Dam Safety Bill,2019 – Explained, pointwise

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Recently, the Rajya Sabha has passed the landmark Dam Safety Bill (2019) paving the way for the enactment of the Dam Safety Act in the country. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in August 2019.

The bill looks at Dam Safety holistically and provides for not only structural aspects but also operational and maintenance efficacy through the prescription of strict Operation and Maintenance (O & M) protocols.

What is the need for the Dam Safety Bill?

Status of dams in India: At present, India is the 3rd largest dam-owning nation in the world, after China and USA. There are around 5,700 large dams in the country, of which about 80% are already over 25 years old. Nearly 227 dams that are over 100 years old are still functional.

Read more: The rising concern of India’s ageing dams

Although India’s track record of dam safety is at par with that of the developed nations, there have been instances of unwarranted dam failures and of poor maintenance issues. This is evident from the high incidence of dam-related mishaps taking a heavy toll on life, property, and infrastructure. There have been well over 40 grave dam failures on record, the latest being the Rishiganga dam in Uttarakhand in February this year, which caused landslides and large-scale devastation.

No legal and institutional safeguards: The Central Water Commission, through the National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS), Central Dam Safety Organization (CDSO) and State Dam Safety Organizations (SDSO) has been making constant endeavours to protect the dams. But they do not have any statutory powers and their suggestions are only advisory in nature.

Long-felt need: Dams have played a key role in fostering rapid and sustained agricultural growth and development in India. So, there has been a long-felt need for a uniform law and administrative structure for ensuring dam safety.

Dams and their infra is old: India, ranked third in the world, next to the US and China, in terms of the number of large dams, badly needed such a law as many of them have surpassed their rated age. Close to 300 of the 5,745 large dams are over 100 years old and more than 1,000 others have crossed 50 years, the threshold after which they require special care. Most of the older dams, being non-concrete structures made of mud and other locally available material, are susceptible to breaches and breaks, especially due to excessive rainfall, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Increase in the frequency of extreme weather events as a consequence of climate change has worsened the threat to these dams.

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Aim of the Dam Safety Bill

To provide for adequate surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all the large dams in the country to prevent dam failure related disasters.

To provide for an institutional mechanism at both Central and State levels to address structural and non-structural measures required for ensuring the safe functioning of dams.

The measure essentially aims at giving the Centre a role in ensuring the physical wellbeing of large dams.

Salient provisions of the Dam Safety Bill

It seeks to assist the states in adopting uniform dam safety procedures involving regular surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all dams more than 15 metres in height.

National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS): It will be constituted to help evolve uniform dam safety policies, protocols, and procedures. The committee will be chaired by the Chairperson, Central Water Commission.

National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA): It will be a regulatory body for ensuring the nationwide implementation of dam safety policies and standards. 

State Committees on Dams: At the State level, the Bill prescribes for the constitution of State Committees on Dam Safety (SCDS) and State Dam Safety Organizations (SDSO). These bodies will be responsible for the surveillance, inspection and monitoring of the operation and maintenance of dams within their jurisdiction.

Dam Safety Units: The Bill provides for the constitution of dam safety units to inspect the structures before and after the monsoon; after earthquakes, floods, and other calamities; and on the appearance of any signs of distress. These units would also be responsible for carrying out risk assessment studies and preparing emergency action plans in consultation with technical experts.

Hazard classification: The Bill provides for regular inspection and hazard classification of dams. It also provides for drawing up emergency action plans and comprehensive dam safety reviews by an independent panel of experts. There is provision for an emergency flood warning system to address the safety concerns of downstream inhabitants.

The obligation of Dam Owners: Dam owners are required to provide resources for timely repair and maintenance of the dam structure along with related machinery.

Penal Provisions: The Bill has penal provisions involving offences and penalties, for ensuring compliance with the provisions.

Read more: About provisions of dams safety bill, 2019
What are the advantages of the Dam Safety Bill?

Uniform dam procedures: The Bill will help all the States and Union Territories of India to adopt uniform dam safety procedures. These procedures will not only protect the dams but also human life, livestock and property.

Prevent dam failures: Currently, 447 dams are under construction in India. India has had 42 dam failures in the past. So, a badly maintained, unsafe dam can be a hazard to human life, flora and fauna, public and private assets and the environment. The bill aims to prevent these failures.

Read more: China’s plans for new dams on Brahmaputra River- Explained, Pointwise
What are the challenges associated with the Dam Safety Bill?

1. Water is a state subject: Many states view the Dam safety bill as encroaching upon the States domain to manage their dams, and violating the principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution.

2. Huge workload: National Dam Safety Authority will have to look after more than 5,000 dams across all over India. So it will face a huge workload.

3. Reduced representation: National committee on dam safety which exist more than 30 years has a representation of 18 states. On the other hand, the Bill says that seven states by rotation will be represented.

4. Though the bill focussed on operational safety, the bill is heavily focused on structural safety and not on operational safety, 5. The bill provides inadequate compensation to the people affected by dams, 6. Though the bill provides for a regulator, that regulator is not independent.

Read more: Link between Dam and Natural disasters – Explained Pointwise
What should the government do?

Dam safety is dependent on many external factors. So, the government has to consult environmentalists and take the environmental angle for the Dam Safety Bill.

The government should consider the selection of a dam on the basis of age, as this is the major issue.

The government has to strengthen the functioning and coordination of state irrigation departments and the Central Water Commission.

Considering climate change, the government has to think about the issue of water carefully and proactively. So, local factors, such as climate and catchment areas, need to be taken into consideration. Further, there is a need to integrate urban-rural planning with dam safety.

A Standing Committee recommended a penal provision for dam failures on authorities. The government has to incorporate this into law. Along with that, the government has to increase the capacity building of locals and associated institutions.

The construction of a dam is not a disaster, but the mismanagement and poor planning of the dam is a disaster that affects all of us in a severe manner. So, the government must consider the issue of dam safety holistically and avoid building large dams for political gains in fragile regions.

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