The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019

The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was proposed in Lok Sabha on July 25, 2019, by the Ministry of Jal Shakti. The bill amends the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. The Act provides for the arbitration of disputes relating to waters of inter-state rivers and river valleys. The Inter-State River Water Disputes are one of the most controversial issues in Indian federalism today. The recent cases of the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal and Cauvery Water Dispute are some examples.

The provision of the 2019-bill

  • Under this bill, a state government may appeal the central government to refer an inter-state river dispute to a Tribunal for adjudication. If the central government thinks that the dispute can’t be settled through negotiations, so it is needed to establish a Water Disputes Tribunal for adjudication of the dispute, within a year of receiving such a complaint. The Bill seeks to replace this mechanism.

  • Disputes Resolution Committee:
    When a state puts in a request regarding any water dispute, the central government will establish a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC), to resolve the dispute cordially. The DRC will consist of a Chairperson and experts with at least 15 years of experience in relevant sectors, to be designated by the central government. It will also include one member from each state (at Joint Secretary Level), who are party to the dispute, to be designated 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. If a dispute cannot be settled by the DRC, the central government will refer it to the Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal. Such a referral must be made within three months from the receipt of the report from the DRC.

  • Tribunal:
    The central government will constitute an Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal, for the adjudication of water disputes. This Tribunal can have multiple benches. All existing Tribunals will be dissolved, and the water disputes pending adjudication before such existing Tribunals will be transferred to the new Tribunal.

  • Composition of the Tribunal:
    The Tribunal will consist of a Vice-Chairperson, Chairperson, three expert members, and three judicial members. They will be nominated by the central government on the suggestion of a Selection Committee. Each Tribunal Bench will include a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, a judicial member, and an expert member. The central government may also nominate two experts serving in the Central Water Engineering Service as assessors to advise the Bench in its proceedings. The assessor should not be from the state which is a party to the dispute.

  • Time frames:
    The Tribunal must give its decision within three years, which may be prolonged by two years. Under the Bill, the proposed Tribunal must give its decision on the dispute within two years, which may be prolonged by another year.

  • Under the Act, if the matter is again referred to the Tribunal by a state for further consideration, the Tribunal must transfer its report to the central government within one year. This period can be extended by the central government. The Bill amends this to specify that such extension may be up to a maximum of six months.

  • Decision of the Tribunal:
    The decision of the Tribunal must be published by the central government in the official gazette. This decision has the same force as that of an order of the Supreme Court. The Bill eliminates the requirement of such publication. It adds that the decision of the Bench of the Tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute. The Act provided that the central government may make a scheme to give effect to the decision of the Tribunal. The Bill is making it mandatory for the central government to make such a scheme.

  • Data bank:
    The central government maintains a data bank and information system at the national level for each river basin, as per the Act. The Bill provides that the central government will appoint or authorize an agency to maintain such data bank.

The issues related to Interstate water disputes act-1956

  • Delays are on account of no time limit for adjudication by a Tribunal, no upper age limit for the Chairman or other Members, work getting stalled due to occurrence of any vacancy, and no time limit for publishing the report of the Tribunal.
  • groundwater by Central Ground Water Board of India (CGWB) and Surface water is controlled by Central Water Commission (CWC). Both bodies work in silos, so there is a need for a common platform for discussion b/w CWC, CGWB, and state government on water management and there is no common forum for common discussion with state governments on water management.
  • Instead of cooperation to solve water disputes cordially, different state indulge in regional politics and not wean away from the political party line, so this cause delay on a solution regarding water sharing. The River Boards act-1956 also failed to bring the disputed party on the same line.
  • The composition of the tribunal is not multidisciplinary and it consists of persons only from the judiciary. There is an absence of experts to handle technical issues.
  • murkiness in the institutional framework and guidelines that define these proceedings; and ensuring compliance.
  • The absence of authoritative water data that is acceptable to all parties presently makes it difficult to even set up a baseline for adjudication.

Constitutional provision with respect to sharing of interstate water

  • Water is a State subject
  • Centre is authorized to regulate and develop in the inter-state river
  • To enact laws related to water is a state government’s jurisdiction
  • Article 262 provided the provisions for the interstate water disputes
  • Parliament by law provide that neither Supreme court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect to any such disputes

The Centre’s proposal to establish a single, permanent tribunal to arbitrate on inter-state river water disputes could be a major move towards streamlining the dispute redressal mechanism. However, this alone will not be able to address the different kinds of problems—administrative, political, legal, and constitutional – that plague the overall framework. The Centre’s proposal to establish an agency alongside the tribunal that will gather and process data on river waters can be a right move in this direction. To strengthen cooperative federalism, a narrow mindset making regional issues superior to national issues should not be permitted. So disputes must be resolved by dialogue and talks, and political opportunism must be neglected. A robust and apparent institutional framework with a cooperative approach is need of the hour.