Dam Safety Bill cleared by Parliament: What is it and why were states opposed to it?

The bill seeks to set up an institutional mechanism to ensure the safe functioning of specific dams in the country.

Opposition parties, including the Congress, the TMC and the DMK, demanded the government that the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 be sent to a parliamentary select committee.

The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, after a heated debate with many opposition members demanding that the bill be sent to a select committee. The opposition members also suggested many amendments which were rejected. The Dam Safety Bill, 2019, passed by the Lok Sabha on August 2, 2019, was cleared by the Rajya Sabha passed with two official amendments through a voice vote. One of the amendments relates to the change in the year mentioned in the bill title from 2019 to 2021. The bill will now go back to the Lok Sabha as the Rajya Sabha has made amendments to it.

What is the Dam Safety Bill 2019?

The bill seeks to set up an institutional mechanism to ensure the safe functioning of specific dams in the country. The legislation provides for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of the specified dams for the prevention of dam failure-related disasters. As per Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the legislation will create a National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) and the system will have the power to impose penalties. A clause has been added to the bill to impose punishment on the states or people if the norms are not adhered to.

The bill got to see the light of the day after over three decades of proposals. “When the Machchhu Morbi dam broke in 1976, thousands of people lost their lives. When the Morbi dam broke, for the first time in this country a discussion started to set up a systematic protocol. A committee was formed at that time, which held comprehensive discussions with the states….The committee had proposed to make a protocol around the safety of the dams…There is an opportunity to support the legislation after 40 years,” he said. Since water is a state subject, many opposition MPs termed the bill a violation of federal structure. The Centre had brought the bill under Article 246 of the Constitution.

According to government data, there are 5,745 large dams in India. Of these, 293 are over a century old and needs proper maintenance and surveillance. As many as 1,041 dams are aged between 50 and 100 years. Ageing of dams raises serious concern especially related to safety as any unfortunate accident may cost thousands of lives. The bill will create four layers of monitoring two each at the central and state levels to ensure the safety of the dams.

According to the provisions of the bill, a National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) will be instituted at the central level. It will have 10 members as nominated by the centre and seven members on behalf of the state government. The NDSA will be established within two months. It will implement policy and guidelines as suggested by the NCDS. The state government will establish a State Dam Safety Organisation (SDSO) within six months and it will be trusted with perpetual surveillance of the dams, carry out inspections and monitor the operation and maintenance of specified dams. States will also be required to constitute a State Committee on Dam Safety.

Opposition’s objections to the Bill
Opposition parties, including the Congress, the TMC and the DMK, demanded the government that the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 be sent to a parliamentary select committee. They alleged that it needs scrutiny as it is unconstitutional and encroaches upon the states’ rights. DMK leader Tiruchi Siva moved an amendment to the bill to send it to a select committee. Several opposition members raised concerns that certain provisions of the bill interfere with the federal structure. The demand of some opposition parties to send the bill to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha for scrutiny was negated as only 26 members voted in its favour, while 80 voted against it. Also, all the amendments moved by the opposition parties were negated. T K S Elangovan of the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) said, “The bill is a violation of Article 252. Powers of the states are being taken away by the Centre. It should be sent to a select committee.” V Sivadasan of the CPI(M) said the bill is against the spirit of democracy and goes against the Constitution.

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