[Burning Issue] Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017

Highlights of the Bill

  1. Dispute Resolution Cmtee (DRC) will try to settle disputes through negotiations within 1 yr, extendable by another 6 months
  2. If the negotiations fail after 18 months (1yr + 6 mths) the dispute will be referred to the Tribunal
  3. Members of DRC will comprise relevant subject matter experts as decided by the centre
  4. The Tribunal
  • the Bill proposes a single permanent Tribunal with multiple benches
  • all the existing tribunals will be merged into it
  • each dispute has to be solved within 4.5 yrs
  • appeal agains the tribunal’s verdict is not allowed. The decision is final and binding.

For each river basin (at the national level) a dedicated agency will be established by the centre for data collection.

The system at present (ISWDA, 1956)

  1. A new tribunal has to be formed each time a state approaches the centre with the request and the latter is convinced.
  2. 8 such Tribunals have been formed till date.
  3. The Judiciary does not have jurisdiction over such disputes. It can, however, interpret verdicts of tribunals
  4. The system has had some successes especially with the 1st gen Tribunals (Krishna, Narmada and Godavari)
  5. But in general, the system has struggled to offer equitable awards.
  • Out of the 8, only 3 tribunals'(Krishna, Narmada and Godavari) awards have been accepted by the states.
  • Tribunals like Cauvery and Ravi-Beas have been in existence for over 26 and 30 years respectively without any award.

Problems with ISWDA, 1956

  1. Protracted proceedings and extreme delays in dispute resolution

Reasons for delays

  • no time limit for adjudication by a Tribunal
  • no upper age limit for the Chairman or the Members
  • work getting stalled due to the occurrence of any vacancy, and
  • no time limit for publishing the report of the Tribunal
  • politicization of the issue compounds the problem

eg. recent eruption of Cauvery dispute as an identity issue b/w Tamils and Kannadigas

  • Opacity in institutional framework and guidelines
  1. procedural complexities + India’s messy federal polity (Water – state list ; Regulation and dvpt of inter-state rivers – union list) = muddled adjudication
  • The tribunals have largely failed in ensuring compliance of verdicts, especially in the coalition era.

eg. Punjab refused to accept the Ravi-Beas Tribunal’s verdict

  1. An absence of authoritative water data makes adjudication difficult.

The new system (2017 Bill) vs. The existing system (1956 Act)

  • Will address problem 1 (of Delays (see above)) as
  • the Bill proposes defined timelines and qualifications for members, and
  • obviates the need for notification of the award in official gazette by the centre
  • Will NOT address the problem – of Opacity – because of procedural complexities
  • the DRC’s functions sound similar to the current techno-legal procedures of Tribunals
  • India’s messy federal polity will continue to haunt satisfactory resolution
  • as the Bill continues with the extant constitutional arrangement on ‘Water’
  • Will NOT address problem 3 – of Compliance – as
  • today, inter-state water disputes are no longer just about water allocation, public opinion matters too.
  • the Bill lacks a transparent and robust institutional framework to secure public opinion and ensure quick implementation
  • About problem 4 – related to establishment of a data bank and information system
    1. despite a similar provision in the extant law, tenuous centre-state relations have obscured success.
    2. the challenge is not about gathering data and information but more about consensus over the gathered data.
    3. moreover, the capacity to process this data to deliver ‘knowledge’ that could fasten adjudication remains elusive

Way forward

  • Collaborative, not competitive approach to water disputes
    1. states should be sensitive to each others’ needs
    2. the govt must bring in a comprehensive legislation in place of the River Boards Act, 1956
  • Implementation / Compliance
    1. set up a transparent and robust institutional framework
    2. the SC should restrain itself in accepting the inevitable “Spl Leave Petitions” against the Tribunal’s award
  • Put ‘Water’ in the concurrent list to avoid legal complexities
  • Improve awareness about rising water stress.
  • Adopt a participatory approach (involve the public) to improve water use-efficiency.
  • Incentivize sustainable use of water, especially in agriculture and industry.
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