The Centre is contemplating an institutional mechanism to improve safety in India’s 5300-odd dams. Currently, guidelines in this regard are not effectively enforced by the States. The new law, which has been vetted by the Union Law Ministry and will now go to the Union Cabinet for approval, proposes a Central authority and State-level bodies that will enforce regulation. Dam and project proponents falling short could face a fine, though they are unlikely to face imprisonment.
“We have had discussions with all the States and most of them have been fairly supportive,” said Amarjit Singh, Secretary, Water Resources Ministry.
There are around 4900 large dams in India and several thousand smaller ones. About 300 are in various stages of construction. However, large reservoirs and water storage structures, in the past few decades, are not seen as a model of safety. Kerala, for instance, continues to fight with Tamil Nadu over threats posed by the Mullaperiyar dam on the river Periyar. More recently, the Chennai floods of 2015, due to unusually-heavy winter rains, were thought to have been compounded by an unprecedented release of water from the Chembarambakkam dam into the Adyar River. In 2014, an unscheduled release of water from the Larji hydroelectric project into the Beas river drowned 25 students from Hyderabad.
According to a Water Ministry official familiar with the dam safety bill, recent analysis of the state of India’s dams found that half of them did not meet contemporary safety standards. “This does not mean the dams are unsafe, but that we have much stricter safety criteria now than we did when these dams were built 50 or 100 years ago,” the official told
The safety criteria include increasing the spillway (a design structure to ease water build-up) and preventing ‘over-topping’ in which the dam overflows and causes it to fail. The 1979 Machchu dam failure in Morbi, Gujarat, is estimated to have killed at least 25,000.