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Inter-State Water Disputes in India, Tribunals, Acts and Provisions

Interstate Water Disputes: India is densely populated, and maintaining harmonious relations is imperative for the nation. The inter-state water disputes can be challenging and worrisome for the nation, impacting and hampering the sustainable growth of the nation overall and creating discourse. There is a dire need to set up a single and permanent solution to combat issues like delays in water resource utilization, equitable water sharing, water shortages, cost overruns, and redressal of water disputes.

Inter-state Water Disputes in India

  • The Inter-State water disputes are quite debatable and controversial issues prevalent in Indian federalism. The inter-state water disputes hamper and obstruct the relationship between different states in the country.
  • As per facts and statistics, India has 4% of the world’s land and 18% of the world’s population, but only 4% of its renewable water resources.
  • There have been several long-standing inter-state river water disputes in India. There is uneven water distribution in the country, and states are in disputes over the distribution of rivers in the country.
  • There are several reasons for the existence of inter-state water disputes in India. The area of serious concern is the lack of adequate water resources in the states. Further, the attached controversy is that water resources fall under the State List and the Parliament has the power to make laws regarding inter-state rivers under the Union List, creating a conflict of final power.
  • To combat the situation, various inter-state water dispute tribunals have been constituted. However, they have failed to provide effective mechanisms.
  • Presently, inter-state water disputes are governed by the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956. The act enables the state governments to approach the center for a tribunal for the resolution of a water dispute, making the decision of the tribunal final.

Major Rivers in India

The list below includes names of major rivers in India:

Major Rivers in India
Rivers flowing into the Arabian Sea
Rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal

Examples of Inter-State Water Disputes in India

  • Cauvery Water Dispute between Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry.
  • Kaveri River water dispute between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Puducherry.
  • Krishna-Godavari Water dispute between Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.
  • Ravi-Beas Rivers Water dispute between Punjab and Haryana.
  • Godavari Water disputes between Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha.
  • Narmada Water disputes between Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan.

Reasons for Inter-State Water Disputes in India

  • India has an unequal distribution of water resources and water scarcity. States with water shortages and scarce resources frequently get into disputes to get their just share. An appropriate example is that the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have a dispute over the sharing of Cauvery River water due to water scarcity in their region.
  • Many inter-state water disputes are related to historical agreements and treaties that were formulated post-independence. The Ravi-Beas river dispute between Punjab and Haryana arose due to the construction of dams and canals after the reorganization of states in 1966.
  • Conflicts majorly arise as the states compete for their needs due to competing demands for water, including industrial use and agricultural irrigation. The Krishna River dispute between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh is regarding the allocation of water for irrigation and drinking purposes.
  • Water disputes in India are often influenced by political factors and considerations, including regional aspirations, electoral considerations, and states’ perceptions of their rights over water resources. For example, the sharing of Krishna River water between Karnataka and Maharashtra witnessed political considerations and protests from various stakeholders.
  • Infrastructural developments like the construction of dams and irrigation projects on rivers impact the flow of water downstream, leading to disputes over water allocation. For instance, in the Mahanadi River dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the construction of dams by Chhattisgarh resulted in reduced water flow to Odisha.

Constitutional Framework and Mechanisms for Inter-State River Water Disputes Resolution

Constitutional Frameworks

  • Water comes under the State List under Entry 17, which states can legislate with respect to rivers. The entry deals with water and related topics, like water supply, irrigation, canals, drainage, embankments, and water storage.
  • In the Union List, Entry 56 gives the Central government the power to regulate and develop inter-state rivers and river valleys if deemed necessary for the public interest.
  • In the Indian Constitution, Article 262 states that the Parliament, in cases of disputes relating to water, may 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. Further stating that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court should exercise jurisdiction over such disputes.

Constitutional Mechanisms

  • As per Article 262, the Parliament enacted the River Board Act, 1956 which empowered the government to establish boards for inter-state rivers and river valleys in consultation with state governments. However, no board has been established so far.
  • The Parliament enacted the Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956, which states that if a state government approaches the Centre for the constitution of a tribunal, the government may form a tribunal after trying to resolve the dispute through consultations. It aims to resolve the matter through consultation among states, and if unsuccessful, a tribunal can be constituted.
  • The tribunal under the Act 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 the High Court.
  • Further, the Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956 was amended in 2002 to include the major recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission, amending a one-year time frame to set up the water disputes tribunal and also a 3-year time frame to give a decision.

