By Jalaj Tokas

Published On: December 10, 2021 at 14:30 IST


Dams are Temples of Modern India.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

Major emphasis was placed on the development of large power projects under several Five Year Plans beginning with the First Five-Year Plan, which was headed by India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

By 1979, India had built around 1554 major dams. The nation had around 2240 major dams by 1990. India has 5,745 major dams, including those under development, as of 2019. Out of these, States operate 5,675 major dams, while 40 are managed by Central Public Sector Undertakings, and 5 are run by private companies.[i]

Despite the fact that India is third in the world, after China and the United States, in terms of major dams, the country has been without Dam Safety Legislation for more than 70 years.

All of that is almost certain to change, with the Rajya Sabha passing the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 on December 02, 2021, following the Lok Sabha’s passage on August 02, 2019.

While the recent controversy surrounding the Dam Safety Act, which was enacted by the Parliament, has sparked discussion, environmentalists and experts believe it would help Kerala, particularly in light of the Mullaperiyar dam conflict.

This article is particularly written to decipher and analyze the Bill for its readers to clear the ambiguities surrounding such controversies while delving into its provisions and their evolution.

Need for Dam Safety Law

Dam safety, according to the Central Water Commission (CWC), is crucial for maintaining the sustainable benefits derived from such projects apart from ensuring national water security, among other things.

The ageing of dam assets, according to the Central Water Commission (CWC), raises major concerns about their safety in terms of fulfilling current standards.

Dam safety is particularly vital for protecting the massive public investment in this essential physical infrastructure, as well as assuring the continuation of benefits derived from dam developments and national water security, as stipulated by the CWC. According to the CWC, dam safety is especially vital given the evolving context of India’s water issue, which is connected to its expanding population as well as climate change.

The Supreme Court in Alaknanda Hydropower Co. Ltd. Vs Anuj Joshi[ii], held that dam safety and protection is critical, since its failure may result in catastrophic environmental disaster as well as loss of lives and property. The Court highlighted that dam safety is a top priority for the State Government in our country. Investigation, planning, design, building, and operation are all tasks that the state government must do. When a hydroelectric project is being constructed, the public’s safety and protection are paramount, and it is critical to have all safety standards in place so that the public can trust to get protected from risks they are concerned about, as well as to avoid serious long-term or irrevocable ecological impacts.

The Court also raised questions whether the tragedies in Uttarakhand on June 16, 2013, and the flooding of the Alaknanda River, had impacted the project’s safety and called for investigation by the State and Dam Safety Authority.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Jal Shakti Minister, stated in August 2019 while introducing the bill in the Lok Sabha that 40 dams have fallen in the nation since Independence.

The collapse of the Machhu dam in Gujarat in 1979 was one of the deadliest tragedies in history, killing thousands of people. In the aftermath of the tragedy, numerous states and public sector undertakings (PSUs) owning dams in the nation, established their own Dam Safety Organizations (DSOs) and since then have implemented dam safety measures in their jurisdictions.

Approximately around 18 states and five Dam-owning organizations have formed their own Dam Safety Organizations (DSOs), including the Bhakra Beas Management Board, Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam, Damodar Valley Corporation, Kerala State Electricity Board, and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation.

However, in the absence of a federal law, safety rules differ from state to state.

Progress of a Dam Safety Legislation

The Bill remained in the works for almost 35 years and was originally proposed in Parliament in 2010 by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, which saw the necessity for a unified dam safety strategy and legislation. Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal both passed motions in their legislatures to establish dam safety legislation.

The UPA Bill, on the other hand, had to be sent to the parliamentary standing committee on water resources for revisions. The committee’s primary recommendations included the need for statutory penalty, compensation for affected individuals in the event of dam failure, and an independent supervisory authority.

  • Unified Safety Procedures as well as a legal framework for dam safety for all dams was proposed by a CWC Committee on Dam Safety in 1986.
  • Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal Governments submitted resolutions in 2007 demanding that Parliament establish a dam safety law.
  • As a result, the Lok Sabha introduced the Dam Safety Bill, 2010. The Bill, however, rescinded when the 15th Lok Sabha was dissolved.

On July 29, 2019, the Dam Safety Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha, and on August 2, 2019, it was finally approved. Recently, on December 2, 2021, the Bill was approved by the Rajya Sabha.

Provisions of the Dam Safety Bill, 2021

The Dam Safety Bill, 2021 provides for the monitoring, inspection, assessment, functioning, and maintenance of the identified dam in order to prevent dam failure-related disasters, as well as to provide institutional structures to assure their proper functioning.

The Bill intends to assist all States and Union Territories in implementing uniform dam safety standards.

  • The Bill specifies that there shall be four layers of surveillance, two each at the federal level and the state level, to ensure dam safety.
  • A National Committee on Dam Safety (NCDS) shall be established at the Federal level, led by the Central Water Commission (CWC) chairman and comprising of ten Central Government representatives, not below the post of Joint Secretary, appointed by the Centre and seven State Government representatives. 
  • The Bill also provides for establishing a National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) within 60 days, which will execute NCDS-developed strategy and guidelines while conforming with its standards. 
  • The Bill further expressly states that all parties are bound by any decision made by the National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA).
  • At the state level, each Government should establish a State Dam Safety Organization (SDSO), which must be formulated within 180 days after the commencement of this Act. The SDSO becomes responsible for maintaining constant surveillance, conducting inspections, and monitoring the operation and upkeep of dams within its authority. 
  • States will also be required to establish a State Dam Safety Committee (SDSC).
  • If anyone is found obstructing any official or employee of the Central government or the State government, or an official duly authorized by the National Committee or Authority, the State Committee, or the SDSO in the discharge of their duty under this Act, or refuses to cooperate with any direction given by them, they can be sentenced to two years in prison, or a fine, or both.
  • If an offence is committed by the Government or its official, or a firm or corporate officers of the firm, then action will be taken.


