New Delhi: Despite acknowledging that half of the country’s 5,300 dams did not meet contemporary safety standards and that 195 of them were over 100 years old, the Union Ministry of Water Resources is yet to send the Dam Safety Bill to the cabinet. The Bill was first mooted by the Manmohan Singh government in 2010.
Water resources minister Nitin Gadkari recently submitted before the Lok Sabha that as per the National Register of Large Dams maintained by the Central Water Commission on the basis of information received from the state governments, as many as 195 dams were over 100 years old.
Admitting that the government of India was concerned about safety of dams in the country, he said: “Safety of dams rests primarily with dam owners which are generally state governments, central and state power generating PSUs, municipalities and private companies etc. In order to supplement the efforts of the state governments, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation provides technical and financial assistance through various schemes and programmes such as Dam Rehabilitation and Improvement Programme (DRIP).”
The minister further submitted that in 1987, the National Committee on Dam Safety was constituted under the leadership of the chairman of CWC and representatives from state governments with the objective to oversee dam safety activities in the country and suggest improvements to the safety practices.
Nearly 200 dams identified for rehabilitation by 2020
Noting that 37 meetings of this committee have been conducted so far, he said under the World Bank-funded DRIP, which was started in April 2012 and is scheduled to be completed in June 2020, the rehabilitation of 198 dam projects would be undertaken across the seven states of Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Jharkhand (DVC) and Uttarakhand (UJVNL).
The objectives of the first phase of DRIP, the minister said, were rehabilitation and improvement of dams and associated appurtenances; dam safety institutional strengthening in participating states and CWC; and project management under DRIP. While three National Dam Safety Conferences have been conducted so far under DRIP, Gadkari said the fourth was scheduled to be held on January 23-24, 2018.
He said these conferences bring together professionals and experts in the various inter-related disciplines from within India and around the world to discuss, reflect and share technology and experience in addressing dam safety issues and strategies.
The minister also noted that the Centre had initiated the process to take up the second phase of the DRIP to cover more dams across the country with funding assistance from the World Bank.
Dam Safety Bill yet to be sent to cabinet for approval
On the issue of the Dam Safety Bill, which has been under active consideration of the Centre for quite some time, the Gadkari stated that his ministry has “taken steps to firm up this Bill” and that it was under its “active consideration”. He acknowledged that “the purpose of Dam Safety Bill is to ensure safety of dams and the life and property of people downstream.”
However, considering that over six months have passed since the ministry had drawn up plans to take the Bill to the Union cabinet, it appears to be dragging its feet over the issue due to political compulsions.
In June, it was reported that the ministry was all set to move the Cabinet for seeking approval for the Bill. Secretary in the ministry, Amarjit Singh, was quoted as saying: “We are taking the Dam Safety Bill to cabinet this week or next week for final approval so that it can be taken up during monsoon session of parliament starting next month”.
Jayalalithaa had objected to Bill, written to PM
But six months later, there is still no sign of the Bill. Apparently, the reason lies in the political opposition it had faced from several quarters. The Tamil Nadu government had opposed it on the grounds that it overrode the federal nature of the constitution and some other clauses. In particular, the state had objection to its coverage of Mullaperiyar dam.
Singh had admitted that “Tamil Nadu did not want Kerala to have right over safety of Mullaperiyar dam”. He had stated that while the Centre had offered them a solution that in a case where two states have certain disputes, then safety of the dam will be examined by a team of officials from the CWC, the matter appears to have got stuck in view of the fluid political situation in the southern state.
Incidentally, it was in September last year that the then Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against the Bill saying it was not acceptable to Tamil Nadu in its current form.
The objection raised by the state include that the Bill does not recognise dams and reservoirs run by long-standing inter-state agreements and against the overriding powers to be given to the National Dam Safety Organisation to inspect any dams, among others. “Not duly recognising the established rights under pre-existing long-term agreements for dams such as Mullaperiyar, Parambikulam, Thoonakkadavu and Peruvarippallam is a grave omission,” she had written.
The crux of her objection was that the Bill did not provide the state the option of having a say on the legislation once it was passed by the parliament. The political upheaval upon her demise has ensured a status quo on the matter.