Dam Safety Act 2021: Damaging Democracy & Federalism
IN a country with over 5,701 large dams, 619 of them having crossed the age of 50 years, dam safety is a matter of great concern to our nation and addressing it is crucial for the lives and livelihoods of our people. So, any legislation which attempts to provide for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of dams is bound to attract some attention.
The Dam Safety Act 2021, passed in the winter session of the Parliament in 2021, and received presidential assent on December 13, 2021, gives us reasons to worry. It is an addition to the long list of legislation brought by the union government, which, including the recently repealed farm laws, constituted an attempt to centralise and expand the powers of the union government at the cost of federalism and autonomy of the states.
DISREGARD TOWARDS DIVISION OF POWERS
The Act which deals with the safety of ‘specified dams’ across India pays scant regard to the division of powers between states and the union government as provided in the Union, State and Concurrent lists of the Indian Constitution.
As per entry 17 in the State List of the Constitution of India, ‘water, that is to say, water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power’, is a state subject, subject to entry 56 of the Union List. Entry 56 of the Union List gives powers to the union government to regulate and develop ‘inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the union are declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest’. From this, it becomes more than evident that any attempt to legislate upon the matters of intrastate rivers is violative of the powers given to the states by the Constitution.
But clause 2 of the Act tries to get the protection of entry 56 by declaring that the regulation of a uniform dam safety procedure by the union government is ‘expedient in the public interest’. But Entry 56 of the Union List specifically refers to ‘inter-state rivers” and regulating dams built on rivers flowing entirely within the state is out of the legislative competence of the union government.
It is not for the first time that parliament attempts to legislate on dam safety. Back in 2010, a bill on dam safety was introduced in the Parliament which has lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. Unlike the Dam Safety Act 2021, the previous legislation was introduced under article 252 of the Constitution which enables the Parliament to legislate on a state subject when the states demand it.
The preamble of the previous bill had clearly stated that the union government has no powers to provide a uniform dam safety procedure for the states. The legislation enacted under this provision will be applicable to other states only if they accept it by resolution in their respective legislative assemblies. But the present ruling dispensation has decided to give no such regard for the powers provided to the states in the Constitution. Thus, this constitutes a direct assault on federalism.
STATES ARE REDUCED TO A MINORITY
The Act proposes the creation of a national committee on dam safety and ‘national dam safety authority’(NDSA) at the national level and state dam safety organisations and state committees on dam safety in the states. The NDSA shall be headed by an officer appointed by the union government, which leaves no room for the states. The national committee on dam safety, which is a larger body with consultative and long-term strategising functions has 13 members nominated by the union government and only seven members from the states. The union government gets to decide which States will find their representatives in the committee. Thus, the proposed composition puts the states at a loss.
BLANK CHEQUE TO BYPASS THE PARLIAMENT
The functions of the national committee on dam safety, national dam safety authority and state dam safety organisations are specified in the schedules of the Act. The NDSA is given the final and binding authority to make decisions in disputes between state dam safety organisations of states or between an owner of a specified dam and the state dam safety organisation of that state.
But the Act comes with a clause that empowers the government to change the schedules through mere notification, bypassing the Parliament. This is practically giving a blank cheque to the executive to alter the powers of the bodies. This could be used by the union government to increase their powers at will.
It has been pointed out that thousands of dams built all over the country have a baffling diversity in terms of the design codes, materials used and construction techniques. A decentralised arrangement with wider powers to the State governments and local authorities will be the most efficient way to go, to ensure the safety of dams. Imposing homogeneity from above could prove counterproductive.
Leaving the functions of statutory bodies to be changed through executive fiats is setting a wrong precedence. The ruling dispensation might be acting against its own long term interests as nothing is as dynamic as political power and the present-day opposition could very well be occupying treasury benches. When Parliament makes a law for the creation of important statutory bodies, that process should be performed with a futuristic vision, a spirit to accommodate diversity and high regard for federal and democratic values. Unfortunately, the Dam Safety Act 2021, in its present form, constitutes a frontal attack on the spirit of federalism and the provisions of the Constitution.