Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019: Key Features

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Lok Sabha, in July this year, had passed Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in order to hasten the water disputes between the States. India occupies 2.4% of the World’s total land area and it consists of 18% of the world population with only 4% of the world’s renewable water resource. Furthermore, India’s water distribution is uneven – a situation favourable for an increase in the possibility of water-related conflicts. Due to these disputes, the local issues are prioritized of the superior issues of national importance. The sense of unity among the people of India is being jeopardized by these irksome issues. Thus, Inter-State Water Dispute (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is a need of the hour as existing Act as not addressing the issue with needed efficiency.

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What is the issue?

  • The interstate water disputes are one of the sensitive issues challenging India’s federalism.
  • It is the States’ dispute over sharing of the rivers.
  • Various measures have been taken so far by the government but they have not yielded the necessary solutions.
  • Some of the recent cases include the Cauvery water dispute and Satluj Yamuna link Canal.

What does the Indian constitution say about inter-state water sharing disputes?

  • According to the entry 17 of the State List, water is a State subject i.e., the water supply, irrigation, canal, drainage, embankments, water power and storage come under the jurisdiction of the States.
  • This means that the States governments have the power to enact laws related to water.
  • As per the entry 56 of the Union List, the Centre has the power to regulate and develop in the inter-state river and river valleys to the extent declared by the parliament in accordance to the public interest.
  • Article 262 of the Indian Constitution had provided the provisions for interstate water disputes.
  • According to Article 262:
  1. Parliament may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint concerning the use, distribution or control of the water of, or in, any inter-State rivers or river valley.
  2. Notwithstanding anything in this constitution, Parliament may, by law, provide that neither Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect to any such complaint or dispute.

What are the ways through which the states can resolve disputes related to water sharing?

In accordance with the previously mentioned provisions of Article 262 of the Constitution of India, two laws were enacted by the Parliament. They are as follows:

  • River Board Act, 1956: This Act was passed in the parliament to enable the Centre to create Boards to deal with interstate river and river valleys in consultation with the State Governments. These Boards aim to advise on the aspects related to the inter-state basin to prepare development schemes and to prevent the conflicts from arising. It should be noted that no river boards in accordance with this Act have been created till now.
  • Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956: This Act provides for the State/States to approach the Central Government to constitute the tribunal. As per the Act, the Union Government should try to resolve the dispute through negotiation with the concerned States. If it fails, the Centre may constitute a tribunal to deal with the matter. Also, the Supreme Court cannot question the awards or solutions given by the tribunal. However, it can question the functioning of the tribunals.
  • Composition of Tribunal: The river water tribunal is constituted by the Chief Justice of India. It consists of the sitting judge of the Supreme Court and other two judges of either the Supreme Court or the High Court.

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What is the Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956?

  • As already mentioned above, the Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956 provides for the dispute resolution mechanism with regards to river sharing between the States.
  • The States can approach the Central government so that it can refer to the tribunals.
  • These tribunals’ decisions are considered to be final.

What are the drawbacks of Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956?

  • There were delays in the setting-up of the tribunals.
  • For example, for the Godavari water dispute, the request for the tribunal was made in 1962. The tribunal was established in 1968 and the award was given in 1979 which was published in Gazette in 1980.
  • In the same way, for the Cauvery Water Dispute, the request was made in 1970. The Supreme Court had to intervene for the tribunal to be constituted in 1990.
  • Thus, due to these delays, the State governments are investing highly on the construction and modification of dams for strengthening their claims.
  • To resolve this issue, the Act was amended in 2002 to include some of the key recommendations given by the Sarkaria Commission.
  • The amendment mandated the tribunal to be constituted within a year after the request.
  • This amendment also called for the tribunals to give the awards within the maximum time frame of five years.
  • In the 2002 amended Act, it was clarified the power of the tribunal awards. They are equivalent to that of the order or decree of the SC. It is also beyond the jurisdiction of the apex court.
  • However, the 2002 amendment too had its limitations.
  • Though the award given by the tribunal is final and does not come under the jurisdiction of the judiciary, either the States can approach the SC under Article 136 (Special Leave Petition) or the individuals can approach the same under the Article 32 by associating the issue with violation of Article 21 (Right to Life).
  • Furthermore, the tribunal’s composition does not have anyone other than those from the judiciary. Therefore, there is nothing different about the Supreme Court Bench and the tribunal.
  • The functioning of the tribunal is longwinded because of the lack of standardized data regarding water sharing in India. This further complicates the existing disputes.
  • There is no transparency in the institutional framework and fixed procedures to define the proceedings for the tribunal.
  • The lengthy tribunal proceedings have allowed for the politicisation of the water-sharing disputes.
  • The growing relationship between water-sharing and vote-bank politics has further slowed down the tribunals’ long proceedings.
  • Due to the politicisation of the water disputes, there is an increase in non-cooperation from the disputing States.
  • The Ministry of Water Resources, Development and Ganga Rejuvenation had identified the major causes for the delays and long proceedings of the tribunals. They are as follows:
  1. No strict time limit for the adjudication as the Central Government kept extending the tenure of the tribunals indefinitely though the disputes are to be resolved within 5 years.
  2. There is no time limit for publishing the report of the tribunal.
  3. No upper limit for the retirement of the chairperson and other members of the tribunals.
  4. In case of any vacancy, the CJI is to nominate a person to fill the post. This caused considerable delays to the tribunal proceedings.
  5. Absence of data on river basins.
  • In order to address the above-mentioned drawbacks, Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on July this year by the Minister of Jal Shakti, Mr Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.

