Constitutional Validity of Dam Safety Act challenged in HC
05, Jan 2022
Prelims level : Governance - Policies Mains level : GS-II Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues and Challenges Pertaining to the Federal Structure, Devolution of Powers and finances up to local levels and challenges therein.
Why in News?
- Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Lok Sabha member S. Ramalingam, representing Mayiladuthurai constituency in Tamil Nadu, has moved the Madras High Court challenging the constitutional validity of Dam Safety Act, 2021 on the grounds that it goes against federalism and is beyond the legislative competence of the Centre.
About the News:
- The litigant claimed that the Act usurped the power of the State governments and placed the operation of specified dams under the control of the Centre.
- He contended that certain terms, including the word ‘dam’ in the Act, had been deliberately defined vaguely to give unbridled power to the Centre to treat any dam as a ‘specified dam’. He also feared that if those definitions were followed, almost all dams in the country would fall under the purview of the Act.
- Referring to Entries 17, 18 and 35 of List II (State list) of the seventh schedule of the Constitution, the petitioner contended that dams would squarely fall within the legislative domain of State Governments.
- The power of the Centre under Entry 56 of List I (Union list) was only with respect to inter-State rivers or river valleys and nothing more, he asserted.
- Entry 56 cannot be stretched to include dams and embankments exclusively within the control of the States. Parliament cannot make a declaration in relation to a subject matter of List II entries when such power is conspicuously absent in List I subjects. Power over the subject ‘interstate river and river valley’ cannot be confused with the control over dams.
- Claiming that the State governments would be in a better position than the Centre to take a call on dam safety, the legislator told the court that the Act under challenge, if not nullified, would have an adverse impact on agriculture, fisheries, hydro power generation, provision of drinking water to the people and so on.
About Dam Safety Act, 2021:
- The Act provides for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of dams to prevent disasters, and institutional mechanisms to ensure safety.
- It applies to over 5,000 dams across the country, many of which are currently in poor conditions.
- It has been met with significant opposition, particularly from several states that claim the Act oversteps the Centre’s mandate.
What is its Constitutional Validity?
- According to Entry 17 of State List, the states are eligible to make laws on irrigation, water supply, canals, embankments, drainage, water power and water storage.
- According to Entry 56 of the Union List, the Parliament is allowed to make laws on regulation of river valleys and inter state rivers.
- Article 252 allows the Parliament to make laws on subjects in State list if two or more states pass resolution requiring a law. In this issue, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have passed resolution asking for a law on dam safety.
Which dams are Covered?
- All dams in India with a height above 15 metres come under the purview of the Act.
- Dams between 10 to 15 metres of height are also covered but only if they meet certain other specifications in terms of design and structural conditions.
National Committee on Dam Safety:
- The Act provides for the constitution of a National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) which is to be chaired by the Central Water Commissioner (CWC).
- The other members of the NCDS will be nominated by the Centre and will include up to 10 representatives of the Centre, 7 state government representatives, and 3 experts on dam safety.
- The NCDS is to formulate policies for dam safety and to prevent dam failures.
- In the event of a dam failure, the NCDS will analyse why the failure occurred, and suggest changes in dam safety practices to ensure there aren’t any Repetitions.
National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA):
- The Act provides for the formation of a NDSA which will be responsible for implementing the policies of the NCDS, and will resolve issues between State Dam Safety Organisations (or SDSOs) and dam owners.
- The NDSA will also specify regulations for the inspection of dams and will provide accreditation to the various agencies working on the structure of dams and their Alteration.
State Dam Safety Organisations (SDSOs)
- The Act will also result in the establishment of SDSOs, and State Committees on Dam Safety (SCDSs).
- The jurisdiction of the SDSOs will extend to all dams in that specific state.
- SDSOs will be in charge of scrutinizing dams under their jurisdiction and maintaining a database of the same.
- The SCDS will review the work of the SDSO, and will also have to assess the impact of dam-related projects on upstream and downstream states.
- The NDSA will, in some cases, possess this jurisdiction, for example, if a dam owned by one state is situated in another or crosses multiple states, or if a dam is owned by a central public sector undertaking.
- The Act gives the Central government the power to amend the functions of any of the above bodies through a notification, whenever it is deemed necessary to do so.
How does Act change the Functioning of Dams?
- If the Act is made into a law, then dam owners will have to provide a dam safety unit in each dam.
- The dam safety unit will be required to inspect the dam before and after the monsoon session, and also during and after natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.
- The Act requires dam owners to prepare EMERGENCY action plans. Risk-assessment studies will also have to be undertaken by owners, regularly.
- At specified, regular intervals, and in the event of either a modification to the dam’s structure or a natural event that may impact the structure, dam owners will have to produce a comprehensive safety evaluation by experts.