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Call of the River

  • 02 Nov 2019
  • 8 min read

This article is based on “Call of the River” which was published in The Indian Express on 02/11/2019. It talks about Inter-State River Water Disputes Amendment Bill, 2019.

Recently, Lok Sabha passed the amendment to Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. The Bill is yet to be discussed in the Rajya Sabha. It proposes a permanent tribunal and several other measures to improve the settlement of inter-state river water disputes.

  • The resolution of water dispute is governed by the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.
    • According to its provisions, if a State Government makes a request regarding any water dispute and the Central Government is of the opinion that the water dispute cannot be settled by negotiations, then a Water Disputes Tribunal is constituted for the adjudication of the water dispute.
  • The Act was amended in 2002 and it mandated a one year time frame to setup the water disputes tribunal and also a 3 year time frame to give a decision.
  • It was again amended in 2017.
  • Reasons why Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956 was not successful-
    • Nine tribunals were set up under this act but only four gave final awards.
    • Cauvery River Water Dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, took 28 years to settle which is way too long.
    • The Ravi and Beas River Waters Tribunal was set up in 1986 and has not given the final award yet.
    • Formation of multiple tribunals led to duplication and repetition of the work and increased red-tapism.
    • Unnecessary politicisation of the issue led to complications and made the process time consuming.

The Inter-State River Water Disputes Amendment Bill, 2019

  • It is a modified version of the the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017.
  • Latest bill has three new elements-
    • A permanent tribunal with exclusive benches for each dispute instead of separate tribunals in the principal act.
    • A Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC) to attempt resolutions through mediated negotiations, instead of the Centre’s mediation.
    • A provision for appointing a technical agency for a data bank to support dispute resolution.


  • The Tribunal will consist of-
    • A Chairperson
    • Vice-Chairperson
    • Three judicial members
    • Three expert members
  • They will be appointed by the Central Government on the recommendation of a Selection Committee.
  • The Central Government may also appoint two experts serving in the Central Water Engineering Service as assessors to advise the tribunals in its proceedings. The assessor should not be from the state which is a party to the dispute.
  • The DRC will comprise of-
    • A Chairperson
    • Experts with at least 15 years of experience in relevant sectors, to be nominated by the Central Government.
    • One member from each state who will be nominated by the concerned State Government, party to the dispute.
  • Central government will appoint or authorise an agency to maintain data bank and information system at the national level for each river basin.


  • A permanent tribunal mechanism will reduce the delays in resolving interstate river disputes. It will also save costs compared to long-running individual tribunals.
  • It provides an opportunity to build knowledge on new and evolving approaches for resolving interstate river water disputes in India. It will increase the potential for transboundary river water governance in South Asia as well.
  • The role of DRC has been elevated from a superficial techno-legal body to an agency with a proactive role.
  • The DRC aims for politically negotiated settlements for river water disputes which are deeply political at their core and to avoid legal adjudication.

Major Blind Spots in the Bill

  • The Bill leaves the scope for tussle between the legislature and judiciary. It does not address resolving mechanisms.
    • The power to create dispute solving mechanism remains with Parliament but Supreme Court’s orders and guidance create hurdles in the process.
    • The Supreme Court says that it has jurisdiction over interstate river water disputes while the legislature has the opposite views.
    • The Supreme Court in February 2018 modified the allocations of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal Final award of 2007.
    • The last instance of creating a mechanism was under the Supreme Court’s orders when the Centre created the Cauvery Water Management Authority (2018).
  • The tribunal judge selection committee comprises of the Prime Minister or a nominee as the Chairperson, the Minister of Law and Justice, the Minister of Jal Shakti and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
    • This composition might pose the risk of states politicising disputes as well as the adjudication by the tribunal. This creates a situation where the dispute could escalate to the Supreme Court.
  • There are concerns relating to the composition and functionalities.
    • The DRC might not be adequately empowered. The Cauvery Supervisory Committee (CSC) which had a similar composition did not have much success.
    • There is ambiguity about the DRC being a part of the Permanent Tribunal.
    • Ensuring neutral and meaningful participation by the involved states in the DRC process in a daunting task.
    • The vagueness in the Bill about the agency performing the function of a credible data bank is puzzling.

Way Forward

  • To set up a single, permanent tribunal to adjudicate on inter-state river water disputes is a major step towards streamlining the dispute redressal mechanism.
  • This alone will not be able to address the different kinds of legal, administrative, constitutional and political problems so other supportive measures are also needed.
  • Centre’s proposal to set up an agency alongside the tribunal, to collect and process data on river waters, is a step which will enable fast and easy access to data.
  • To strengthen the cooperative federalism, parochial mindset making regional issues superior to national issues should not be allowed.
  • Dialogues and talks must be the dispute resolving mechanisms and political opportunism must be avoided.
  • A robust and transparent institutional framework with cooperative approach is the need of the hour.
Drishti Mains Question

The problem of water crisis in India is more about water mismanagement. Examine the proposed Inter-State River Water Disputes Amendment Bill, 2019 in this context.
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