What are the proposed changes in the Inter-State Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019?

  • Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC):
  1. According to this bill, the State can put forth its request concerning any water dispute to the Central Government so that it can set up DRC to solve the issue affably.
  2. The DRC will consist of a Chairperson and experts on relevant sectors with at least 15 years of experience, nominated by the Union Government.
  3. It will also consist of one member from the concerned State. This member must be at Joint Secretary Level. She/he is to be nominated by the State government.
  4. The DRC will seek to resolve the issue through negotiations within one year. This period can be expanded to further 6 months.
  5. It is to submit its report to the Central Government.
  6. If the DRC cannot solve the issue through negotiations within the specific time, the Union Government will refer the dispute to the Inter-State Water Dispute Tribunal.
  7. This would be done within the 3 months after receiving the report from the DRC.
  • Inter-State River Water Dispute Tribunal:
  1. The Union Government will establish an Inter-State River Dispute Tribunal for resolving the water disputes within the nation.
  2. This tribunal can have several benches.
  3. All the existing tribunals will be dissolved and the pending cases of water disputes will come under the new tribunal. At present, there are 9 Tribunals including those on Cauvery, Mahadayi, Ravi and Beas, Vansadhara and Krishna Rivers.
  4. The tribunal will consist of a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, three judiciary members and three experts on related fields.
  5. These members will be appointed by the Centre as per the recommendation by a Selection Committee.
  6. Each tribunal bench will consist of a Chairperson or Vice-Chairperson, an expert and the judicial member.
  7. The Union Government may also appoint two experts serving under the Central Water Engineering Service as assessors to provide advice to the Bench on the proceedings. They must not be from the State that is a party of the dispute.
  • Time Frames:
  1. As per the Act, the Tribunal must give its final decision within 3 years which can be extended to 2 years. According to the bill, the tribunal must provide with the final decision within 2 years. This may be further extended to another year.
  2. Under the Act, if the State refers to the Tribunal for further consideration, the Tribunal must provide its report to the Centre within 1 year. This period can be extended by the Union Government. The Bill seeks to specify this time frame to a maximum limit of 6 months.
  • Tribunal’s Decision:
  1. The Act mandates the Union Government to publish the Tribunal’s decision in the Official Gazette. The Bill seeks to remove such publication. The amended bill also adds that the decision of the Bench will be final and binding on all parties involved in the dispute.
  2. The Act provides that the Central Government may make a scheme to enforce the Tribunal’s decision. The Bill is making it mandatory to make such a scheme.
  • Data:
  1. Under the existing Act, the Central Government maintains the data and information system on aspects related to each river basin at the national level.
  2. According to the proposed Bill, the Central Government will appoint or authorize an agency to maintain the data bank.

What is the way forward?

  • The river water sharing disputes is a major threat to the cooperative federalism – the vital tool for the smooth functioning of the Indian government.
  • The Union Government’s proposal for a single, permanent tribunal to deal with various water disputes between the States is a major step towards rationalizing dispute redressal system, which is currently lacking in India.
  • However, this in itself cannot solve other related problems that are emerging at different levels like that of the political motivation to extend the dispute.
  • The States must resolve their conflicts to ensure cooperation in economic growth and development of the country.
  • The politics must be set aside by the State Governments to allow the tribunals to resolve the differences amicably.
  • A transparent institutional framework with cooperation from all parties to resolve differences a need of the hour and the proposed amendments seeks to provide the same.

Conclusion:

The problems of water scarcity may worsen the differences between the States with regards to river sharing. A robust dispute redressal mechanism to address this issue is of vital importance at this moment and the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is a major step towards resolving the overall problem of water disputes within the country.

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