What is the Dam Safety Bill? Why are States Opposing the Move?

By: Pragya Singh
08 Dec 2021 4:48:11 PM Shoolini University, Solan, Himachal Pradesh

The Dam Safety Bill, proposed to help all states and union territories adopt uniform dam safety procedures, was passed by Lok Sabha in August 2019 and cleared by the Rajya Sabha on December 3 amidst solid objections from the Opposition. 


Under this Bill, dam safety measures will not be under the parent state’s umbrella. Instead, the National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) will be the recognised regulatory body to implement the policy, guidelines, and standards on dam safety in the country. 


According to the Bill, the NDSA will operate out of New Delhi. The committee will have a three-year tenure, comprising the chairman of the Central Water Commission, a maximum of 10 central government representatives in the ranks of joint secretary, a maximum of seven representatives of the state governments, and three experts.


The Bill also entails the setting up of state commissions on dam safety. These bodies will report the issues of dam failures, gather data for reviews, and investigate and maintain records of major incidents at each specified dam. They will answer to the NSDA and will have no autonomy regarding ideating and implementing policies. 


The Centre proposed the Dam Safety Bill considering the construction of over 5200 large dams and 450 dams in India. “Due to lack of legal and institutional architecture for 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,” a statement from the Cabinet released on June 13 read, revealing its approval of the Bill. 


However, the Bill has and is currently facing stiff opposition in the south, particularly in Tamil Nadu, which has built dams in neighbouring Kerala and Karnataka. Ownership of these dams and implementation of policies have long been a serious bone of contention for these states. The Bill has also faced opposition in Odisha, Bengal and Jharkhand – another cluster of states sharing dams. 


Recently, political parties from Tamil Nadu, including the ruling DMK and rivals AIADMKm, came together to oppose the Bill. Several other parties, including VCK, CPI and AMMK leader TTV Dhinakaran, also supported the opposition against the Bill and accused the Central Government of taking a “majoritarian approach”.


In a statement on Friday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin strongly criticised the Union government’s move calling the Dam Safety Bill a “dangerous move” to democracy that it is “damaging the federal principles and powers of the state government.” 


Earlier this week, after the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, a unanimous resolution had been passed by the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly demanding the proper consultation with the states before arriving at a decision. 


Meanwhile, Jharkhand, which shares the Damodar river and its two dams with Bengal, has joined the clamour opposing the Bill. Members of the state’s ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, on Wednesday, told local media that the Centre’s move cannot be backed because it would mean that “the state would lose control of its own water.”


Objections are also expected from other states because most dams in India – other than the big ones – are owned and operated by state governments’ Public Works Departments (PWD). This means that the states bear the cost of maintenance, which includes inspections and assessing the safety and strength of the dam. 

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