The Dam Safety Bill (DSB) 2018, introduced in Parliament on December 12, 2018 is much improved from the 2010 version that was referred to the Parliamentary Committee.

However, a number of States have already expressed apprehensions about the Bill. Some have put a question mark over the legislative competence of the Centre. Tamil Nadu has opposed it, fearing that the dams owned and operated by it would come under the purview of the National Dam Safety Organisation (NDSO) and that Kerala would also get access to the dam and information about it. Other States fear that the Centre may take control over all their dams.

Apparently, the DSB 2018 has been brought under Entry 56 and not under Articles 249/250 of the Constitution. This is unlike DSB 2010 that was put up before Parliament. Entry 56 of the Union List provides ‘Regulation and development of Inter State rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament to be expedient in the public interest’.

However, for use of this entry for passage of DSB 2018, Parliament would also need to declare that dam safety is expedient in the public interest. Even if Parliament were to declare that, about 8 per cent territory of the country, which is not part of inter-State river basins (they are intra-State), would remain outside the purview of the DSB 2018. However, DSB 2018 says it covers all the specified dams (essentially meaning large dams) of the country.

The DSB 2018 is certainly an improvement from DSB 2010 in a number of aspects, including inclusion of failure of “operation” of dam, not just structural failure in the definition of “dam failure” and “dam incident”. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) had demanded this while critiquing DSB 2010. DSB 2018 also includes provision of “Offences and Penalties” (though a rather inadequate one), inclusion of aspects like Emergency Action Plan, Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation by independent panel of experts, among other aspects.

Compensation factor

However, there is still no inclusion of compensation to the victims of dam failures or dam incidents, which was a key recommendation of the June 2011 report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee (15th Lok Sabha) on “Dam Safety Bill, 2010”.

A number of other recommendations of the committee have not been included, though an August 6, 2018 note by Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari, attached with the DSB 2018 introduced in Parliament, says that the DSB 2018 has been prepared “incorporating the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee”.

The note also says “Owing to significant modifications entailed in the Bill while complying with the recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the Ministry of Water Resources decided to withdraw the said Bill and introduce the modified Bill. Meanwhile, the term of the 15th Lok Sabha came to an end.” This does not really explain the delay.

The DSB 2018 continues to suffer from a number of lacunas, including some rather serious ones. For example, the whole dam safety mechanism is dominated by the Central Water Commission (CWC) with Chairperson of CWC being the chairman of National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS), a representative of CWC being member of each State Committee on Dam Safety (SCDS).

However, the CWC is also involved in policymaking about dams, in their approval, guiding designs, financing, monitoring, approving seismic parameters, flood forecasting, lobbying for dam projects and so on. However, Dam Safety is essentially a regulatory function and thus CWC has clear conflict of interest in being involved in the Dam Safety mechanism.

The CWC also has had very poor track record in dam safety and has always rushed to ensure that dam operators do not get blame for the wrong or unsafe operation of dams. The Kerala episode is the latest instance, where within weeks of the disaster, the CWC delegation went to Kerala and came up with a report that rather predictably claimed that dams cannot be blamed for worsening the Kerala flood disaster of August 2018, when all evidence pointed to the contrary.

Secondly, dam safety mechanism has to essentially work in public interest and the people at risk are the biggest stakeholders (unfortunately, the Bill does not even define who are the stakeholders of Dam Safety, though the term stakeholder is used in the DSB 2018) in ensuring safe design, planning, construction, operation and maintenance of dams.

This implies that all the information about dam safety should be promptly placed in the public domain and the Bill itself should mandate this. The agenda, minutes of the meetings of all the dam safety mechanisms, their decisions, information about all the specified dams and all the incidents, failures, the evaluation reports, safety audits, emergency action plans, etc should have been mandated to be in public domain, including on dedicated National, state and dam specific websites. However, the DSB 2018 fails to ensure this.

In the same context, the DSB 2018 should have mandated in each State and national dam safety committee, organisation and authority, presence of persons having track record of taking independent positions.

Appointment of members

The Bill requires appointment of up to three (out of a total of 21 members) “specialists in the field of dam safety and allied fields” nominated by the Central and State governments respectively as members of NCDS and SCDS.

However, there is no mention of these persons having an independent track record, nor is there any mechanism mentioned as to how they will be selected.

The language of several sections (e.g. Chapter VI) of the DSB 2018 suggests that State Dam Safety Organisation is subservient to the National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA). This clubbed with the apparent lack of sufficient consultation with the States on the Bill seems to suggest that States would regard the DSB 2018 with suspicion, as is already happening.

There is also very limited number of remaining days of functioning of the 16th Lok Sabha that is likely to have its last working day in second week of February before it is dissolved and general elections are announced. In this situation, it seems even the DSB 2018 may lapse without Parliament passing it.

This is very sorry state of affairs considering the urgent need of such a Bill. India has, according to the latest version of National Register of Large Dams, 5,701 large dams (this number is likely to be an underestimate considering that NRLD is not exhaustive, with a number of projects not included) including 447 under construction and 5,254 completed projects.

For 194 of these projects CWC does not even know year of construction! Out of the rest 5,060 completed large dams, over 87 per cent are more than 20 years old and about 370 are over 70 years old. Moreover, even newer dams are known to suffer both structural and operational failures. All this underscores the urgent need for a National Dam Safety Bill, but it seems we are not likely to see a credible statutory dam safety mechanism soon.

The writer is with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People