• India has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% of its renewable water resources. There is uneven water distribution in the country and states are frequently at loggerheads over the distribution of rivers in the country. These are the major rivers in India
  • The Inter-State River Water Disputes are one of the most contentious issues in the Indian federalism today.
  • The recent cases of the Cauvery Water Dispute and the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal are some examples.
  • Various Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunals have been constituted so far, but they had their own problems.

Water in the Constitution of India

Water is a State subject as per entry 17 of the State List and thus states are empowered to enact legislation on water.

  • Entry 17 of State List deals with water i.e. water supply, irrigation, canal, drainage, embankments, water storage and water power.
  • Entry 56 of Union List empowers the Union Government for the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent declared by Parliament to be expedient in the public interest.
  • 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.

Parliament has enacted two laws according to Article 262:

  • 1) River Board Act, 1956
    • The purpose of this Act was to enable the Union Government to create Boards for Interstate
      Rivers and river valleys in consultation with State Governments.
      The objective of Boards is to
      advise on the inter-state basin to prepare development schemes and to prevent the emergence of
      conflicts.
      • Note: Till date, no river board as per the above Act has been created.
  • 2) Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956
    • Provisions of the Act: In case, if a particular state or states approach to Union Government for the constitution of the tribunal:
      • Central Government should try to resolve the matter by consultation among the aggrieved states.
      • In case, if it does not work, then it may constitute the tribunal.
    • Note: Supreme Court shall not question the Award or formula given by tribunal but it can question the working of the tribunal.

The composition of the River Water Tribunal

  • Tribunal is constituted by the Chief Justice of India and it consists of the sitting judge of the Supreme Court and the other two judges who can be from the Supreme Court or High Court.

The Present Mechanism to resolve the inter-state river water disputes in India

  • Thus it can be seen that – the resolution of water dispute is governed by the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956.
  • According to its provisions, if a State Government makes a request regarding any water dispute and the Central Government is of opinion that the water dispute cannot be settled by negotiations, then a Water Disputes Tribunal is constituted for the adjudication of the water 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 setup the water disputes tribunal and also a 3 year time frame to give a decision.

Major Inter-State River Disputes

River (s)States
Ravi and BeasPunjab, Haryana, Rajasthan
NarmadaMadhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan
KrishnaMaharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana
VamsadharaAndhra Pradesh & Odisha
CauveryKerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry
GodavariMaharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha
MahanadiChhattisgarh, Odisha
MahadayiGoa, Maharashtra, Karnataka
PeriyarTamil Nadu, Kerala
inter state water disputes UPSC

River Water Disputes Tribunals History

  • The very first inter-state water disputes tribunal was the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal formed in 1969. The states involved were Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
  • It was chaired by R.S. Bachawat and it gave its verdict in 1973.
  • However, decades later, the concerned states wanted a review and the second Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal was formed in 2004. It gave a verdict in 2010 which was reexamined on the behest of Andhra Pradesh.
  • Meanwhile, when Telangana was formed, it also became the fourth party to the dispute. This case is pending in the Supreme Court.

Active River Water Dispute Tribunals in India

  • Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal II (2004) – Karnataka, Telangana, Andra Pradesh, Maharashtra
  • Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal (2018) – Odisha & Chattisgarh
  • Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal (2010) – Goa,Karnataka, Maharashtra
  • Ravi & Beas Water Tribunal (1986) – Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan
  • Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal (2010) – Andra Pradesh & Odisha.

Issues with Interstate Water Dispute Tribunals

  • Protracted proceedings and extreme delays in dispute resolution.
    • For example, in the case of Godavari water dispute, the request was made in 1962, but the tribunal was constituted in 1968 and the award was given in 1979 which was published in the Gazette in 1980.
    • The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, constituted in 1990, gave its final award in 2007.
  • Opacity in the institutional framework and guidelines that define these proceedings; and ensuring compliance.
  • Though award is final and beyond the jurisdiction of Courts, either States can approach Supreme Court under Article 136 (Special Leave Petition) under Article 32 linking issue with the violation of Article 21 (Right to Life).
  • The composition of the tribunal is not multidisciplinary and it consists of persons only from the judiciary.
  • The absence of authoritative water data that is acceptable to all parties currently makes it difficult to even set up a baseline for adjudication.
  • The shift in tribunals’ approach, from deliberative to adversarial, aids extended litigation and politicisation of water-sharing disputes.
  • The growing nexus between water and politics have transformed the disputes into turfs of vote bank politics.
    • This politicisation has also led to increasing defiance by states, extended litigations and subversion of resolution mechanisms.
    • For example, the Punjab government played truant in the case of the Ravi-Beas tribunal.
  • Too much discretion at too many stages of the process.
    • Partly because of procedural complexities involving multiple stakeholders across governments and agencies.
    • India’s complicated federal polity and its colonial legacy.

Amendment to the 1956 Act in 2002

  • Delays in the settlement and execution of the resolutions have been problems with the tribunal method of dispute resolution.
  • An amendment was enacted to the Inter-State Water Disputes Act in 2002 which brought about a few changes such as:
    • The tribunal has to be constituted within one year of the request.
    • The tribunal should give the award within 3 years and in some exceptional cases, within 5 years.
    • If the award is not immediately implemented, the concerned parties can seek clarification within three months.
    • The tribunal award will have the same force as an order or decree of the Supreme Court. The award is final and above the SC’s jurisdiction.
      1. However, the states could still approach SC through Article 136 (Special Leave Petition)
      2. Private persons could approach the SC under violation of Article 21 (Right to Life).

