Among the most contentious issues in Indian Federalism today are Interstate Water Disputes.
The Cauveri Water Dispute and Sutluj Yamuna Link Canal are examples of some of the most hotly contested water disputes.
Several Interstate Water Dispute Tribunals have been constituted till date, however, they have not fully served their purpose.
Entry 56 of Union List empowers the Union Government to regulate and develop inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent declared by Parliament to be expedient in the public interest.
Entry 17 of State List empowers the state to make laws with respect to water, i.e., water supply, irrigation, canal, drainage, embankments, water storage and water power.
According to Article 262, in case of disputes relating to waters:
Parliament may, by law, provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or in, any inter-state river or river valley.
Parliament may, by law provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute or complaint as mentioned above.
Some of the major interstate water disputes along with the rivers concerned are listed below:
Mechanism for Inter-State River Water Disputes Resolution
Resolution of water disputes is governed by the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, enacted in accordance with the provisions of Article 262.
According to the Act, if a State Government makes a request regarding a water dispute and the Central Government is satisfied that the dispute cannot be settled by way of negotiations, then a Water Disputes Tribunal is constituted for the adjudication of the dispute.
The Act was amended in 2002, to include the major recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. The amendments mandated:
A one-year time frame to set up the Water Disputes Tribunal; and
a three-year time frame for the tribunal to decide the disputed decision.
Current Affairs POI: The Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources lists 5 current interstate water disputes and tribunals that have been established to resolve the disputes. These are:
Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal;
Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal;
Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal;
Ravi and Beas Water Disputes Tribunal; and
Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal.
Issues with Interstate Water Dispute Tribunals
Prolonged proceedings with extreme delays in resolution of disputes:
In the Godavari water dispute, the request for a tribunal was made in 1962, but it was constituted only in 1968. Subsequently the award was passed in 1979 which was published in the Gazette in 1980.
The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, constituted in 1990, gave its final award 17 years later in 2007.
Lack of transparency in the institutional framework and guidelines that define proceedings;
No accountability or regulatory authority to ensure compliance;
Though award is final and beyond the jurisdiction of Courts, the right of states to approach the Supreme Court under Article 136 (Special Leave Petition) or under Article 32 linking issue with the violation of Article 21 (Right to Life) remains available.
Composition of the tribunal is limited to persons from the judiciary and does not include multidisciplinary experts;
Lack of authoritative and undisputed water data poses problems in setting up a baseline for adjudication.
Shift in the tribunal’s approach to adversarial from deliberative results in extended litigation and politicisation of disputes which in turn has led to these disputes being turned into turfs for vote-bank politics.
The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 25, 2019 (and passed on July 31, 2019), in order to amend the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.
The Bill seeks to replace the existing mechanism where the Central government sets up a water disputes tribunal if it is satisfied that a dispute cannot be settled through negotiations.
Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC):
Under the Bill, upon the request of a state regarding a water dispute, the central government shall set up a DRC, comprising of a Chairperson and experts with at least 15 years of experience in relevant sectors, nominated by the central government as well as one member from each state (at Joint Secretary level), who are party to the dispute, to be nominated by the concerned state government.
The DRC will seek to resolve the dispute through negotiations, within one year (extendable by six months), and submit its report to the central government. In case of failure to reach resolution, the central government will refer the dispute to the Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal. Such referral must be made within three months from the receipt of the report from the DRC.
Tribunal: The central government will set up a Single Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal, for the adjudication of water disputes with multiple benches. All existing Tribunals shall be dissolved, and the pending water disputes shall be transferred to the new Tribunal.
Composition of the Tribunal:
3 judicial members, and
3 expert members,
appointed by the central government on the recommendation of a Selection Committee. Each Bench will consist of a Chairperson or Vice-Chairperson, a judicial member, and an expert member.
The central government may also appoint 2 experts serving in the Central Water Engineering Service as assessors to advise the Bench in its proceedings, from states different from the states which are parties to the dispute.
The Tribunal would be required to give its decision on the dispute within 2 years, which may be extended by another year.
In the event of a re-referral of a dispute, the Tribunal must submit its report to the Central Government with 1 year, that may be extended up to a maximum of 6 months.
Decision of the Tribunal:
The Bill removes the requirement of publication of the decision of the Tribunal in the Gazette and adds that the decision of the Bench of the Tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute. Further, the bill makes it mandatory for the central government to implement a scheme for effecting the decision of the Tribunal.
The Centre’s proposal to set up a single, permanent tribunal to adjudicate on inter-state river water disputes could be a major step towards streamlining the dispute redressal mechanism.
Centre’s proposal to set up an agency alongside the tribunal, that will collect and process data on river waters can be a right step to solve other problems related to river water disputes.
It is important that water sharing disputes must be resolved by dialogue and talks and political opportunism must be avoided.
A robust and transparent institutional framework with cooperative approach is need of the hour.