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            India has seen protracted river water sharing disputes in recent years. Depleting groundwater, drying rivers and increasing demand for water have led to long legal wrangles between warring states. But very soon, India might have a single national tribunal — the Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal — to arbitrate inter-state water disputes. Its recommendations will be binding on the competing parties. Over the years, there have been several tribunals hearing disputes between states on river water sharing, but they have not been effective in resolving disputes in a time-bound manner. While there are suggestions for reconsidering and reviewing the structuring and functioning of the tribunals, there is also a need to look for an alternative mechanism, based on environmental thinking, to resolve such disputes effectively, amicably and sustainably.



Provisions related to interstate river water disputes

  • 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.
  • Article 262: In the case of disputes relating to waters, it provides
    • Clause 1: 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.
    • Clause 2: 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:
    • River Board Act, 1956

The regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys was to be entrusted to various River Boards when this Act was adopted in 1956. The River Boards were designed to advise the central government on development opportunities, coordinate activities and resolve disputes. Under their mandate, the Boards were required to provide advice to the government on various issues related to rivers.

  • Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956

Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (IRWD Act) was enacted by the parliament of India under Article 262 of Constitution to resolve the water disputes that would arise in the use, control and distribution of an interstate river or river valley.


Some of the Inter-State Water Disputes and States Involved:

  1. Narmada Water Dispute- Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan
  2. Mahi River Dispute- Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh
  3. Ravi and Beas Water Dispute- Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi
  4. Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Dispute- Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan
  5. Yamuna River Water Dispute- Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.
  6. Karmnasa River Water Dispute- Uttar Pradesh and Bihar
  7. Barak River Water Dispute- Assam and Manipur
  8. Cauvery Water Dispute- Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka
  9. Krishna Water Dispute- Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh
  10. Tungabhadra Water Dispute- Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka
  11. Aliyar and Bhivani River Water Dispute- Tamil Nadu and Kerala
  12. Godavari River Water Dispute- Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh


Causes of Inter-State Water Dispute:

  1. Water is a finite resource and its demand has increased several times in agricultural, industrial and domestic sector than what is available at present as the country is growing and lifestyle is changing such as increased urbanization.
  2. The moment water is accumulated at a large scale, it gives rise to dispute where commissions come into play and this goes on. This is also more of a political issue because when these disputes are used as emotive issues, all parties jump in, several vested interest are created which leads to further problems like bandhs and strikes.
  3. There is a huge debate on development/growth versus environment as well. Problems are also related with the storage of water such as dams, using it for production of electricity etc which lead to disputes.
  4. There is an administrative system at present which is in conflict with what people want.


Inter-State River Water disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

The Bill seeks to amend the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956 with a view to streamline the adjudication of inter-state river water disputes and make the present institutional architecture robust.

 Features of the bill:

  1. Disputes Resolution Committee: The Bill requires the central government to set up a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC), for resolving any inter-state water dispute amicably. The DRC will get a period of one year, extendable by six months, to submit its report to the central government.
  2. Members of DRC: Members of the DRC will be from relevant fields, as deemed fit by the central government.
  3. Tribunal: The Bill proposes to set up an Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal, for adjudication of water disputes, if a dispute is not resolved through the DRC.  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 this newly formed tribunal.
  4. Composition of the Tribunal: The tribunal shall consist of a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, and not more than six nominated members (judges of the Supreme Court or of a High Court), nominated by the Chief Justice of India. 


Reasons for delay in resolving river water disputes:

  • The Inter State Water Dispute Act, 1956 which provides the legal framework to address such disputes suffers from many drawbacks as it does not fix any time limit for resolving river water disputes.
  • Under this Act, a separate Tribunal has to be established for each Inter State River Water Dispute.
  • Only three out of eight Tribunals have given awards accepted by the States, while Tribunals like Cauvery and Ravi Beas have been in existence for over 26 and 30 years respectively without any award.
  • Delays are on account of no time limit for adjudication by a Tribunal, no upper age limit for the Chairman or the Members, work getting stalled due to occurrence of any vacancy and no time limit for publishing the report of the Tribunal.
  • For instance, 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.
  • The River Boards Act 1956, which is supposed to facilitate inter-state collaboration over water resource development, remained a ‘dead letter’ since its enactment.
  • 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.
  • Surface water is controlled by Central Water Commission (CWC) and ground water by Central Ground Water Board of India (CGWB). Both bodies work independently and there is no common forum for common discussion with state governments on water management
  • 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.


Way forward:

  • The need to work at the basin level for which River Basin Organization should be created.
  • 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.
  • There should be cooperation and consensus among the states.
  • However, this alone will not be able to address the different kinds of problems—legal, administrative, constitutional and political—that plague the overall framework
  • Environment is a huge challenge in coming days on which increasing water needs and industrialization requirements to address it serious policy reforms should be done.
  • Centre’s proposal to set up an agency alongside the tribunal, which 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.
  • Awareness level between the states.
  • So disputes must be resolved by dialogue and talks and the political opportunism must be avoided.
  • A robust and transparent institutional framework with cooperative approach is need of the hour.



The bill is a step towards the cooperative federalism and will promote a prompt decision making in case of the various interstate water disputes. The solutions on water disputes will help in the socio economic development of stakeholder states. The implementation of the proposed steps in the bill in its true spirit will develop an integrated regime of river water utilisation.

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