WHEN THE government introduced the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 in Lok Sabha last week, BJD floor leader Bhartruhari Mahtab questioned Parliament’s competence to do so. Days later, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami wrote to the Prime Minister flagging his concerns about the Bill. In June, too, the Tamil Nadu Assembly had passed a resolution demanding the Bill be kept in abeyance till a consensus was arrived at with all states.
The Bill provides for “surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams for prevention of dam failure related disasters and to provide for institutional mechanism to ensure their safe functioning”.
Why dam safety
Of India’s 5,254 large dams, some 75% are over 25 years old, and 164 more than 100 years old. There have been 36 dam failures. There has been a lack of a uniform law and an administrative regime for dam safety. While the Central Water Commission (CWC) has made efforts through National Committee on Dam Safety, Central Dam Safety Organisation and State Dam Safety Organisations, these agencies do not have statutory powers and can only make recommendations.
The Dam Safety Bill was first introduced in Lok Sabha in 2010. It sought to mandate the Centre, state governments and individual owners of dams to establish a mechanism for safety. It was to be initially applicable only to Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and the Union Territories; the two states had passed resolutions under Article 252(1) of the Constitution requesting Parliament to make a law. The Speaker referred the Bill to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which submitted its report in 2011. It suggested that provisions be added for punishing the owner in case of dam failure and fixing liability for compensating affected people, and that an independent regulatory authority on safety measures and a national-level early warning system be set up.
On June 13, 2018, the Cabinet approved the draft of the Dam Safety Bill, 2018. With most recommendations of the standing committee incorporated, it was introduced in Lok Sabha on December 12.
The legislation provides for a National Committee on Dam Safety, to be headed by the CWC chairperson and with members nominated by the Centre; there will be representatives of the Centre and states (through rotation) as well as dam safety experts. The committee will formulate policies and regulations, which are to be implemented by a centrally appointed National Dam Safety Authority, headed by an officer of at least Additional Secretary rank. The authority will also resolve issues between State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs) or between a SDSO and any individual dam owner, lay down regulations for dam inspection and for accreditation to construction and designing agencies. The Bill provides for a safety unit in each dam to be set up by individual dam owners.
For violation of directives under the Bill, punishment is imprisonment up to one year or a fine, or both; if an offence leads to loss of life, imprisonment may be up to two years.
Grounds for opposition
In cases where a dam is owned by one state and located in another, or extends over multiple states, or is owned by a central public sector undertaking, the Bill provides that the National Dam Safety Authority will act as the SDSO. This provision is the primary reason for opposition from Tamil Nadu.
“Tamil Nadu’s Mullaiperiyar, Parambikulam, Thunakkadavu and Peruvaripallam dams are owned, operated and maintained by the Government of Tamil Nadu by virtue of Inter-state Agreements, but are located in a neighbouring state (Kerala),” the Chief Minister wrote to the Prime Minister on December 14. He recalled a 2014 Supreme Court verdict that “upheld the rights of Tamil Nadu” on the Mullaperiyar dam in increasing its height to 142 feet and ultimately 152 feet. “Therefore, to deny Tamil Nadu the right to be the Dam Safety Authority with regard to these four dams and vesting the powers to the National Dam Safety Authority would be tantamount to encroaching on the rights of Tamil Nadu, which is unconstitutional,” he wrote, urging the PM to withdraw the Bill.
In Lok Sabha, Minister of State for Water Resources Arjun Meghwal, who tabled the Bill, argued that Article 252 empowered the Centre to legislate for two or more states by consent. The BJD’s Mahtab, however, wanted to discuss the issue further. With the debate failing to progress, Mahtab wrote to the Speaker the next day, pointing out that water is listed as a state subject. “As regulation of the safety of dams has not yet been declared by Parliament to be expedient in public interest, it would be prudent to believe that Parliament has no powers to make law for the state or for that matter by the Union Government at this juncture,” he wrote. The issue, he maintained, needed to be deliberated in the Standing Committee. “Parliament should not do anything that would not stand scrutiny of law.”