Context:

  • After a four-hour debate, the Rajya Sabha approved the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, which allows for the monitoring, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all defined dams across the country and has been contested for decades.
  • The Lok Sabha passed the Bill in August of this year.

Why is it necessary to have a dam safety law:

  • 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 built before the twentieth century and 1,039 dams were erected 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 water sector players.
  • The Jal Shakti Minister told the Rajya Sabha that 42 dams have failed since 1979, with the most recent being the Annamayya reservoir in Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa region, which killed at least 20 people in November 2021.
  • Despite the fact that the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Dam Safety Organisation (CDSO) have been serving as the apex bodies to advise States on dam safety issues, there is no specific Central law that governs the subject, given that dam ownership and maintenance is primarily 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 passed resolutions in 2007 authorizing Parliament to draft a dam safety bill under Article 252. Various versions of the Bill have been introduced since 2010.

The Dam Safety Bill’s Importance:

  • In India, dams have been critical in supporting quick and sustained agricultural expansion and development.
  • The Bill will assist all Indian states and union territories in adopting uniform dam safety protocols that will ensure dam safety and protect dam benefits. This will also aid in the protection of human life, animals, and property.
  • It covers everything from monthly dam inspections to an emergency action plan, a full dam safety evaluation, enough repair and maintenance money for dam safety, and instrumentation and safety manuals.
  • It places the burden of dam safety on the dam owner and includes penalties for certain activities committed or omitted.
  • As a result, there has always been a need for a unified legal and administrative framework to ensure dam safety.

What is the goal of the legislation:

  • 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 recommend appropriate laws, and the National Dam Safety Authority, which will put policies into effect and settle unresolved issues between two states.
  • The law also calls for the development of State Dam Safety Organizations and State Dam Safety Committees.
  • Owners of dams shall be held liable for their construction, operation, maintenance, and oversight.

What has caused the Bill to be so divisive:

  • Several states, notably Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Odisha, have resisted the Act in the recent decade, 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 persons impacted by dam projects.
  • Tamil Nadu has been a vocal opponent of the bill because it fears losing control of four dams in Kerala.
  • Mullaperiyar Dam, whose structural stability and safety have been questioned for over 40 years, and Parambikulam Dam, an important reservoir that serves the irrigation needs of Tamil Nadu’s western districts, 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 procedure for specified dams,” based on a 2011 report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources to invoke Entry 56 of the Union List.

Conclusion:

  • In his Rajya Sabha speech, Jal Shakti Ministry argued that Entry 17 of the State List (which deals with “water”) was not an impediment to the Union enacting legislation on the subject.
  • Even then, “it is unclear how Parliament would have the jurisdiction to establish a legislation for dams on rivers if the river and its valley are wholly within a State,” according to the PRS Legislative Research.
  • Another argument in favour of the legislation is that inter-State basins cover 92 percent of the country’s land and contain the majority of the country’s dams, making the Centre competent to adopt such legislation.
  • Given the concerns expressed by a number of parties about the Bill, the Centre can hold negotiations with the States to allay their fears and draft guidelines that are appropriate for law.
  • The construction of a dam is not a disaster; but, the dam’s mismanagement and poor design are disasters that have serious consequences for all of us.
  • As a result, the government must take a holistic approach to dam safety and avoid erecting huge dams in unstable areas for political gain.

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