The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha on July 31, 2019. It amends the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.  The Act provides for the adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-state rivers and river valleys. Under the Act, a state government may request the central government to refer an inter-state river dispute to a Tribunal for adjudication. If the central government is of the opinion that the dispute cannot be settled through negotiations, it is required to set up a Water Disputes Tribunal for adjudication of the dispute, within a year of receiving such a complaint.  The Bill seeks to replace this mechanism. Other Key Provisions

  • Disputes Resolution Committee: Under the Bill, when a state puts in a request regarding any water dispute, the central government will set up a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC), to resolve the dispute amicably.
    • The DRC will seek to resolve the dispute through negotiations, within one year (extendable by six months), and submit its report to the central government.
    • If a dispute cannot be settled by the DRC, the central government will refer it to the Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal.
    • This Tribunal can have multiple benchesAll existing Tribunals will be dissolved, and the water disputes pending adjudication before such existing Tribunals will be transferred to the new Tribunal.
  • Composition of the Tribunal: The Tribunal will consist of a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, three judicial members, and 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 Bench in its proceedings.
  • Time frames: Under the Act, the Tribunal must give its decision within three years, which may be extended by two years.
    • Under the Bill, the proposed Tribunal must give its decision on the dispute within two years, which may be extended by another year.
  • The decision of the Tribunal: Under the Act, the decision of the Tribunal must be published by the central government in the official gazette.  This decision has the same force as that of an order of the Supreme Court.
    • The Bill removes the requirement of such publication.  It adds that the decision of the Bench of the Tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute.
    • There is no provision for appeal. However, the Supreme Court, while hearing a civil suit in the Cauvery dispute, had said the decision of that tribunal could be challenged before it through a Special Leave Petition under Article 136 of the Constitution.
  • The Act provided that the central government may make a scheme to give effect to the decision of the Tribunal.
    • The Bill is making it mandatory for the central government to make such a scheme.  
  • Data bank: Under the Act, the central government maintains a data bank and information system at the national level for each river basin.
    • The Bill provides that the central government will appoint or authorize an agency to maintain such data bank.
  • Retirement: The term of office of the chairperson and vice-chairperson would be five years or until the age of 70 years. That of the other members would be co-terminus with adjudication of dispute or until 67 years.
Need & Benefits
  • In practice, tribunals have taken much longer to give their decisions. Under the 1956 Act, nine tribunals have so far been set up. Only four of them have given their awards. One of these disputes, over Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, took 28 years to settle. The Ravi and Beas Waters Tribunal was set up in April 1986 and it is still to give the final award.
  • Five major causes for the delays:
    • No strict time limit for adjudication as the central government kept extending the tenure of the tribunals indefinitely, even though they were to resolve disputes within 5 years
    • No limit for publishing the report of a tribunal
    • No upper limit for the retirement of the chairperson or other members
    • In case of any vacancy, the Chief Justice of India nominates a person which takes time and causes considerable delays
    • Absence of data on river basins.
  • The amendment is bringing a time limit for adjudicating disputes as all disputes would now have to be resolved within a maximum of four-and-a-half years.
  • The multiplicity of tribunals has led to an increase in bureaucracy, delays, and possible duplication of work.
  • The replacement of five existing tribunals with a permanent tribunal is likely to result in a 25 percent reduction in staff strength, from the current 107 to 80, and a saving of Rs 4.27 crore per year.
  • The current system of dispute resolution would give way to a new two-tier approach.
  • The states concerned would be encouraged to come to a negotiated settlement through a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC). Only if the DRC fails to resolve the dispute will the matter be referred to the tribunal.
  • As per the bill, the decision of the tribunal would be binding on states and have the “same force as an order of the Supreme Court", but there have been instances when state governments had not complied with awards, most recently the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
  • Centralization of powers - Instead of the Chief Justice of India nominating persons for appointments, it would now be the central government making such appointments through a selection committee.
  • Data collection from river basins, the government’s decision to outsource it to an external agency could raise questions over its “reliability".
  • Water should not be looked from a territorial perspective rather it should be looked like a national resource and this approach can resolve many disputes.
  • On lines of GST council, an interstate water council could be constituted which will look into all the water-related disputes between different states in the country.
It is time that the government should rethink its strategy about water management, not just within states, but at the national level keeping the current and forthcoming water scenarios in mind.