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Dam Safety Bill 2019

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Recently, the Dam Safety Bill 2019 has been approved by the Rajya Sabha.It provides for the surveillance, inspection and operation of some of the dams in India. The Bill was approved by the Lok Sabha in August 2019. The Bill provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all specified dams across the country.

Background

  • Dams are artificial barriers on rivers which store water and help in irrigation, power generation, flood moderation, and water supply. In India, dams higher than 15 m or between 10 m and 15 m height that fulfil certain additional design conditions are called large dams.
  • As of June 2019, India has 5,745 large dams (includes dams under construction). Of these, 5,675 large dams are operated by states, 40 by central public sector undertakings, and five by private agencies.
  • Over 75% of these dams are more than 20 years old and about 220 dams are more than 100 years old.
  • Most of these large dams are in Maharashtra (2394), Madhya Pradesh (906), and Gujarat (632).
  • Dams in India are constructed and maintained by the states. Some dams are also maintained by autonomous bodies. 
  • The Centre came up with the Dam Safety Bill in 2018 against the backdrop of over 5200 large dams in India. The dam's security is an issue of concern because of the lack of legal and institutional architecture. Unsafe dams are a hazard and they may break and also cause disasters. This is the major reason for the Dam Safety Bill to be brought about. 

Highlights of the Bill

  • Aim: The Bill provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all specified dams across the country. These are dams with height more than 15 metres, or height between 10 metres to 15 metres with certain design and structural conditions.
  • Dam safety authorities and delegated legislation: The Bill provides for dam safety regulatory and monitoring authorities at the national and state level-
    • Two national Bodies: It constitutes two national bodies: the National Committee on Dam Safety, whose functions include evolving policies and recommending regulations regarding dam safety standards; and the National Dam Safety Authority, whose functions include implementing policies of the National Committee, providing technical assistance to State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs), and resolving matters between SDSOs of states or between a SDSO and any dam owner in that state.
    • Two State Bodies: It also constitutes two state bodies: State Committee on Dam Safety, and State Dam Safety Organisation.These bodies will be responsible for the surveillance, inspection, and monitoring the operation and maintenance of dams within their jurisdiction.
    • Functions of the national bodies and the State Committees on Dam Safety have been provided in Schedules to the Bill. These Schedules can be amended by a government notification. 
  • Offences and penalties: Anyone obstructing a person in the discharge of his functions under the Bill or refusing to comply with directions may be imprisoned for a year. In case of loss of life, the person may be imprisoned for two years.
  • Obligation of dam owners- Dam owners will be responsible for the safe construction, operation, maintenance and supervision of a dam.They must provide a dam safety unit in each dam.

 Need for a Dam Safety Law

  • Ageing of Dams: Although India ranks third in the world, after China & the United States, when it comes to having large dams, the country has not had Dam Safety Legislation, for over 70 years now. According to the Central Water Commission, safety of dams is important for ensuring continuity of benefits derived from projects and national water security, among other things.The ageing of dam assets warrants serious concern as regards their safety aspects. Ageing dams may also serve as a cause of concern for people living in the areas nearby.
  • Safeguarding the huge public investment: Safety of dams is also important for safeguarding the huge public investment in this critical physical infrastructure and also, for ensuring continuity of benefits derived from the dam projects for national water security.
  • India's water crisis: Safety of dams is also important in the emerging scenario of India’s water crisis, linked with its growing population, as also the climate change.Need for Dam Safety Law
  • Prevention of disaster: Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had informed that some 40 dams had collapsed in the country since Independence. One of the worst disasters had taken place in Gujarat in 1979, when the Machhu dam had collapsed, resulting in loss of thousands of lives.
  • Unification of dam safety laws:  Some 18 States and five Dam Owning Organisations, namely, National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, Bhakra Beas Management Board, Damodar Valley Corporation, Kerala State Electricity Board and Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam, have created their own Dam Safety Organisations (DSOs). In the absence of a Central Law, however, the safety regulations vary from state to state and there is no specific Central law since the ownership of dams and their maintenance falls in the purview of the States.

Key Issues and Analysis: 

  • Centre legislating on water, a subject under the state list: Constitutional Validity of law:
    • Though water is under the state list, the Centre has brought the legislation under Article 246 of the Constitution, read with Entry 56 and Entry 97 of List I in the Union list.
    • Article 246 empowers Parliament to legislate on any matter enumerated in List I of the Union list in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Entry 56 allows Parliament to make laws on the regulation of inter-state rivers and river valleys, if it declares such regulation to be expedient in public interest. 
    • Entry 97 allows Parliament to legislate on any other matter, not enumerated in List II or List III, including any tax not mentioned in either of those Lists.
      • It has been criticised by the members of the Opposition Parties and many others on the ground of its constitutional validity as water is a subject under state list.In the last 10 years, several States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, opposed the legislation on the ground that it encroached upon the sovereignty of States to manage their dams.
    • Tamil Nadu has been opposing the legislation as it fears that it will lose its hold over four of its dams, which are located in Kerala.
  • Encroachment of States Jurisdiction: According to the opposition parties the bill is unconstitutional and ultra vires, as water comes under the state list. By bringing this law, the Centre is encroaching on states’ jurisdiction
  • Question on Parliaments Jurisdiction: The Bill applies to all specified dams in the country.  This includes dams built on both inter and intra state rivers.  As per the Constitution, states can make laws on water including water storage and water power.  However, Parliament may regulate and develop inter-state river valleys if it deems it necessary in public interest.  The question is whether Parliament has the jurisdiction to regulate dams on rivers flowing entirely within a state.
  • Central Government Control: Several other leaders, including those from the RJD, MDMK, TDP, TMC had also opposed the bill on the ground that it will put Water and Dam Management under the Centre’s control. Many opposition MPs had also demanded that the bill be sent to the select committee for further scrutiny.
  • Amendment in the schedules of bill: The functions of the National Committee on Dam Safety, the National Dam Safety Authority, and the State Committee on Dam Safety are listed in Schedules to the Bill. These Schedules can be amended by the government through a notification. The question is whether core functions of authorities should be amended through a notification or whether such amendments should be passed by Parliament.
  • Issue of compensation: The bill does not have provision for the people losing lives or livelihood due to the construction of dam projects. This has also been a matter of concern. E,g,  Mullaperiyar dam whose structural stability and safety have been questioned for many years.

Written by Rashmi

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