Insights into Editorial: Addressing India’s water dispute problem
The Centre has decided to set up a single, permanent Tribunal to adjudicate all inter-state river water disputes subsuming existing tribunals, a step which is aimed at resolving grievances of states in a speedy manner. Besides the Tribunal, the government has also proposed to float some benches by amending the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 to look into disputes as and when required. Unlike the Tribunal, the benches will cease to exist once the disputes are resolved.
- The proposed amendment to the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act of 1956 talks of benches under the permanent tribunal that will look into specific disputes.
- It also provides for setting up of a dispute resolution committee, comprising experts and policy-makers, every time a clash crops up—the committee must try and resolve river-water sharing fights before these are taken to the tribunal.
- The plan to put a 3-year deadline for delivering a verdict is also appealing given how long disputes last.
- In order to give more teeth to the Tribunal, it is proposed that whenever it gives order, the verdict gets notified automatically. Until now, the government required to notify the awards, causing delay in its implementation.
How are disputes adjudicated presently?
As per the current provisions of the 1956 Act, a tribunal can be formed after a state government approaches Union Government with such request and the Centre is convinced of the need to form the tribunal.
- Eight such tribunals exist now. After they have heard the matter and awarded their decisions, the tribunals are allowed to collapse.
- This system has had some successes, especially with the first generation of tribunals set up soon after independence—to adjudicate on the Krishna, Narmada and Godavari rivers.
Problems with the present system:
- The present system has struggled to bring warring parties on the same page and offer equitable solutions.
- It has led to protracted proceedings and extreme delays in dispute resolution. Under the present system, the Centre takes years to decide whether a matter needs to be heard by a tribunal in the first place. Also, after the tribunal has been formed, it again takes many years to pronounce its award.
- Another reason for delay is the requirement that the Centre notify the order of the tribunal to bring it into effect.
- Opacity in the institutional framework and guidelines that define these proceedings have also added to the problem. Besides, ensuring compliance is another problem.
- The absence of authoritative water data that is acceptable to all parties also makes it difficult to even set up a baseline for adjudication.
- Besides, India’s messy federal polity and its colonial legacy have set the stage for n-compliance wherein state governments have sometimes rejected tribunal awards. For example, the Punjab government played truant in the case of the Ravi-Beas tribunal. It should be noted here that water is a state subject but the “regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys in the public interest” is on the Union list.
- The courts have also often been ignored, including the Supreme Court, which importantly only has very limited jurisdiction over the tribunals, as per the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956. This has its roots in the Government of India Act, 1935 which mandated separate tribunals and limited the jurisdiction of the federal court.
What’s good about the proposed permanent tribunal:
Since water-sharing disputes are only going to rise, and the existing mechanisms of setting up tribunals for each case are clearly not working, the government’s plan to set up a permanent, over-arching tribunal to adjudicate all such fights looks appealing.
There will be an expert agency to collect data on rainfall, irrigation and surface water flows. This acquires importance because party-States have a tendency to fiercely question data provided by the other side. A permanent forum having reliable data in its hands sounds like an ideal mechanism to apportion water.
Challenges before the tribunal:
The Cabinet’s proposal to have a permanent tribunal that will subsume existing tribunals is expected to provide for speedier adjudication. But whether this will resolve the problem of protracted proceedings is doubtful. Given the number of ongoing inter-State disputes and those likely to arise in future, it may be difficult for a single institution with a former Supreme Court judge as its chairperson to give its ruling within three years. Secondly, its interlocutory orders as well as final award are likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court.
The idea of a Dispute Resolution Committee, an expert body that will seek to resolve inter-State differences before a tribunal is approached, may also prove to be another disincentive for needless litigation.
Why is the new move being criticised?
According to few experts, the Centre’s efforts to set up a single, permanent tribunal to adjudicate inter-state water disputes will undermine the principles of federalism and will make things more complicated instead of resolving them. It is because Centralised tribunal would not yield the desired results and would only further delay the implementation of final awards of existing tribunals.
Water management experts say this could cause long legal battles. It may also result in an enormous legal battle.
Today, inter-state water disputes are no longer just about water allocation. They have become hugely politicized—the recent eruption of the Cauvery dispute, framed as an ethnic identity issue between Tamilians and Kannadigas, which led to widespread civil unrest, is only the most recent example. Public opinion is an important factor that cannot be wished away. The Central government must keep these factors in mind when setting up the proposed tribunal. A robust institutional framework—and a transparent one to ease state and public buy-in—is a must. Without that cooperative approach, India’s water dispute resolution is unlikely to see much improvement.
Also, water disputes have humanitarian dimensions, including agrarian problems worsened by drought and monsoon failures. Adjudication, by whatever mechanism, should not be at the mercy of partisan leaders who turn claims into dangerously emotive issues. Institutional mechanisms should be backed by the political will to make them work.
The Centre’s proposal to set up a single, permanent tribunal, subsuming all existing ad hoc tribunals, to adjudicate on inter-state river water disputes could be a major step towards streamlining the dispute redressal mechanism. But it alone will not be able to address the different kinds of problems—legal, administrative, constitutional and political—that plague the overall framework. A comprehensive policy and relook is the need of the hour.