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Topical Analysis: Dam Safety Act

  • Published
    10th Jun, 2022

Significance of the Topic:

Dams have become an integral part of basic infrastructure by offering indispensable benefits like irrigation, hydropower, domestic and industrial water supply, flood control, drought mitigation, navigation, fish farming, and recreation.

India has invested substantially in dams and related infrastructures, and ranks third after USA and China in the number of large dams. 5254 large dams are in operation in the country currently and another 447 are under construction. In addition to this, there are thousands of medium and small dams. Still, as the population is growing at a steady pace, water security of the country is becoming an issue of concern for all. It has been noted over a period of time that water is in the center stage of disputes between various State Governments. Besides playing a major role in the development of the country especially in providing food and energy security, concerns have been raised about the safety of these wheels of the development.

Hence government has passed Dam Safety Act. Hereby analyzing the significance of dams, their advantages and disadvantages, need for dam safety and critical analysis of the Dam Safety Act.

A dam is a structure that is built on rivers, streams, or estuaries for conserving water. It directly helps to supply people with adequate water for consumption, industrial and irrigation purposes.

The dams and reservoirs world over have been playing dual role of harnessing the river waters for accelerating socio-economic growth and mitigating the miseries of a large population of the world suffering from the vagaries of floods and droughts. Dams and reservoirs contribute significantly in fulfilling the following basic human needs:

  • Dams and reservoirs are constructed to store surplus waters during wet periods, which can be used for irrigation, industrial purposes as well as drinking. One of the major benefits of dams and reservoirs is that water flows can be regulated as per requirements of the various regions over the year.
  • Floods in the rivers have been many a time playing havoc with the life and property of the people. Dams and reservoirs can be effectively used to control floods by regulating river water flows downstream the dam.
  • Energy plays a key role for socio-economic development of a country. Hydro Power provides a cheap, clean and renewable source of energy.
  • Enhanced inland navigation is a result of comprehensive basin planning and development, utilizing dams, locks and reservoirs that are regulated to play a vital role in realizing large economic benefits of national importance.

While dams provide service to the mankind, but it raises socio-economic and environmental issues.

  • As a result of dam construction and holding of sediments in reservoirs, sediment feeding of downstream channel or shore beaches is prevented. Corrosions may occur. As the transfer of sediments is avoided by this way, the egg lying zone of the fishes living in the stream ecosystem is restricted, too.
  • Reproduction of migrating fishes is hindered by the floods that harm the egg beds. Or the egg gravel beds can be destructed while the excavation and coating works in the stream beds.
  • Temperature of water, salt and oxygen distribution may change vertically as a consequence of reservoir formation. This may cause the generation of new living species.
  • Normal passing ways of territorial animals are hindered since the dam works as a barrier. Meantime the upstream fish movement aiming ovulation and feeding is prevented and thus fish population decreases significantly
  • There will be serious changes in the water quality as a result of drainage water returning from irrigation that was done based on the irrigation projects. In other words, over transfer of food and the increase in salt density can raise water lichens and may change water living species.
  • Discharge of toxic matters (pesticides, toxic metals etc.) and their condensation in food chain may affect sensitive animals immediately; all living organisms may expire when the stream becomes unable to recover itself.
  • The water regime may change as a result of destruction of nature, unexpected floods may occur and consequently vegetation and natural structures in the riverbanks can be damaged.
  • Some increase in earthquakes may occur because of filling of big dam reservoirs.
  • Rise in evaporation loses may be expected as a result of the increase in the water surface area.
  • Microclimatic and even some regional climate changes may be observed related to the changes in air moisture percentage, air temperature, air movements in big scale and the changes in the region topography caused by the stagnant, big scaled mass of water.
  • Water-soil-nutrient relations, which come into existence downstream related to the floods occurring from time to time in a long period of time, change. Depending on this fact, compulsory changes come into existence in the agricultural habits of the people living in this region and also in the flora and fauna.
  • Dams may cause increases in water sourced illnesses like typhus, typhoid fever, malaria and cholera.
  • Dams affect the social, cultural and economic structure of the region considerably. Especially forcing people, whose settlement areas and lands remain under water to migrate, affect their psychology negatively.

Dams usually play a role in mitigating the impacts of regular floods. At the same time they introduce a catastrophic hazard of even greater flooding in the event of dam failure.

Dam failure has multiple instigating factors, both man-made (bad design, ineffective monitoring, bad operations & maintenance (O&M) etc.) and natural (heavy rains, landslides etc.). Therefore, knowing how existing and proposed dams can fail, and the consequences of their failure is crucial for mitigating disaster risk created by their construction. Most recently heavy floods reportedly damaged the barrages of the Rishiganga hydropower dam, which exacerbated the flood and led to significant human casualties and property damage.

As a large amount of water may be stored in a dam’s reservoir, its failure can cause large scale damage to life and property. Hence government has enacted Dam Safety Act.

