By moderator July 15, 2019 12:58

The Big Picture – Single Tribunal for River Water Disputes

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.


  • There are two legislations under the Constitution to deal with river water disputes
  1. River Boards Act – The River boards advise the government on river basins particularly when projects are set up.
  2. Inter-state River Water Dispute Act of 1956 introduced after the reorganization of states. It was enacted under Article 262 of the Constitution to address inter-state water disputes.
  • Currently, if any dispute arises between two or more state on the sharing of water, a tribunal is constituted to solve the issue. Such tribunals have taken from 6 years to 20 years for its constitution. After an award or a decision is given by the tribunal, the central government has to notify the decision in the gazette after which it attains the status of an award or decree by the Supreme Court. Thus, such decisions are not supposed to be appealed in the Supreme Court.
  • But many of the cases are taken to the SC citing a violation of Article 21 and 32.

Advantages of the single tribunal

  • It creates a permanent infrastructure for the resolution of interstate water disputes.
  • It reduces the time taken to constitute a tribunal.
  • It also contains the provision for a pre-litigation dispute resolution process through a dispute resolution committee which will take a maximum of one year extendable by six months. The central government will play the role of an arbitrator. The case is referred to the tribunal only if the dispute is not solved within 18 months.
  • The process of disposing of cases will be expedited as there will be more benches of the tribunal available.
  • The main report will be prepared in two months. 
  • The new structure provides for completion of adjudication of one dispute within a period of two years extendable by one year, which under the present scheme takes an excruciatingly long period, ranging from 10 years to 27 years.
  • Any clarification on the decision should be decided within one year extendable by six months.


  • The bill does not mention the timeline for resolution and implementation in a tribunal once a case is referred to it.
  • As has been seen so far, an interstate water dispute has spilt over the borders often losing its temperament.
  • Often there is the politicization of the issue which escalates the problem.
  • So far the existing tribunals have tried to solve the issue by putting in place an infrastructural and architectural mechanism and trying to solve the issue as a mere legal issue. The tribunals fail to recognise that water is more of an emotional issue. The bill also tries to address the issue in the same way.
  • Until now, there is no model that can be pointed at for the states where the award given by the tribunal has been implemented efficiently.
  • There is no hesitation for the states to disobey the law given by the tribunal.
  • There is no supporting database available for the tribunals to make an informed decision which would definitely solve the issue.
  • The Centre has lagged behind in playing a role in enabling a framework of cooperation between the states.

Way forward 

  • There should be a federal consensus between the states on the role that the Centre can play and the gravitas that can be attached to the dispute resolution committee to enable any kind of solution even before it is referred to the tribunal.
  • The solution given by the committee will have to be supplemented by other solutions as well.
  • The existing policies on the water should be relooked at.
  • The Centre should consider a water policy for the country to supplement the Bill at a time when there is a water scarcity in the country. This means implementing an effective farming policy as well.
  • There should be a policy which minimizes the role of the politicians.
  • The tribunal should be given institutional support as provided for the Competition Commission of India as the tribunal would have an investigative role as well.
  • The centre should also formulate a mechanism for implementing the awards given by the tribunal. Additionally, there should be a fear mechanism to make the politicians implement the tribunal awards otherwise of which they should be held for contempt.
  • There should also be a review mechanism to assess the impact of implementing the awards given by the tribunals on the environment.
  • To avoid conflicts, the planning of the projects should be based on the basin level for which river basin organisations should be formulated. Passing the river basin management bill would help in bringing together the states sharing a basin and avoiding conflict.
  • There should be clarity on the water dispute, what the needs of a state are and negotiations should be held to that extent which would bring in a balance between the states.
  • Awareness should be created among the people of the warring states to avoid politicization of the issue.
  • A database should be created spanning 5-6 years on the rainfall, the amount of water available and the needs of a particular region which would be helpful for the tribunals in future.
By moderator July 15, 2019 12:58