7 PM | Managing India’s dams | 8th August, 2019

Context: Dam safety bill and dam safety reforms

  • Dams have played a key role in fostering rapid and sustained agricultural and rural growth and development in India. Over the last fifty years, India has invested substantially in dams and related infrastructure.
  • 5254 large dams have been completed and another 447 under construction (NRLD 2017). Storage capacity created by these large infrastructures is 253 BCM. Another 51 BCM storage under construction stages.

Why dam safety?

  • Infrastructure and life: Safeguarding huge investments in infrastructure; Safeguarding human life, and properties of the people living downstream of the dams.
  • Aged Dams:With increasing number of dams becoming older and older, the likelihood of dam failures in India is expected to be an ascending path.
  • Deficiencies: Many dams have varied structural deficiencies and shortcomings in operation and monitoring facilities, while few do not meet the present design standard- both structurally and hydrologically.
  • Lack of support: Most of the States have been failing to provide sufficient budgets for maintenance and repair of the dam. Many States also lack the institutional and technical capacities for addressing dam safety issues

Dam safety bill, 2019:

  • Applicability of the Bill: The Bill applies to all specified dams in the country.  These are dams with: (I) height more than 15 metres, or (II) height between 10 metres to 15 metres and subject to certain additional design and structural conditions.
  • National Committee on Dam Safety: The National Committee on Dam Safety will be constituted and will be chaired by the Chairperson, Central Water Commission.  All other members will be nominated by the central government, and include: (I) up to 10 representatives of the central government, (II) up to seven representatives of the state governments (by rotation), and (III) up to three dam safety experts. 
  • National Dam Safety Authority: The National Dam Safety Authority will be headed by an officer, not below the rank of an Additional Secretary, who will be appointed by the central government.
  • State Dam Safety Organization: State governments will establish State Dam Safety Organizations (SDSOs).  All specified dams situated in a state will fall under the jurisdiction of that state’s SDSO.  However, in certain cases the National Dam Safety Authority will act as the SDSO.
  • Obligations of dam owners: Owners of specified dams are required to provide a dam safety unit in each dam. This unit will inspect the dams: (I) before and after the monsoon session and (II) during and after every earthquake, flood, or any other calamity or sign of distress.  Dam owners will be required to prepare an emergency action plan, and carry out risk assessment studies for each dam at specified regular intervals. 
  • Dam owners will also be required to prepare a comprehensive dam safety evaluation of each dam, at regular intervals, through a panel of experts.  The evaluation will be mandatory in certain cases such as major modification of the original structure, or an extreme hydrological or seismic event.
  • Offences and penalties: The Bill provides for two types of offences.  These are: (i) obstructing a person in the discharge of his functions under the Bill, and (ii) refusing to comply with directions issued under the Bill.  Offenders will be punishable with imprisonment of up to one year, or a fine, or both. 
  • If the offence leads to loss of lives, the term of imprisonment may be extended up to two years.  Offences will be cognizable only when the complaint is made by the government, or any authority constituted under the Bill.

Issues with dam safety bill:

  • State subject: Since ‘water’ comes under the State list, it is an unconstitutional move aimed at taking control of their dams.
  • Tamil Nadu, one of the strongest critics of the Bill through the years, opposes it because under its provisions, access and information on four of its dams, including the conflict-ridden Mullaiperiyar, would have to be shared with Kerala, where they are located.
  • Controversy: The provision to have a representative of the Central Water Commission as a member of the NCDS (a regulatory body) would mean that CWC will function as both an advisor and regulator, which is impermissible under the Constitution according to the Supreme Court.

Way forward:

  • Since this Bill is still in transition to becoming a law, there is an opportunity to amend it to give the Authority a say in the management and release of water from different dams located in the same river basins.
  • This provision would be particularly helpful in coordinating water releases from different dams with an eye on moderating floods of the kind which devastated Kerala last year


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