Dam Safety Bill introduced in Lok Sabha amid objection: All you need to know about bill

The government on Wednesday introduced the Dam Safety Bill 2018 in the Lok Sabha, a legislation that aims to provide a robust legal and institutional framework under Central and state governments for the safety of dams, which will help states and Union territories adopt uniform procedures to ensure safety of reservoirs.

The Bill, which provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of specified dams for prevention of dam failure related disasters, was introduced by Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Arjun Ram Meghwal.

The Bill was introduced amid protests by opposition parties including the Congress, TDP and AIADMK on various issues, especially the objection that the Bill would interfere with the rights of the state.

 Dam Safety Bill introduced in Lok Sabha amid objection: All you need to know about bill

File image of the Mullapperiyar dam. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Meghwal said the Central government has the legislative competency to introduce the Bill. He said if two states agree, then the Centre has the legislative competency to introduce the Bill.

There are over 5,200 large dams in India and about 450 are under construction. In addition, there are thousands of medium and small dams.

Due to lack of legal and institutional safeguards, dam safety is an issue of concern in the country. The Bill also provides for an institutional mechanism to ensure their safe functioning. Once enacted, the Bill will apply to specified dams across all states.

According to a PIB release, India has had 36 dam failures in the past – 11 in Rajasthan, 10 in Madhya Pradesh, 5 in Gujarat, 4 in Maharashtra, 2 in Andhra Pradesh and one each in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, establishing the importance of the bill.

According to The Hindustan Times,  the Bill is too focused on the structural safety of dams, not so much on their operational safety.

The Bill also proposes the setting up of the following: National Committee on Dam Safety, State Committee on Dam Safety, National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) and State Dam Safety Authority (SDSA). Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) and State Dam Safety Authority (SDSA). Together, the four will ensure dam safety policies, surveillance, inspection, operation, maintenance and safe functioning of all specified dams. Furthermore, it also envisages the NDSA as a body that will implement policies, guidelines and standards for dam safety in the country.

Why Tamil Nadu opposes the bill

The Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on 26 June had passed a resolution to oppose the Dam Safety Bill. The resolution moved by Chief Minister E Palaniswami in the state Assembly received the full support of the DMK-led opposition and said the bill had provisions that could “affect Tamil Nadu’s rights” as well as impact the operation and maintenance of dams located in other states.

The resolution said,  “That as the proposed draft Dam Safety Bill, 2018 contains clauses which violate the rights of Tamil Nadu especially with respect to the Dams constructed by the Government of Tamil Nadu in the neighbouring State, and would cause various problems in their maintenance and operation, this House urges the Central Government to take up the legislation on Dam Safety only after consulting the States and after arriving at a consensus and till then, keep in abeyance the process of legislating on Dam Safety”.

On 15 June, Palaniswami had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that the Bill will interfere with the rights of states and had requested him to keep the bill in abeyance till a consensus was reached between the states on the issues affecting them.

Kerala Floods

The Bill comes into play three months after the Kerala Floods that hit killed over 350 people and caused losses worth nearly Rs 20,000 crore, as all 14 districts of the state have been placed under red alert before it was relaxed once water started receding.

One of the chief reasons for this was the fact that for the first time in history, 35 out of the state's 39 dams were thrown open including Mullaperiyar, Cheruthoni, part of Idukki reservoir and Idamalayar, which together wreaked havoc in the downstream areas. Kerala is home to 53 large dams with a collective capacity of nearly 7 trillion litres.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People told Livemint that for dams to truly curb floods, experts say dam reservoirs need to be relatively empty before the onset of rains.

The Idukki dam was already near full capacity by July-end. When the rains arrived in August, the near full-capacity Idukki was forced to release water into already flooded areas. Thakkar believes that this worsened floods across the country.

These floods also point out the issues regarding inter-state dam management, for example, the Mullaperiyar Dam.

Mullaperiyar Dam and the tussle between Kerala and Tamil Nadu

The Bill might help resolve at least one of the long-pending contentious issues between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the status of the Mullaperiyar Dam.

The over a century-old dam is located in Kerala's geographical territory. But as reported by Sify, it's operated by Tamil Nadu under an agreement it signed with the erstwhile British government for purposes of irrigation. The agreement granted full rights to Tamil Nadu, and the dam was built on the Periyar river on Kerala territory to divert water eastwards and feed the arid districts of Tamil Nadu.

Ironically, the late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa was opposed to the Dam Safety Bill over concerns that it would dilute Tamil Nadu's power over the Mullaperiyar Dam. The tussle between the two states regarding Mullaperiyar reached the Supreme Court in 2014 after Tamil Nadu sought to increase storage of the dam, while Kerala opposed it citing safety threats.

And this is not the only dam in Kerala territory that's controlled by Tamil Nadu. The Indian Express reported that Parambikulam, Thunakadavu and Peruvaripallam are all owned by Tamil Nadu.

Now that the Bill is passed and it becomes a law, there will be respective SDSAs in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu to monitor the tussle between the two states regarding the nature of the dams. And they will be overseen by an NDSA that will look into unresolved dam-related issues.

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2018 16:10:25 IST