Safety of dams

The government’s plan to enact a central legislation to ensure the safety of dams will fill a vacuum in an area of major concern. There are thousands of dams in the country. Most of them are more than 50 years old and have crossed their expected life spans. Some are over a century old. But their upkeep and maintenance are poor and some of them pose a danger to lives and property. Dam failures have happened regularly, as in Nanaksagar in 1967, Chikkahole in 1972 and Jamunia in 2002. Even the breach of the Kosi embankment which flooded northern Bihar in 2008 was basically a dam failure. Therefore the need to protect them cannot be overstated.

But water and dams are state subjects. The responsibility for the management of dams rests with states but they have been unable to maintain them. There is no mechanism to monitor their safety. The meagre revenue from dams is hardly sufficient for their maintenance. The Central dam safety organisation has no effective role and powers. Financial and technical issues constrain the states’ ability to ensure their safety. The fact that many dams are inter-state projects also complicates the matter. The dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam, which is among the oldest dams in the world, is a case in point. The supreme court has also set up a panel to study the issue.

The central bill seeks to set up a system for monitoring the safety of dams, with states being called upon to create their own arrangements for their management and maintenance. The central law will be binding on states only if their Assemblies adopt it.
West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have decided to accept the central legislation. Since very few states have a law on dam safety, adoption of the central law will fill a legal void. The Centre should ensure that the provisions of the bill are acceptable to all states and will help to create the necessary procedures for proper maintenance of dams. It has been noted that the monitoring system proposed by the bill does not cover all dams and there is no proposal on how to raise the necessary financial resources. These lacunae should be removed and the bill made into law at the earliest.

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