Last week, the Tamil Nadu Assembly unanimously adopted a special resolution demanding that the Centre keep the Dam Safety Bill 2018 in abeyance. A look at the Bill and why the state is opposing it:
Why the Bill
The stated objective is to help all states and Union Territories adopt uniform dam safety procedures. Besides providing for safety measures including surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance, the Bill proposes a National Committee on Dam Safety to formulate policies and regulations, and State Committees on Dam Safety.
As per a central notification, the National Dam Safety Authority will liaise with the state organisations and dam owners for standardisation of dam safety-related data and practices, besides giving dam safety assistance, maintaining a national-level database of dams with records of failures, looking after design or construction of new dams and eliminating inter-state disputes.
The Bill is “to address all issues concerning dam safety including regular inspection of dams, emergency action plan, comprehensive dam safety review, adequate repair and maintenance funds for dam safety, Instrumentation and Safety Manuals,” according to the Centre.
Most dams in India are constructed and maintained by the states, while some of the bigger ones are managed by autonomous bodies such as Damodar Valley Corporation or Bhakra Beas Management Board. The Centre has come up with the Bill when about 450 dams are being constructed. “Due to lack of legal and institutional architecture for dam safety in India, dam safety is an issue of concern. Unsafe dams are a hazard and dam break may cause disasters, leading to huge loss of life and property,” says a June 13 statement following Cabinet approval for the Bill.
Tamil Nadu opposition
The unanimous resolution passed in the Assembly said: “That as the proposed draft Dam Safety Bill, 2018 contains clauses which violate the rights of Tamil Nadu especially with respect to the Dams constructed by the Government of Tamil Nadu in the neighbouring State, and would cause various problems in their maintenance and operation, this House urges the Central Government to take up the legislation on Dam Safety only after consulting the States and after arriving at a consensus and till then, keep in abeyance the process of legislating on Dam Safety”.
When the Centre had sought inputs from states in 2016, late chief minister J Jayalalithaa had raised some questions about a clause allowing the National Dam Safety Authority to inspect dams situated across intra-state rivers. Parties in Tamil Nadu — the Opposition DMK joined the government in passing the resolution — view the Bill as an attempt to encroach on the state’s powers.
Tamil Nadu & Kerala
Tamil Nadu owns dams in Mullaperiyar, Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripallam in Kerala. The two states have engaged in dispute over the Mullaperiyar dam. When Tamil Nadu wanted to increase storage of the dam, Kerala opposed it citing safety threats. Eventually, a Supreme Court team inspected the dam and confirmed in November 2014 that the dam was safe.
In May 2014, the SC had struck down a Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act 2006 limiting the full reservoir level to 136 feet. The dispute was over the Tamil Nadu government’s demand to raise the water level to 142 feet and carry out repair. While that order went against Kerala, the latest move by the Centre has made Tamil Nadu cautious about its authority and assets.
Water experts expect that more objections will follow from other states, because most dams in India are owned and operated by state governments. Maintenance, which includes inspections and assessing the safety and strength of the dam, is mostly done by state Public Works Departments except in bigger dams that are managed by autonomous bodies. Tamil Nadu has demanded consultation with states before finalising the Bill.