Beas river tragedy: Central, state governments must address the issue of dam safety, ongoing construction of dams across India

Beas river
Beas river

In the following commentary on the recent incident involving the death of 25 Hyderabad-based students, who were swept away because of the sudden release of water from the Laarji Dam on Beas River in Himachal Pradesh, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), which is the apex body of tens of rights-based voluntary organisations across India, has said the tragedy should be seen larger in the larger context dam safety in India:

The unfortunate death of 25 students in the flash flood in the river Beas caused by sudden release of water from the 120 MW Laarji Hydropower project (click HERE to read) has once again brought in focus the question of dam safety in the country. However, it is not yet clear on what prompted the sudden opening of the dam gates; one can assume it must be rains in the higher altitude. But this is not new. Incidents like this keep happening, and our system of managing dam gates, water release, warning systems, upkeep of dam and so on continue to be neglected and unplanned in the absence of monitoring from Central Water Commission (CWC) or the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

This incident reminds us of the flash floods in Uttarakhand in 2012 and 2013, which claimed countless lives. While whenever incidents like this happen there is an attempt to portray them as natural disasters, as with Uttarakhand floods, the role of unbridled constructions, dams, deforestation and other measures creating such situations is not discussed. Monsoons are approaching and one can only pray that nothing like last year will be repeated, given that we refuse to learn and implement lessons thrown up by these disasters.

Till date, more than 4,500 dams have been constructed in India, out of which approximately 4,000 are operational, and roughly 400 new dams are coming up. A fair number of India’s dams are over 100 years old. A list compiled by the CWC shows at least 114 dams in this category. There are roughly 400 dams, which are 50-100 years old.

According to the Madhya Pradesh government, the state has 168 dams which can be called “distressed dams”, out of which 63 are less than 50 years old.  Since 1917, 29 dams have reportedly been damaged. Such breaches of dams have affected the lives and property of hundreds of people, and, the number of those killed and injured in such accidents has reached thousands.

In 1979 about 2,000 persons lost their lives when the Machhu II (in Gujarat) dam breached. Other dam failures in the country include Ashti Dam in Maharashtra (this dam gave way twice, first in 1883 and then in 1933), Tigra Dam in Madhya Pradesh (1970), Panchait Dam on Damodar river in Jharkhand in 1961, Kadakwasala Dam in Pune (Maharashtra) in 1961, Nanak Sagar Dam (Uttarakhand) in 1967, and Chikkahole Dam (Karnataka) in 1972.

The latest incident off the Laarji Dam has once again thrown up an opportunity for the Central and State governments to seriously address the issue of dam safety and ongoing construction of various dams in the country. The serious crisis at the door step of the Narmada Valley must be an opportunity for holistic review, not just from the angle of dam safety but from the wider perspective of costs and benefits of mega projects like the Sardar Sarovar.

With a population of 2.5 lakh in 245 thickly populated village communities in the submergence of a single dam (Sardar Sarovar Project), the valley with a cascade of mega and medium dams, is a disaster-in-waiting. With flawed backwater level surveys, imminent seismic risks, and unregulated release of water from upstream dams, the valley is facing a virtual death noose. The Union and state governments have a critical role to play – if human life, nature and the exchequer matter.

A draft Dam Safety Bill was worked out by the UPA government in 2010, on which the Parliamentary Standing Committee gave its report in June 2011. But it was never taken up after that. The Bill needs to be taken up again, though it needs to be changed to include these kinds of operational failures and also bring in independent monitoring and reporting at each stage. Today there is none.

We also need operational rules for each project in the monitoring of which downstream community representatives must have a role. Only then the existing dams will be safe and not act as death threat for downstream communities. Meanwhile, the government must ensure that concerned dam authorities face criminal and civil charges – criminal for deliberate murder, and civil for levying exemplary fines to be paid to the families of the deceased students.

Click HERE for the list of dams which have caused human tragedy

 

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