Parties across the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu have raised a storm over the introduction of the Dam Safety Bill in Lok Sabha. The Bill, purportedly to ensure uniform safety regulations for dams across the country, has raised questions over federalism. The Union water minister has said the country needs a centralised mechanism—the proposed National Dam Safety Authority—to ensure constant maintenance and inspection of big dams, especially those that are over 100 years old (293 of the 5,344 big dams come in this category).
The minister said the Bill would help resolve inter-state disputes, considering that nearly 92% of the dams are built on inter-state rivers. The Bill was first introduced in 2010, but had been referred to a standing committee, which submitted its report in 2011. It was again introduced in 2018, but lapsed with the dissolution of the House. Subsequent attempts to get Parliamentary nod have failed following opposition from states.
Tamil Nadu exercises rights over four dams that are located in Kerala. This arrangement is based on previous agreements. But the proposed Bill will dissolve TN’s rights over ensuring the safety of these dams as they are in another state. This is because the Bill provides the constitution of the National Dam Safety Authority that will play the role of the current State Dam Safety Organisation to extinguish inter-state water conflicts. This, TN feels, is unfair as water is on the State List. The Bill will establish the Centre’s access and control over the resource, which parties say violates the principles of federalism. The Centre could be looking to avoid dam disasters; the recent incident in Maharashtra is a case in point.
Water is an asset that is shared by states and a centralised mechanism could be seen as an objective adjudicator of disputes. But there is a potential threat of bias in favour of the “friendlier” state. The states must have a say on dams built across rivers that drain their land. A centralised regulatory authority can guide the flow of arguments, but not divert them.