The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017

  • In order to further streamline the adjudication of inter-State river water disputes, the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017 was introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2017 by amending the existing ISRWD Act, 1956.
  • The Bill envisages to constitute a standalone Tribunal with permanent establishment and permanent office space and infrastructure so as to obviate the need to set up a separate Tribunal for each water dispute which is invariably a time consuming process.
  • In the proposed Bill, there is a provision for establishment of a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) by the Central Government for resolving amicably, the inter-State water disputes within a maximum period of one year and six months.
  • Any dispute, which cannot be settled by negotiations shall be referred to the Tribunal for its adjudication.
  • The dispute so referred to the Tribunal shall be assigned by the Chairperson of the Tribunal to a Bench of the Tribunal for adjudication.
  • Under the Bill, the requirement of publication of the final decision of tribunal in the official gazette has been removed.
  • The Bill adds that the decision of the bench of the tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute
  • The Bill also calls for the transparent data collection system at the national level for each river basin and a single agency to maintain data bank and information system.
  • The proposed amendments in the Bill will speed up the adjudication of water disputes referred to it.
  • The Bill was referred to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources for examination.
  • The Standing Committee has submitted its recommendation on the Bill, accordingly, the Ministry has prepared draft Cabinet Note for Official Amendments to Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017.

Case Studies of recent Inter-State River Water Disputes in the news

Cauvery Water Dispute

  • Cauvery is an inter‐State basin having its origin Karnataka and flowing through Tamil Nadu and Puducherry before out falling in the Bay of Bengal. The states concerned are Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry (UT).
  • In 1892, there was an agreement between the princely state of Mysore and British province of Madras.
  • In 1924, a new agreement for 50 years i.e. till 1974.
  • In 1970, Tamil Nadu Government approached to Central Government to constitute the tribunal and also in the same year Tamil Nadu Farmers Association filed a civil suit in Supreme Court.
  • In 1986, Tamil Nadu again made a formal request to constitute the tribunal.
  • In 1990, the tribunal was set up on the directions of Supreme Court.
  • The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal passed an Interim order in 1991 directing the State of Karnataka to release Water from its reservoirs in Karnataka so as to ensure 205 Thousand Million Cubic Feet (TMC) of water into Mettur reservoir of Tamil Nadu in a water year (1st June to 31st May) with monthly and weekly stipulations. Karnataka government refused to obey the interim award.
  • After 16 years of hearing and an interim order, the Tribunal announced its final order in 2007 allocating 419 tmcft water to Tamil Nadu and 270 tmcft to Karnataka. Kerala was given 30 tmcft and Puducherry got 7 tmc ft. Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu filed review petitions in Supreme Court.
  • Karnataka has not accepted the order and refused to release the water to Tamil Nadu. In 2013, Contempt of Court was issued against Karnataka.
  • In 2016, a petition was filed in Supreme Court to seeking the release of water by Karnataka as per the guidelines of the tribunal. When Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release water, Kannada people protested the decision saying they do not have enough water.
  • The matter is still sub judice (under judicial consideration).

Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Issue

  • The issue links to the dispute between Punjab and Haryana after the formation of the Haryana in 1966. The parties involved are Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan.
  • To enable Haryana to use its share of the waters of the Satluj and Beas, a canal linking the Satluj with the Yamuna was planned and in 1982 its construction was started.
  • Due to the protest by Punjab, the tribunal was set up in 1986 which gave an award in 1987 recommending Punjab’s share as 5 Million Acre Feet (MAF) of water and Haryana’s as 3.83 MAF.
  • Punjab contested the award and held that the tribunal overestimated the availability of the water. Haryana approached Supreme Court for the construction of the SYL canal in 2002. Supreme Court directed Punjab to complete the construction of canal within 12 months.
  • In July 2004, Punjab Assembly passed Punjab Termination of Agreements Act scrapping water-sharing agreements with other states and thus jeopardising the construction of the canal. This Act has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2016 under President Advice (Article 143). In response, Punjab Assembly passed the Act according to which the land acquired for the canal would be denotified and returned to the original owners.
  • Supreme Court has directed both Punjab and Haryana to maintain status quo in the Sutlej Yamuna Link canal controversy.
  • In the recent hearing, Centre has offered as a mediator to both Punjab and Haryana.

Conclusion

  • India has 2.4% of the World’s land, 18% of the world population but only 4% of the renewable water resource. If sufficient steps are not taken, the uneven water distribution will increase the possibility of water conflicts.
  • 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.
  • However, this alone will not be able to address the different kinds of problems—legal, administrative, constitutional and political—that plague the overall framework.
  • 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 in this direction.
  • To strengthen the cooperative federalism, parochial mindset making regional issues superior to national issues should not be allowed.
  • So disputes must be resolved by dialogue and talks and the political opportunism must be avoided.
  • robust and transparent institutional framework with cooperative approach is need of the hour.
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