The Dam Safety Bill 2019 was passed by Parliament amid strong objections from the Opposition. While it was passed by the Lok Sabha in August 2019, it was cleared by Rajya Sabha.
What is the Dam Safety Bill 2019?
- The Bill proposes to help all states and Union Territories adopt uniform dam safety procedures.
- It aims to “provide for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of the specified dam for prevention of dam failure-related disasters, and to provide for institutional mechanism to ensure their safe functioning and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
- A National Committee on Dam Safety with a three-year tenure, comprising the chairman of the Central Water Commission, a maximum of 10 representatives of the central government in the ranks of joint secretary, a maximum of seven representatives of the state governments, and three experts, will be formed as part of the Act.
- A state dam safety organisation will be formed as well, which will be responsible for the dam safety. This organisation is empowered to investigate and gather data for proper review and study of the various features of the design, construction, repair and enlargement of dams, reservoirs and appurtenant structures.
- The state dam safety organisation must also report events such as dam failures to the National Dam Safety Authority and also maintain records of major dam incidents of each specified dam.
- The National Dam Safety Authority, to be headquartered in Delhi, will be formed under the Act.
- It will be headed by an officer not below the rank of Additional Secretary to the Government of India to deal with problems relating to dam engineering and dam safety management.
Context of Dam Safety Bill
- Most of the dams in India are constructed and maintained by the states, while some of the bigger dams are managed by autonomous bodies such as Damodar Valley Corporation or Bhakra Beas Management Board of Bhakra-Nangal Project.
- The Centre has presented the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 against the backdrop of over 5,200 large dams in India and about 450 dams under construction right now.
- 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.
Tamil Nadu’s objection
- The Bill was detrimental to federal principles and powers of the state governments.
- The move was nothing but authoritarianism and usurped the rights of the state governments without regard to the democratic-parliamentary ethos or the Constitution of India.
- The move was dangerous to democracy, and that the Union government would be forced to answer to the people even if it made legislations against the states’ interests by using its majority.
- They allege it contains clauses which violate the rights of the state, especially with respect to the dams constructed by it in neighbouring states, and will cause problems in maintenance and operation.
- The main concern of the state is about retaining its power in controlling the dams, autonomy, and ownership of the assets.
- In a country where most of the dams are built, operated, maintained and owned by state governments, the impact of the Act remains to be seen when long-pending disputes arise.
Back to Basics
Highlights of the Bill
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- An offence under the Bill can lead to imprisonment of up to two years, or a fine, or both.
Key Issues and Analysis of Dam Safety Bill 2019
- 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.
- 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.
- As on 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.2, Most of these large dams are in Maharashtra (2394), Madhya Pradesh (906), and Gujarat (632).
- The Central Dam Safety Organisation, under the Central Water Commission (CWC), provides technical assistance to dam owners, and maintains data on dams.
- 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 satisfying certain additional design conditions such as, reservoir capacity of at least one million cubic meter, and length of top of the dam at least 500 metres.
Jurisdiction of Parliament to frame a law on intra-state river dams
- As per Entry 17 of the State List, states can make laws on water supply, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power, subject to Entry 56 of the Union List.
- Entry 56 of the Union List 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.
- The Bill declares it expedient in public interest for the Union to regulate on a uniform dam safety procedure for all specified dams.
- However, given Entry 17, it is unclear how Parliament would have the jurisdiction to frame a law for dams on rivers where the river and its valley are entirely within a state.
- Note that, the Dam Safety Bill, 2010 was introduced in Lok Sabha under Article 252. This Article allows Parliament to make laws on subjects in the State List if two or more states pass resolutions requiring such law, and the law applies only to those states. Other states may adopt the law by passing resolutions. Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal had passed resolutions requiring a law on dam safety.
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