The Central Dam Safety Organisation, under the Central Water Commission (CWC), provides technical assistance to dam owners, and maintains data on dams.  The National Committee on Dam Safety devises dam safety policies and regulations. Earlier, 18 states and four dam owning organisations have their own Dam Safety Organisations.

CWC provides that each dam owner should carry out pre and post monsoon inspections (covering site conditions, dam operations) every year. However, as per a CAG report on flood forecasting, from 2008 to 2016, of the 17 states studied, only two had carried out such inspections.

A CWC Committee on Dam Safety (1986) had recommended unified safety procedures for all dams and suggested a legislative framework for dam safety. In 2007, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal passed resolutions requesting Parliament to make a law on dam safety.  Consequently, the Dam Safety Bill, 2010 was introduced in Lok Sabha but lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.  The Dam Safety Bill, 2019 was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 29, 2019, and passed by Lok Sabha on August 2, 2019. Rajya Sabha has passed it in 2021.

The Dam Safety Bill provides for adequate surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all the large dams in the country so as to prevent dam failure related disasters. The Bill provides 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 Dam Safety Bill provides for adequate surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all the large dams in the country so as to prevent dam failure related disasters. The Bill provides 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 provisions are:

  • 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.

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.  This unit will inspect the dams: (i) before and after monsoon season, and (ii) during and after every earthquake, flood, calamity, or any sign of distress.  Functions of dam owners include: (i) preparing an emergency action plan, (ii) carrying out risk assessment studies at specified regular intervals, and (iii) preparing a comprehensive dam safety evaluation through a panel of experts. 

Dam safety authorities and delegated legislation

  • The Bill provides for dam safety regulatory and monitoring authorities at the national and state level. The functions of the national bodies and the State Committees on Dam Safety have been provided in Schedules to the Bill.  The central government can amend these Schedules through a notification.
  • At the national level, it constitutes (i) the National Committee on Dam Safety, whose functions include evolving policies and recommending regulations regarding dam safety, and (ii) the National Dam Safety Authority, whose functions include implementing policies of the National Committee, and resolving matters between State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs), or between a SDSO and any dam owner in that state. The central government may notify the qualifications, and functions of the officers of the National Dam Safety Authority.  
  • At the state level, it constitutes the (i) State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs), whose functions include keeping perpetual surveillance, inspecting, and monitoring dams, and (ii) State Committee on Dam Safety which will supervise state dam rehabilitation programs, review the work of the SDSO, and review the progress on measures recommended in relation to dam safety, among others. State governments may notify the qualifications, and functions of officers of the State Dam Safety Organisations.  They may also notify dam safety measures to be undertaken by owners of non-specified dams. 

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. 

What steps have been taken by the Centre after the enactment of the law? 

The Union Ministry of Jal Shakti issued four notifications regarding the NCDS and the NDSA. The NCDS will be chaired by the Central Water Commission’s chief. Apart from different Central departments and organisations, the panel includes seven representatives of States by rotation, in addition to three specialists in the field of dam safety. The States have been divided into seven groups. The panel would meet twice a year, one of which would be before the onset of the southwest monsoon.   

As for the NDSA, it would have five members to assist its head, dealing with subjects such as policy and research, regulation, disaster, and resilience. It will have four regional offices, providing coordination services with the respective State Dam Safety Organisations and owners of the dams.  

  • Jurisdiction of Parliament to frame a law on intra-state river 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 to 15 metres, subject to certain design and structural conditions.  This includes dams on both inter and intra-state rivers. The Act has raised the issue whether Parliament has the jurisdiction to frame a law on intra-state dams.

Water is under the state list (Entry 17), but the Centre has brought the legislation under Article 246 of the Constitution. (Article 246 empowers Parliament to legislate on any matter enumerated in List I of the Union List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.)

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.  

According to the Ministry, the Parliament enacted the act within the constitutional framework. It was not violative of Articles 246(3), 14, 19 and 21 and the basic feature of the Constitutionas

The Act has stipulated guidelines for the safety of the specified dams in the country. It is not restricted to a particular river, project or a dam.

  • Functions of authorities may be changed through notification

The other issue is related to the authorities formed under the Act. The functions of the National Committee on Dam Safety, the National Dam Safety Authority, and the State Committee on Dam Safety are provided in Schedules to the Bill.  Their functions include: (i) resolving issues between State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs), or between a SDSO and a dam owner, (ii) assessing potential impact of dam failure and coordinating mitigation measures with affected states, and (iii) supervising dam rehabilitation programmes.  These Schedules can be amended through notification.  This implies that the core functions of these bodies can be changed by the government through notification without prior amendment of the Act by Parliament.  

The states have also raised objection, mainly Tamil Nadu. 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.

However, the passage of this Bill heralds a new era of dam safety and water resources management in India.

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