Single Tribunal for River Water Disputes
TOPIC: General Studies 2
- Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues and challenges pertaining to the federal structure, devolution of powers and finances up to local levels and challenges therein.
- Separation of powers between various organs dispute redressal mechanisms and institutions.
- Inter-State Water Dispute
In News: Aiming for a speedy resolution of interstate water disputes, the Union Cabinet approved a legislative proposal seeking to establish a single tribunal with mandate to award verdict within two years. The proposed tribunal could have benches in states.
The Bill seeks to amend the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956 to streamline the adjudication of inter-state river water disputes. A key feature of the bill is the constitution of a single tribunal with different Benches, and the setting of strict timelines for adjudication.
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.
Issues with the Inter State River Water Dispute Act, 1956
- Under the present Act, a separate Tribunal has to be established for each dispute. There are eight inter-state water dispute tribunals, including the Ravi and Beas Waters Tribunal and Krishna River Water Dispute Tribunal.
- Currently there is no time limit for adjudication or publication of reports.
- Only three of the eight tribunals have actually given awards accepted by the states.
- Tribunals like those on the Cauvery and Ravi Beas have been in existence for over 26 and 30 years respectively without any award.
- There is no upper age limit for the chairman or the members.
- The disputes’ resolution generally has not been effective- Disputes have recurred, there have been long delays in adjudication and States have not complied with verdicts of tribunals.
Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019
The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 for adjudication of disputes relating to water of inter-State rivers and river valley thereof would pave way for speedy resolutions of disputes.
Timeline & Dispute Resolution Committee
The single tribunal will have to award verdict in two years’ time. The Bill also proposes a Dispute Resolution Committee set up by the Central Government for amicably resolving inter-State water disputes within 18 months.
- Any dispute that cannot be settled by negotiations would be referred to the tribunal for its adjudication.
- The dispute so referred to the tribunal shall be assigned by the chairperson of the tribunal to a Bench of the tribunal for adjudication.
- The Bill can also affect the composition of the members of various tribunals, and has a provision to have a technical expert as the head of the tribunal. Currently all tribunals are staffed by members of the judiciary, nominated by the Chief Justice.
Need for a Single Tribunal
- This would replace multiple tribunals currently existing for a number of disputes.
- The single tribunal will subsume the existing nine tribunals. As of now, it takes between 17 and 27 years for a tribunal to resolve a dispute.
- The standalone tribunal so envisaged will have a permanent establishment and permanent office space and infrastructure so as to obviate with the need to set up a separate Tribunal for each water dispute, a time consuming process.
- How does the bill propose to address the challenge of implementing the tribunal’s awards?
The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal Award, given in 2007, lamented about legal ambiguities which prevented it from recommending an institutional mechanism to implement its award. These ambiguities will persist even after the amendments. The power to devise such mechanisms is with the Centre. But the government is ill-equipped to offer competent and resilient mechanisms. The River Boards Act, 1956, the most potent law available for the purpose — drawn under Entry 56 of the Union List for regulating and developing interstate rivers — has become a dead letter.
Conflicts arise when the instruments and institutions for cooperation fail. The government will do well to bring in a comprehensive legislation in place of the River Boards Act, 1956, to enable inter-state river water cooperation and collaboration.
- Absence of an effective implementation mechanism.
Even though the ISRWDT is a permanent avenue, there is nothing that prevents the inevitable escalation of disputes. Often, states defy tribunals’ directives and disregarding awards? The bill offers little to check these tendencies. The Supreme Court, too, has been amenable to Special Leave Petitions which then lead to extended litigation in the apex court. All this defeats the basic purpose of the reforms — to expedite resolution of river water disputes.
Parliament has enacted two laws under Article 262
River Board Act, 1956: The purpose of this Act was to enable the Union Government to create Boards for Interstate Rivers and river valleys in consultation with State Governments. The objective of Boards is to advise on the inter-state basin to prepare development scheme and to prevent the emergence of conflicts.
Note: Till date, no river board as per above Act has been created.
Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956: It provides the legal framework to address inter-sate water disputes. In case, if a particular state or states approach to Union Government for the constitution of the tribunal, Central Government should try to resolve the matter by consultation among the aggrieved states. In case, if it does not work, then it may constitute the tribunal. The Supreme Court and other courts do not have jurisdiction over such disputes — they can interpret verdicts of tribunals.
Connecting the Dots:
- Can the setting up of a single tribunal help in resolving river water sharing issues? Discuss.
- Inter-state river water disputes have remained a contentious issue post-independence. Can you suggest few measures to address those?