Dam Safety Act 2021

JAN 4

Mains   > Geography   >   Resource geography   >   Dams and reservoirs

WHY IN NEWS?

  • S. Ramalingam, a Lok Sabha member from Tamil Nadu, has moved the Madras High Court challenging the constitutional validity of Dam Safety Act, 2021 on the grounds that it goes against federalism and is beyond the legislative competence of the Centre.

MORE ABOUT THE NEWS:

  • The Dam Safety Bill was passed by Parliament amid strong objections from the Opposition. While it was passed by the Lok Sabha in August 2019, it was cleared by Rajya Sabha on Dec 3, 2021.

DAMS IN INDIA:

  • As on June 2019, India ranks third globally with 5,745 large dams. (Includes dams under construction).
    • Of these, 5,675 large dams are operated by states, 40 by central public sector undertakings, and five by private agencies.
    • Most of these large dams are in Maharashtra (2394), Madhya Pradesh (906), and Gujarat (632).
  • According to a UN report “Ageing water infrastructure: An emerging global risk”, India's current dam construction rate is among the world's highest.

MAJOR DAMS IN INDIA:

WHY INDIA NEED DAMS?

  • Water security:
    • Due to the large physiographic diversity of the country, there is a significant variation in water availability, both spatially and temporally. Hence, dams are crucial for ensuring the water security of the Country.
  • Irrigation:
    • Large dams are vital in providing year-round irrigation to farm fields.
    • For ex: Bhakra Nangal, Beas projects and Indira Gandhi canal played a major role in the success of green revolution in the Punjab plains.
  • Hydropower:
    • Dams provide cheap hydroelectric projects, which in turn sustain industrial growth and domestic power consumption.
    • Example: The Mettur dam in Tamil nadu is a major contributor to the development of Aluminum industries in Salem.
  • Flood control:
    • Large dams are a crucial component of all flood control projects in India.
    • For ex: The Damodar valley project, completed in 1948, still plays a crucial in controlling the floods along Jharkhand and West Bengal.
  • Ecological regulation:
    • Dams and barrages are used to control the salinity and ecological balance of delta regions.
    • For ex: One of the objectives of the Farakka barrage is the reduction in salinity of water and thus improvement in availability of potable water to Kolkata and surrounding areas.
  • Inland navigation:
    • Dams help maintain a steady flow in the rivers, which in turn promotes inland water transport.
    • For Ex: The Farakka barrage forms a major part of the National Waterway 1. 
  • Recreation and income source:
    • Dams and reservoirs are popular tourist attractions in India.
    • They also provide income sources to local population via inland fisheries, boating and hospitality services.

KEY FEATURES OF THE DAM SAFETY ACT:

  • Objectives
    • The act proposes to help all states and Union Territories adopt uniform dam safety procedures.
    • It aims to provide for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of the specified dam for prevention of dam failure-related disasters and to provide for institutional mechanism to ensure their safe functioning and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
  • Applicability:
    • 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
      • (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
      • (iii) preparing a comprehensive dam safety evaluation through a panel of experts.
  • 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.
  • Dam safety authorities and delegated legislation
    • The Act provides for dam safety regulatory and monitoring authorities at the national and state level.
    • At the national level, it constitutes:
      • National Committee on Dam Safety:
        • It’s functions include evolving policies and recommending regulations regarding dam safety.
        • It comprises of the chairman of the Central Water Commission, a maximum of 10 representatives of the central government in the ranks of joint secretary, a maximum of seven representatives of the state governments, and three experts.
        • Members has three-year tenure
      • National Dam Safety Authority:
        • Its 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 :
      • State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs):
        • It’s functions include keeping perpetual surveillance, inspecting, and monitoring dams
      • State Committee on Dam Safety:
        • It 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.

