By Sarthak Takyar
India ranks third in the world in terms of number of dams, after China and the US. There are around 5,700 large dams in the country. The key issue is that about 80 per cent are already over 25 years old and around 227 dams are over 100 years old, but are still functional. There have been instances of undue dam failures and poor maintenance. Since 1979, there have been 42 instances of dam failure according to the Jal Shakti minister’s statement in the Rajya Sabha. The discussions on this topic started back in 1986 when a panel of experts recommended that the central government should frame legislation. In 2007, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal passed resolutions, which empowered Parliament to frame a law on dam safety under Article 252. The 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. Later, the Dam Safety Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Lok Sabha, but could not be passed. Finally, the bill (now act) was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 2, 2019. The Rajya Sabha also passed the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 on December 2, 2021.
The act provides for adequate surveillance, inspection, operations and maintenance (O&M) of all the large dams in the country so as to prevent dam failure-related disasters. These are dams with height more than 15 metres, or height of 10-15 metres, with certain design and structural conditions, such as reservoir capacity of at least 1 million cubic metres, and length of top of the dam at least 500 metres.
The act provides for an institutional mechanism at both the central and state levels to address structural and non-structural measures required for ensuring the safe functioning of dams. A National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) will be constituted to help evolve uniform dam safety policies, protocols and procedures. The National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) will also be established for ensuring the nationwide implementation of dam safety policies and standards. At the state level, the Act prescribes for the constitution of state committees on dam safety (SCDS) and establishment of state dam safety organisations. The Act also addresses critical concerns related to dam safety on account of emerging climate change-related challenges. To this end, the act provides for regular inspection and hazard classification of dams. It also provides for drawing up of emergency action plans and comprehensive dam safety reviews by an independent panel of experts. There is a provision for an emergency flood warning system to address the safety concerns of downstream inhabitants.
Dam owners will be required to provide resources for timely repair and maintenance of the dam structure, along with related machinery. The act tries to look at dam safety holistically and provides for not only structural aspects, but also O&M efficacy through prescription of strict O&M protocols. Definite timelines have been provided in the act for the establishment of a robust institutional framework, with support from both the centre and states. The act also mandates the implementation of dam safety actions by dam owners within a defined timeline. An offence under the act can lead to imprisonment of up to two years, or a fine, or both.
Key concerns and the way forward
PRS Legislative Research points out two key concerns in the act. One, the act applies to all large dams built on both inter- and intra-state rivers. While Entry 17 of the state list mentions that states can make laws on water supply, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power, Entry 56 of the union list allows Parliament to make laws on the regulation of interstate rivers and river valleys if it is in public interest. The central government has framed this law on this basis. Still, there is a question over its jurisdiction to frame laws for dams on intra-state rivers. The states that had opposed the bill in the past include Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha.
The second concern is that the functions of the NCDS, the NDSA and SCDS are listed in schedules to the act, which can be amended by the government through a notification. The question is whether core functions of authorities should be amended through a notification, or such amendments should be passed by Parliament. Another criticism of the act has been the omission of compensation to people affected by dam projects. These concerns are well founded. Therefore, going forward, Parliament may frame suitable rules to address these concerns.