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Sansad TV: Perspective- Concerns Over Dam Safety

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Introduction:

A parliamentary panel has expressed concerns over the safety of ageing dams in India. The Standing committee on water resources, in its 20th report, has raised the issue of safety risks posed by more than 200 dams in the country. Citing the National Register of Large Dams 2019, the panel says there are 234 large dams in India which are 100 years old – and still functional. Dams are normally designed for approximately 100 years of useful age. Their functional life gets decreased with progressive reservoir sedimentation concurrently reducing project benefits.

Dam Safety Act, 2021:

Applicability of the Bill: The Bill applies to all specified dams in the country. These are dams with:

  • height more than 15 metres
  • height between 10 metres to 15 metres and subject to certain additional design and structural conditions.

National Committee on Dam Safety: The National Committee on Dam Safety will be constituted and will be chaired by the Chairperson, Central Water Commission. All other members will be nominated by the central government, and include:

  • Up to 10 representatives of the central government,
  • up to seven representatives of the state governments (by rotation)
  • up to three dam safety experts.

Functions of the Committee include:

  • formulating policies and regulations regarding dam safety standards and prevention of dam failures
  • analysing causes of major dam failures and suggesting changes in dam safety practices. 

National Dam Safety AuthorityThe National Dam Safety Authority will be headed by an officer, not below the rank of an Additional Secretary, who will be appointed by the central government. Functions of the Authority include:

  • implementing the policies formulated by the National Committee on Dam Safety,
  • resolving issues between State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs), or between a SDSO and any dam owner in that state,
  • specifying regulations for inspection and investigation of dams,
  • providing accreditation to agencies working on construction, design, and alteration of dams.

Change in functions of the bodies: Functions of:

  • the National Committee on Dam Safety,
  • the National Dam Safety Authority,
  • the State Committees on Dam Safety have been provided in Schedules to the Bill. The Bill specifies that the central government can amend these Schedules through a notification, if deemed necessary.

Obligations of dam owners: Owners of specified dams are required to provide a dam safety unit in each dam. This unit will inspect the dams:

  • before and after the monsoon session
  • during and after every earthquake, flood, or any other calamity or sign of distress.

Dam owners will be required to prepare an emergency action plan, and carry out risk assessment studies for each dam at specified regular intervals. Dam owners will also be required to prepare a comprehensive dam safety evaluation of each dam, at regular intervals, through a panel of experts. The evaluation will be mandatory in certain cases such as major modification of the original structure, or an extreme hydrological or seismic event.

Significance:

  • Water being the state subject, the bill provides broad guidelines.
  • The Bill will help all the States and Union Territories of India to adopt uniform dam safety procedures which shall ensure safety of dams and safeguard benefits from such dams. This shall also help in safeguarding human life, livestock and property.
  • It addresses all issues concerning dam safety including regular inspection of dams, Emergency Action Plan, comprehensive dam safety review, adequate repair and maintenance funds for dam safety, Instrumentation and Safety Manuals. It lays onus of dam safety on the dam owner and provides for penal provisions for commission and omission of certain acts.

Need:

  • Till now, dams are controlled by state governments and private players are also showing interest.
  • Over the last fifty years, India has invested substantially in dams and related infrastructures, and ranks third after USA and China in the number of large dams. 5256 large dams are in operation in the country currently and another 448 are under construction. In addition to this, there are thousands of medium and small dams.
  • While dams have played a key role in fostering rapid and sustained agricultural growth and development in India, there has been a long felt need for a uniform law and administrative structure for ensuring dam safety.
  • The Central Water Commission, through the National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS), Central Dam Safety Organization (CDSO) and State Dam Safety Organizations (SDSO) has been making constant endeavours in this direction, but these organizations do not have any statutory powers and are only advisory in nature.
  • This can be a matter of concern, especially since about 75 percent of the large dams in India are more than 25 years old and about 164 dams are more than 100 years old. A badly maintained, unsafe dam can be a hazard to human life, flora and fauna, public and private assets and the environment.
  • India has had 36 dam failures in the past.

Concerns:

  • Age of the dam is the major issue which should have been taken up.
  • The bill is too focused on structural safety and not on operational safety.
  • There is inadequate compensation to the people affected by dams.
  • There is need for an independent regulator as well as for a precise definition of stakeholders.
  • Many states say it encroaches upon the sovereignty of States to manage their dams, and violates the principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution. They see it as an attempt by the Centre to consolidate power in the guise of safety concerns.