On 29th July, the Dam Safety Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The bill aims to institute uniform safety procedures for dams in India. The Bill applies to over 5,000 dams across the country, many of which are currently in poor conditions. Earlier this month, the Tiware dam failure resulted in the deaths of 19 people. However, the Bill has been met with significant opposition, particularly from several states that claim the bill oversteps the Centre’s mandate.
How does the Bill aim to ensure the safety of dams?
All dams in India with a height above 15 metres come under the purview of the bill. Dams between 10 to 15 metres of height are also covered but only if they meet certain other specifications in terms of design and structural conditions.
The Bill provides for the constitution of a National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS), which is to be chaired by the Central Water Commissioner (CWC). The other members of the NCDS will be nominated by the Centre and will include up to 10 representatives of the Centre, 7 state government representatives, and 3 experts on dam safety. The NCDS is to formulate policies for dam safety and to prevent dam failures. In the event of a dam failure, the NCDS will analyse why the failure occurred, and suggest changes in dam safety practices to ensure there aren’t any repetitions.
Additionally, the bill provides for the formation of a National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA), which will be responsible for implementing the policies of the NCDS, and will resolve issues between State Dam Safety Organisations (or SDSOs) and dam owners. The NDSA will also specify regulations for the inspection of dams and will provide accreditation to the various agencies working on the structure of dams and their alteration.
The bill will also result in the establishment of SDSOs, and State Committees on Dam Safety (SCDSs). The jurisdiction of the SDSOs will extend to all dams in that specific state. However, the NDSA will, in some cases, possess this jurisdiction, for example, if a dam owned by one state is situated in another or crosses multiple states, or if a dam is owned by a central public sector undertaking. SDSOs will be in charge of scrutinising dams under their jurisdiction and maintaining a database of the same. The SCDS will review the work of the SDSO, and will also have to assess the impact of dam-related projects on upstream and downstream states.
The bill gives the Central government the power to amend the functions of any of the above bodies through a notification, whenever it is deemed necessary to do so.
How does Bill change the functioning of dams?
If the bill is made into a law, then dam owners will have to provide a dam safety unit in each dam. The dam safety unit will be required to inspect the dam before and after the monsoon session, and also during and after natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.
The bill requires dam owners to prepare emergency action plans. Risk-assessment studies will also have to be undertaken by owners, regularly. At specified, regular intervals, and in the event of either a modification to the dam’s structure or a natural event that may impact the structure, dam owners will have to produce a comprehensive safety evaluation of the dam, with the help of a panel of experts.
Why has the Bill been met with opposition?
The primary objection to the bill is that is unconstitutional, as water is one of the items on the State List. The BJD’s B Mahtab reportedly claimed that the Bill is an attempt by the Centre to appropriate the powers of the states. Tamil Nadu, which currently possesses four dams situated in Kerala, is opposed to the Bill as it would result in the four dams (currently regulated through long-standing agreements with Kerala) falling under the NDSA, doing away with Tamil Nadu’s rights over the maintenance of the dam.
Also, Shashi Tharoor noted that there was a conflict of interest in the Bill. The Bill states that the NCDS will be chaired by the Central Water Commissioner, but the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that such a scenario is prohibited, as it involves the CWC, an advisor, functioning both as a regulator and the head of the NCDS.
(The writer is a student of Ashhoka University and is working as an intern in The Indian Express)
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