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Indian Polity - Centre state Relations - Inter State Water Disputes
                                                                                                    September 10, 2017


 Background of the issue

Most rivers of India are plagued with interstate disputes. Nine out of the 12 major rivers in India are interstate rivers. 85% percent of the Indian land mass lies within its major and medium inter-state rivers.

The regulation and development of all rivers which flow across international and inter-state boundaries are a source of potential conflict,more so because of demand for water has been increasing at an accelerated rate due to rapid growth of population, urbanization, industrialization, etc.

Tribunal                         States                                                Status

Ravi & Beas            Punjab, haryana & Rajasthan            Sub-Judice
water Tribunal

Krishna Water            Karnanata, maharashtra &
disputes tribunal- II    Andhra Pradesh                        Sub-Judice
Vasandhara Water     Andhra Pradesh & Odisha      Decision-awaited 
Disputes Tribunal

Mahadayi water       Goa, Karnataka & Maharashtra  Decision-awaited
Disputes Tribunal

Impact of River Water Disputes

1) The frequent recurrence and long deliberations produce various kinds of insecurities and impact people's livelihoods.
2) These disputes caused concerns about their potential impact over State-State relations in India, with greater im -state. These concerns implications to the federal integrity of the nation are not without reason; the recent Cauvery dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka
which led to civic strife, ethnic clashes and violence in 2016 is a glaring example.
3) Another case in point is the recent Telangana separatist movement. Regional imbalances in sharing of water resources were one of the core issues at the heart of the movement.
4) Political mobilization over uneven water resource distribution is proving to be a major challenge for policy makers in India. Such political movements do have implications for the state in India and its federal structural relations.

Interstate water dispute Act, 1956:

Salient Features

- Constitution of the tribunal
- The Tribunal shall have the same powers as are vested in a civil court,
- Power to make schemes for implementing decisions of tribunal,
- Dissolution of Tribunal and power to make rules.
- Adjudication of water disputes,
- Maintenance of data bank and information,
- Bar of jurisdiction of Supreme Court and other Courts.

Constitutional Provisions

Article 262(1) of the Constitution lays down that “Parliament may by law 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”. Parliament has enacted the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act,1956. 

Criticisms against existing arrangements

The main points of criticism against the existing arrangements are:
- Under 1956 Act, a separate Tribunal has to be established for each Inter State River Water Dispute.
- They involve inordinate delay in securing settlement of such disputes. Tribunals like Cauvery and Ravi Beas have been in existence for over 26 and 30 years respectively without any award. There is no time limit for adjudication.
- There is no provision for an adequate machinery to enforce the award of the Tribunal.
- Issue of finality. In the event the Tribunal holding against any Party, that Party is quick to seek redressal in the Supreme Court. Only three out of eight Tribunals have given awards accepted by the States.
- Control over water is considered a right which has to be jealously guarded. Compromise is considered a weakness which can prove politically fatal.

Considering these criticisms of existing arrangement in general and 1956 act in particular, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation introduced Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017 in Lok Sabha. It proposes to streamline the adjudication of inter-state river water disputes and make the present legal and institutional architecture robust.

Key Provisions of amendment bill

1) Dispute Resolution Committee(DRC), to be established by the Central Government before referring dispute to the tribunal, to resolve the dispute amicably by negotiations within a period of one year extended by 6 months,.
2) Single Tribunal - Bill proposes a Single Standing Tribunal (with multiple benches), one Chairperson, one Vice-Chairperson and not more than six other Members, instead of existing multiple tribunals.
3) Age and tenure of members- The term of office of the Chairperson is five year or till he attains the age of 70 years, whichever is earlier, the term of office of Vice Chairperson and other member of tribunal shall be co-terminus with the adjudication of the water dispute.
4) Timeline: The tribunal should settle a dispute in four
5) Finality - The decision of the Tribunal shall be final and binding.
6) Data Collection and maintenance of a data-bank at national level for each river basin by an agency to be appointed and authorized by central government
7) Technical Support: Provides for the appointment of Assessors to provide technical support to the tribunal. They shall be appointed from amongst experts serving in the Central Water engineering Service.


1) Benches of Permanent Tribunals are proposed to be created as and when need arise. Thus it is not clear how these temporary benches will be different from present system.
2) The Supreme Court recently has said that it can hear appeals against water tribunals set up under ISWDA, thus delaying the judicial proceedings
3) Institutional mechanism to implement tribunal’s award is still mired in ambiguities Suggestions and way forward
4) Inter-State Council (ISC) is a is a constitutional body with the mandate of enquiring into and advising upon disputes arising between the various states of India, to investigate and make recommendations upon such subjects for better coordination of policy and action. It can
play a useful role in facilitating dialogue and discussion towards resolving conflicts.
5) For implementation purposes, River Boards Act 1956 under entry 56 of union list, the most potent law available for the purpose should be suitably amended. River Basin Organization (RBOs) can be set up under this act to regulate and develop inter-state rivers and their
6) Moving towards mediation: Mediation is a flexible and informal process and draws upon the multidisciplinary perspectives of the mediators. In the South Asian context, the World
Bank played the role of mediator between India and Pakistan, which resulted in a successful resolution of the conflicts surrounding the rivers of the Indus basin
7) Supply Side Management: Many scholars have argued that augmenting the water supply might be one way of dealing with such issues. Thus, water resources should be utilised and harnessed properly through undertaking long-term measures towards saving water and
rationalising its use.
8) Declaration of Rivers as National Property: which may reduce the tendency of states which consider controlling of river waters as their right
9) Bringing water into concurrent list: as recommended by Mihir shah report where central water authority can be constituted to manage rivers. It was also supported by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources
10) Apart from institutional mechanism, a sense of responsibility in states towards humanitarian dimension of water disputes needs to be infused.
11) Water disputes should be depoliticized and political parties must refrain from taking benefits out of it.