 

NEED FOR SUCH AN ACT

  • Threats posed by ageing dams:
    • Over 75% of dams in India are more than 20 years old and about 220 dams are more than 100 years old. Such aging embankments across the country pose a growing threat.
    • Enhances vulnerability to disasters:
      • The older a dam, the more vulnerable it becomes to collapse due to structural decay, earthquakes, hydrostatic pressure etc. The longer a reservoir lasts, the chances of reservoir-induced earthquakes in the region increase.
      • The lower reaches of all major dams are densely populated.
      • For example: Three million people live downriver of the 125-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam.
    • Aggravates threat from climate change:
      • Old dams were designed and built on the basis of hydrological records in a pre-climate change era.
      • With climate change bringing more extreme floods, aging dams threaten to become lethal.
    • Alters ecological stability:
      • Prolonged damming of rivers affects the fauna and flora in the river basins. They can lead to increased land degradation and encroachment by new invasive species.
      • Example: Damming the river, coupled with water intensive agriculture, diversion of land and climate change has led the Kaveri delta to shrink by 20%.
    • Creates recurring conflicts:
      • Increasing concerns over dam safety has been the root cause of river water disputes in India.
      • The most notable is the Mullaperiyar dispute between Kerala, the state under threat, and Tamil Nadu, the state upstream that operates the dam.
    • Increases cost of maintenance:
      • Ageing dams require expensive repairs. Also, siltation reduces the capacity of dams. Hence, the net return from large dams diminishes in the long run.
  • Increasing dam failures:
    • Since 1979, there were 42 instances of dam failure, the latest being Annamayya reservoir in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh that led to the death of at least 20 people in November 2021.
  • Absence of legal backing:
    • There are many protocols for ensuring dam safety. However, as of now these protocols are not legally mandated, and the agencies concerned (including Central and State Dam Safety Organisations) have no powers to enforce them.
    • For example: Central Water Commission (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.
    • The Dam Safety Bill seeks to correct this anomaly.

 

ISSUES WITH THE ACT:

  • Undermines federalism:
    • Several States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, opposed the legislation on the ground that it encroached upon the sovereignty of States to manage their dams.
  • Potential to create conflicts:
    • The bill can result in some states losing control over some dams.
    • For example: Tamil Nadu fears that it could lose its hold over four dams which are located in Kerala. This could lead to major interstate conflicts.
  • Question of constitutional validity:
    • As per the Constitution, states can make laws on water including water storage and water power.  However, Parliament may regulate and develop inter-state river valleys if it deems it necessary in public interest. The question is whether Parliament has the jurisdiction to regulate dams on rivers flowing entirely within a state.
  • No mention of compensation:
    • The bill is silent on the payment of compensation to people affected by dam projects. This is cited as another shortcoming.
  • Multiplicity of agencies:
    • The Central Dam Safety Organization (CDSO) functions as the apex body to advise States on issues of dam safety.
    • Besides this, there is the Central Water Commission (CWC).
    • Creation of more agencies could complicate dam management.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Ensure Centre-State cooperation in dam safety:
    • Given that about 92% of India’s land is spread over inter-State River basins, it makes sense to create a central legislation.
    • However, the Centre should take efforts to bring the States on board. For this, it must hold talks with the States to allay their fears and frame rules suitably for legislation.
  • Reassess the feasibility of dams
    • Reassess the feasibility of dams, both existing and planned ones, with special emphasis on the rising demand for water and the possible impacts of climate change.
  • Shifting focus away from hydropower
    • Replace hydropower with alternative sources of energy, such as decentralized renewable power. 
  • Promoting efficient utilization of water:
    • Increase water use efficiency, by promoting micro irrigation techniques, mandatory recycling of industrial wastewater and community-led management of water resources.
  • Decommission old dams:
    • Proactive measures must be taken to decommission obsolete dams  
  • Promote academic research and development:
    • Some dams are so big it is difficult to even approach the problem of their decommission.
    • Hence, there is a need to foster research and technological development to decommission them.
  • Promote sub-surface dams:
    • Unlike a surface dam, water loss by evaporation is minimal in underground dams.
    • In a country like India, where evaporation rates are very high, this can be the game changer. Countries like Japan that have created multiple sub-surface dams.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. How and to what extent the Dam Safety Act 2021 helps in ensuring dam safety in India?