River Interlinking

In news: Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: IRWD Act

Mains level: Interstate river water disputes

Karnataka CM has said irrigation projects are bogged down by river water sharing disputes and asked the Centre to ‘revisit the Inter-State River Water Disputes (IWRD) Act since the law is creating more disputes than resolving them’.

About IWRD Act

  • The IWRD Act, 1956 aims to resolve the water disputes that would arise in the use, control and distribution of an interstate river or river valley.
  • Article 262 of the Indian Constitution provides a role for the Central government in adjudicating conflicts surrounding inter-state rivers that arise among the state/regional governments.
  • This act is confined to states of India and not applicable to union territories.
  • Only concerned state governments are entitled to participate in the tribunal adjudication and non-government entities are not permitted.

Jurisdictions over Rivers

  • River waters use / harnessing is included in states jurisdiction.
  • However, Union government can make laws on regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys to the extent such water resources are directly under its control when expedient in the public interest.
  • When union government wants to take over a interstate river project under its control by law, it has to take approval of the riparian states’ legislature assemblies before passing such bill in the Parliament per Article 252 of the constitution.
  • When public interest is served, President may also establish an interstate council as per Article 263 to inquire and recommend on the dispute that has arisen between the states of India.

Resolution of disputes

  • Dispute resolution is a layered process, as mandated by the ISWD Act.
  • After receiving a complaint from a state, the Union government first tries to mediate. It is only when negotiations fail that the Centre is required to form a tribunal to adjudicate the dispute.
  • If a State Government makes a request regarding any water dispute and the Central Government is of opinion that the water dispute cannot be settled by negotiations, then a Tribunal is constituted.

Constitution of Tribunal

  • Whenever the riparian states are not able to reach amicable agreements on their own in sharing of an interstate river waters, section 4 of IRWD Act provides for a Tribunal.
  • The tribunal shall not only adjudicate but also investigate the matters referred to it by the central government and forward a report setting out the facts with its decisions.
  • The tribunal responsibility is not limited to adjudication of issues raised by the concerned states and but investigation of other aspects such as water pollution, water quality deterioration, flood control etc.

Time-frame for dispute resolution

  • The tribunals have been allotted three years to arrive at a final decision, extendable by two years.
  • The 2002 Amendment to the ISWD Act specified a one-year limit on the timeline allowed to carry out the process of dispute resolution.

Active tribunals in India

  • Ravi & Beas Water Tribunal (1986) – Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan
  • Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal II (2004) – Karnataka, Telangana, Andra Pradesh, Maharashtra
  • Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal (2010) – Goa,Karnataka, Maharashtra
  • Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal (2010) – Andra Pradesh & Odisha
  • Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal (2018) – Odisha & Chattisgarh

Need for the IWRD Act

  • Major inter-state river basins: India has 25 major river basins, with most rivers flowing across states.
  • Equitable distribution of water: As river basins are shared resources, a coordinated approach between the states is necessary for the preservation, equitable distribution and sustainable utilization of river water.
  • Hydro-politics: Much recently, interstate rivers in India have become sites of contestations, fuelled by conflicting perceptions of property rights, flawed economic instruments for food security.
  • Sustainability: This has led to a lack of an integrated ecosystems approach, and the prevalence of reductionist hydrology for water resource development.

Issues with IRWD Act

  • Centre’s dilemma: Since river water falls within the ambit of State Subjects, its governance remains confined to the limits of the state political discourse.
  • Interference of Judiciary: The apex court has limited the role of the tribunals to quantification and allocation of water between riparian states, and its own role is to be an interpreter of the awards and agreements.
  • Colonial award: The history of colonial rule has led to the creation of asymmetries between states, and the present water disputes stem from the reproduction of this imperial and colonial power relation.
  • Structural issues: Various operational characteristics of the tribunals as problematic, since they do not adhere to any established system.
  • Operational issues: For instance, the sittings are not routine, the functioning is outside the regular court system, and day-to-day or week-to-week hearings are few and far in between.

Why this has become a sensitive topic?

  • Associated ethnicity: At the state level, river water is politically perceived as part of the larger issue of “regional sharing of resources,” which is linked with the ethnic and cultural identity of the state and its people.
  • Matter of autonomy: The political narrative around river disputes is subsumed within the question of regional rights, and any possibility of water sharing is seen as a compromise or infringement on the regional autonomy of a state.
  • Identity politics: Hence, the political narrative around the river disputes jumps to a larger scale of identity politics.

Way forward

  • For such dispute resolution, all other recourses such as mediation and conciliation must remain viable options.
  • These should operate simultaneously along with adjudication and political consensus among the riparian states.
  • Directly approaching the Supreme Court may result in adversarial outcomes, with the conflict reaching a point of no return.


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