The Bill covers all dams built before or after the commencement of the Act that are over 15 metres tall, measured from the lowest section of the general foundation area to the crest of the dam, or between 10 and 15 meters in length that meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • The crest must be at least 500 metres long.
  • The reservoir generated by the dam must have a capacity of at least 1 million cubic metres.
  • Unless the dam has very significant foundational issues or has an unusual design, the maximum flood flow dealt with by the dam must not be less than 2,000 cumec (cubic metre per second).
  • In the event of a violation, the bill imposes severe penalties. 

Key Issues and Analysis

  • The bill includes all dams in the country that meet certain criteria. Dams on both interstate and intrastate rivers are included. States can adopt laws on water, including its storage and water power, according to the Constitution. However, if it finds it necessary in the public interest, the Parliament may control and develop inter-state river valleys. The issue is whether Parliament has the authority to regulate dams on rivers that run wholly inside a state’s borders.
  • The National Committee on Dam Safety, the National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA), and the State Committee on Dam Safety have their tasks outlined in the Bill’s Schedules. However, the government can change these Schedules by issuing a notification. The question is whether basic authority functions should be changed by a notification or through legislation enacted by Parliament.

Future Prospect

Dam construction has unacceptably high social and environmental costs, including the submergence of large tracts of agricultural farmland and the displacement of people, particularly vulnerable communities like the Adivasis, resulting in conflicts and project delays.

  • The government is running out of land for new major dam building, and there have been significant schedule delays and cost increases in the development of large and medium dam projects.
  • The influence of dam building on river flows has come under increased scrutiny as river rejuvenation has become a rising national priority. Older dams too present significant safety risks, cost more to maintain, and have decreased functioning owing to sedimentation, and climate change is thought to hasten dam ageing.
  • According to a report, 2025 will be a major year for India since more than 1,000 dams would be 50 years old. By 2025, approximately 1,115 big dams will be 50 years old, according to the estimate. By 2050, nearly 4,250 big dams will have reached the age of 50, with 64 of them reaching the age of 150.[iii]
  • The most challenging part of ensuring dam safety, according to experts, is responsibility and openness in operations. According to them, we need management committees for each dam, where totally independent voices from specialists outside of governmental bodies, as well as those representing vulnerable downstream populations, will have a voice in the dam safety policy narrative.
  • Experts say this because every river in India has several dams along its path, and only a comprehensive study of each upstream and downstream dam can assure dam safety in terms of operations.
  • As a result, it is recommended that India do a cost-benefit evaluation of its ageing dams, as well as timely safety assessments, to maintain their functional and ecological safety, as well as the protection of people who live downstream.
  • The previous emphasis on building more and larger dams has to shift now, with the focus shifting to improved water management and distribution.

Let us hope that the government considers the opinions made by the government-appointed committee, as well as the views voiced by other experts, and gives them serious consideration, and takes steps to address them within a reasonable timeframe.


Man has been building dams and reservoirs since the dawn of civilization in order to store extra river water accessible during wet years and to use it during dry ones. Water is thus more than just a commodity, and dam safety is a major concern in the face of climate change.

The recent collapse of the Annamayya Dam in Andhra Pradesh and the Tiware Dam in Maharashtra are wake-up calls for the country, which has suffered 40 dam disasters till date. The Union and State governments have been working on a multi-crore dam repair and enhancement project with the help of the World Bank since 2012.

The number of dams is expected to rise in the future years as India builds additional dams to fulfil its expanding energy and water demands. However, when dams are built, they put downstream regions at danger of catastrophic floods in case the dam breaks or if water has to be released in an emergency. To mitigate this risk, risk-based decision-making methods must be used to make policies while simultaneously implementing and managing them.

Earlier, there was no legal necessity to undertake a consequence analysis to assess the possible loss of lives and property, as well as the economic harm, if a dam fails. Dam design regulations now in place are predicated on the heights and storage capacity of dams rather than the risk they pose. In addition, there was no centralized mechanism for documenting and reporting actual dam collapses, which form an important part of dam risk reduction, up until this Bill.

Therefore, the Bill provides for putting in place mechanisms for performing frequent dam break studies, reporting dam collapse incidents on a regular basis, and making such data readily available to the public is a critical prerequisite for the creation of risk-based decision-making systems to minimize dam risk.

While long-pending conflicts emerge in a nation like India, where most dams are constructed, managed, maintained, and owned by state governments, the impact of the Act remains to be seen. The Presidential approval to the Dam Safety Bill now remains the centre of attention.


Jalaj Tokas is a second Year Law student pursuing B.A.LLB from University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU, New Delhi. He is a life-long learner is self driven towards his ambitions. He strongly believes that expectations are premeditated disappointments and strives not just to be successful but more importantly to be of value.

Edited by: Aashima Kakkar, Associate Editor, Law Insider


To read the Bill:

[i] Central Water Commission, Central Dam Safety Organization, “National Register of Large Dams-2019” Government of India, June 2019 (last visited on December 9, 2021).

[ii] Alaknanda Hydropower Co. Ltd. Vs Anuj Joshi, (2014) 1 SCC 769.

[iii] Perera D., Smakhtin V., Williams S., North T., Curry A., “Ageing Water Storage Infrastructure: An Emerging Global Risk”, UNU-INWEH Report Series, Issue 11, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Hamilton, Canada, 2021 (last visited on December 9, 2021).

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