Present Mechanism for Inter-State Water Disputes in India

In India, the resolution of water disputes is governed by the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956. The act states that the state government can make a request regarding any water dispute to the central government. The Central Government, after viewing that the water dispute cannot be settled by negotiations, will constitute a Water Disputes Tribunal for the adjudication of the water dispute. The act was amended in 2002, mandating a one-year time frame to set up the water disputes tribunal and also a 3-year time frame to give a decision.

Inter-State Water Dispute Tribunals

The government, under the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 constituted quasi-judicial bodies, i.e., inter-state river water tribunals. The act aims for these tribunals to adjudicate and provide a binding decision on the allocation of water resources among the disputing states.

The Tribunal shall consist of a Chairman and two other members nominated by the Chief Justice of India from among persons who, at the time of such nomination, are judges of the Supreme Court or of a High Court. The Central Government may further, in consultation with the Tribunal, appoint two or more persons as assessors to advise the Tribunal in the proceedings before it.

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

The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017 was introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2017 by amending the existing Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.

The bill aims to constitute a single tribunal with a permanent establishment, office, and infrastructure to set up a separate tribunal for each water dispute, which is invariably a time-consuming process.

The proposed bill provides a provision for the establishment of a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) by the Central Government for resolving amicably inter-state water disputes within a maximum period of one year and six months.

Any dispute after the tries of negotiation settlement shall be referred to the Tribunal for its adjudication. The decision of the bench of the tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute.

The bill also provides for a transparent data collection system at the national level for each river basin and a single agency to maintain a data bank and information system.

The bill was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources for examination, which later submitted its recommendation on the bill, accordingly, the Ministry has prepared a draft Cabinet Note for Official Amendments to the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017.

Inter-State River Water Disputes Amendment Bill 2019

The Inter-state River Water Disputes Amendment Bill 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha and is pending approval in the Rajya Sabha. The bill seeks to amend the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956. The bill aims to replace the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. The main purpose of the bill is to make the process of dispute settlement more efficient and effective by setting up a permanent tribunal to adjudicate all inter-state disputes over the sharing of river waters. The bill suggests that the replacement of five existing tribunals with a permanent tribunal is likely to result in a 25% reduction in staff strength and a saving of Rs 4.27 crore per year.

Challenges and Issues with Inter-state Water Dispute Mechanism

  • Delays in the dispute redressal mechanism, which was also witnessed in the case of the Godavari and Cauvery disputes, faced long proceedings and extreme delays.
  • The tribunals lack multidisciplinary compositions, consist only of members from the judiciary, and do not focus on technical and ecological aspects.
  • The guidelines and framework that direct these proceedings often lack clarity, i.e., opacity in procedures.
  • There is data inconsistency and a lack of universally accepted water data, making it difficult to even set up a baseline for adjudication.
  • Political factors also increase the chances of water disputes between the states. The growing tensions between water and politics have transformed the disputes into political agendas for elections. 

Inter-State Water Disputes UPSC

India is vulnerable to water scarcity, which is an important topic of concern for the nation. For all the UPSC aspirants, it is advisable to go through the facts and relevance of the Inter-State water disputes to get the most basic and current information. This topic is frequently seen in the news, and it can be formed as a relevant question in UPSC Prelims and Mains.

Inter-State Water Disputes Conclusion

There is a dire need for a robust framework to address the recurring inter-state water disputes. If sufficient steps are not taken by the government, then the issue of uneven water distribution will increase the possibility of water conflicts. The government needs to streamline the dispute redressal mechanism and ensure swift resolutions. The center has come up with a proposal to set up tribunals and agencies to collect data on river waters, aiming to cater to the legal, administrative, constitutional, and political aspects attached to them.

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Which states are involved in the Mahadayi Water Dispute?

Karnataka, Goa & Maharashtra were involved in the Mahadayi Water Dispute.

What are Inter-state water disputes?

A conflict over water between two or more state Governments sharing water bodies or resources, disputes regarding fair share of consumption of water bodies is called Inter-state Water Dispute.

Which states are involved in the Mahanadi Water Disputes?

Chhattisgarh & Odisha were involved in the Mahanadi Water Disputes.

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