Tamil Nadu has been a vocal opponent of the bill because it fears losing control of four dams in Kerala. For over 40 years, the structural stability and safety of Mullaperiyar Dam have been questioned, as has Parambikulam Dam, an important reservoir that serves the irrigation needs of Tamil Nadu’s western regions, including Coimbatore.
The Centre framed the legislation, declaring that “it is expedient in the public interest that the Union should take under its control the regulation of uniform dam safety procedures for specified dams,” based on a 2011 report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources, to invoke Entry 56 of the Union List. Mr. Shekhawat said in his Rajya Sabha address on Thursday that Entry 17 of the State List (which deals with “water”) was not an obstacle to the Union enacting legislation on the issue.
“It is unclear how Parliament would have the power to frame legislation for dams on rivers if the river and its valley are fully within a state,” the PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, said. Another argument in favour of the legislation is that inter-State basins span 92% of the country’s land and include the majority of the country’s dams, making the Centre competent to adopt such legislation.
Given the opposition to the Bill indicated by a number of parties, including the AIADMK, a BJP partner, the Centre may conduct negotiations with the States to allay their fears and set rules that are appropriate for the law.
Source: The Hindu