Beas tragedy stresses need for dam safety law

Mishaps like the one in Mandi district will unfortunately keep recurring unless India debates a robust dam safety legislation

Himanshu Upadhyaya | June 24, 2014




The tragic incident of 24 engineering students getting drowned due to negligent dam operations at the Larji hydropower project has sounded an alarm on dam safety and maintenance. In April, in a similar incident of sudden discharge of water from Teesta V Dam near Dikchu in Sikkim, a girl child playing in the downstream got swept away. The district collector of East Sikkim had taken the matter seriously and asked the dam operator, National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, to submit a report on water releases and precautionary measures.

Still earlier, in January, a 4.8 MW Aleo hydropower at Pirni, near Manali, had breached during a trial run.

Similar accidents near dams have occurred with alarming frequency in the last few years. But apart from handing out compensation to victims in a few cases, and instituting probes in fewer still, various state administrations and the central government have uniformly failed to undertake a thorough introspection on the issue of dam safety by examining these accidents collectively. The country’s water resources establishment maintains an ad hoc attitude, responding to each dam-induced disaster as it unfolds.

Even a half-hearted attempt to bring in a central dam safety legislation took almost 25 years, starting from the resolution adopted at the first conference of state ministers for irrigation and flood control that took place in 1975.

While the dam safety mechanism has been the subject of discussions in policy circles, India doesn’t have a dam safety legislation at the union government-level till date. A draft bill was introduced in parliament on August 30, 2010. This was discussed by the parliamentary standing committee which submitted its report on June 4, 2011.

The standing committee was surprised to note that the bill did not mention the penalty to be imposed on the owner or anyone responsible for the failure of the dam causing disaster in downstream or upstream. The committee felt that the bill would not prove as effective as it should in the absence of any penal clause for such grave omission.

Similarly, the committee desired that an adequate provision be made in the bill for compensation to the affected people in case a disaster takes place due to failure of the dam. The committee had also noted that there could be occurrence of incidents due to inappropriate dam operation that could potentially lead to disaster, even as failure of the dam might not have taken place.

Besides, the committee wanted the legislation to provide for creation of an independent regulatory authority to keep an overview of the implementation of dam safety measures as contemplated in the legislation.

In July 2011, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa voiced protests over the dam safety bill, dubbing a few clauses in it as detrimental to her state’s interests, even as the Mullaperiyar dam issue was hanging fire. While the dam safety bill, 2010 lapsed during the tenure of the 15th Lok Sabha, the Kerala state assembly passed a resolution this week calling for enactment of central dam safety legislation.

Where have all dam safety measures gone?
The centre’s law on disaster management, enacted in 2005, lays down the structure for instituting disaster management authorities at various levels of governance, and calls upon each level to prepare disaster management plans. But in the language of legislation, ‘disaster management’ is nothing more than attempting to rescue helpless victims. As a result, the law fails to lay down clearly defined and easily understandable norms of institutional and official accountability in the event of a serious lapse.

A performance review by the comptroller and auditor general of India (CAG) on the implementation of the Disaster Management Act that was tabled in April last year had identified critical gaps in the preparedness levels on disaster. The report stated that only eight states had prepared emergency action plans for 192 dams – or an abysmal 4.06 percent – against a total of 4,728 dams as of September 2011. Having reported this, CAG’s performance audit remarked, “Thus, non-preparations of emergency action plans (EAPs) by the project authorities in respect of 96 percent of large dams render huge area and property left vulnerable to cascading effects of dam failure”.

The crisis management plan prepared by the water resource ministry in March 2011 required each state to establish a dam safety organisation. As per CAG’s performance audit report, only 14 states had established these by July 2012. While there were 4,728 reservoirs and barrages in India as on September 2011, the central water commission (CWC) provided flood forecast information on only 28 reservoirs and barrages, leaving out a large number of reservoirs where water levels are not monitored at all.

Even for river basins and dams under CWC’s monitoring for flood forecasts, the poor performance leaves much to be desired. An evaluation study of plan schemes for flood control done by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, and submitted to the ministry of water resources in November 2009, highlighted the following deficiencies:

* Non-functioning telemetry stations,

* Temporary gauge sites during the flood period, and

* Flood forecasting stations not having dedicated communication facilities.

The CAG’s performance audit on disaster management noted that these deficiencies were not rectified by CWC till July 2012.

The latest incident in Himachal Pradesh clearly points out that hydropower – and especially run-of-the-river – project operations shall not only pay attention to peak power demand or drop in power demand, but must factor in the levels of water impounded in the reservoir. The engineers at the Larji dam seem to have argued that had they not released the floodgates, the reservoir water would have proved fatal for the dam structure. However, that leaves us with the crucial question: why was this reservoir filled up to brim in the first week of June, well ahead of monsoon?

As per a report in The Indian Express, the dam authorities had been “releasing excess water in Beas since Friday, and followed the same practice on Sunday evening too.”

There is also a tragic take-home message when we try to engage with the way TV news channels package news bulletins. Even as they devoted time about the news on those engineering students still missing, at the next moment they were arguing about power shortages in sweltering Delhi. Time has also come to evaluate the costs others pay for meeting the insatiable power demand of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Upadhyaya is with Azim Premji University, Bangalore

 

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