As we all know that the Indian Constitution provides for a federal structure of Government in the country, by provisioning for a clear-cut division of administrative, legislative, and financial powers between the Centre and the States. Mainly the legislative division of powers provided in Article 246 (7th schedule of the Constitution) ensures harmonious and peaceful relations between the Centre and the States by strictly dividing the law-making powers. Moreover, the Supreme Court, by the virtue of its powers provided in Article 131 (Original Jurisdiction) acts as a mediator when conflicts emerge between the Centre and the States or between the States inter se.
So, in order to maintain a peaceful and stable federal structure, harmonious relations are required not just between the Centre and the States but also between the States inter se. However, disputes are bound to arise between the States, and the sharing of natural resources is indeed one of the major sources of disputes between the States. Hence, in this article, we’d be discussing inter-state water disputes and the steps taken to resolve them.
Inter-State Water Disputes
The Constitution of India makes provisions for the settlement of inter-state water disputes under Article 262. The provisions of Article 262 are:
- Parliament of India may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution and control of waters of any inter-state river and river valley.
- The Parliament may also provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court is to exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute or complaint.
River Boards Act, 1956
The River Boards Act of 1956 is formulated in line with the provisions mentioned in Article 262 of the Indian Constitution. Provisions of the Act include:
- The Act makes provisions for the formation of river boards for the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys.
- The establishment of the river board is done by the Central Government at the request of the State Government concerned.
Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956
The Inter-State Water Disputes Act empowers the Parliament of India to set up an ad-hoc tribunal for the adjudication of a dispute between two or more states in relation to the waters of an inter-state river or river valley. The provisions of the tribunal are:
- The decision rendered by the tribunal would be final and binding on the disputing parties.
- Neither the Supreme Court nor any other court is to have jurisdiction in respect of any water dispute which may be referred to such a tribunal under the act.
In total, the government of India has established 9 inter-state water disputes tribunals, of these, 5 tribunals are active now. The inter-state water dispute tribunal established by the Indian Government are:
|S no.||Name||Year of Establishment||States Involved|
|1||Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal-I||1969||Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh|
|2||Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal||1969||Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha|
|3||Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal||1969||Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra|
|4||Ravi and Beas Water Disputes Tribunal||1986||Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan|
|5||Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal||1990||Karnataka, Kerela, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry|
|6||Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal- II||2004||Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh|
|7||Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal||2010||Odisha and Andhra Pradesh|
|8||Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal||2010||Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra|
|9||Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal||2018||Odisha and Chhattisgarh|
The Tribunals which are currently active:
- Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal- II
- Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal
- Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal
- Ravi and Beas Water Disputes Tribunal
- Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal
The need for Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunal
The need for setting up specialized tribunals for adjudicating inter-state water disputes has been very well reiterated by a report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee:
‘The Supreme Court would indeed have jurisdiction to decide any dispute between the States in connection with water supplies if legal rights or interests are concerned, but the experience of most countries has shown that rule of law based upon the analogy of private proprietary interests in water do not afford a satisfactory basis for settling disputes between the states where the interests of the public at large in the proper use of water supplies are involved.’
Problems with the inter-state water disputes tribunals
As we know that the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 was enacted in order to set up tribunals for adjudicating the disputes related to the sharing of river waters among the states and to do it more effectively and efficiently than the traditional courts such as the Supreme Court or High Courts would have done. However, over the years, various loopholes emerged in the system and functioning of these tribunals which severely harmed the very purpose of ensuring efficiency and effectiveness in solving the disputes. The shortcomings are mentioned below:
Delays in decision-making:
Similar to the functioning of traditional courts in India, inter-state water dispute tribunals also face the problems of prolonged proceedings and consequent delays in decision-making. For example, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was constituted in 1990 but gave its award in 2007; The request to constitute a tribunal for settling the dispute related to Godavari water resources was made as early as 1962, however, the Tribunal was constituted only in 1968, and the award of the tribunal was rendered on 1979.
Traditionally, tribunals are quasi-judicial or semi-judicial bodies, i.e they consist of administrative officers without any legal background who are involved in settling the disputes between the parties. However, in the case of inter-state water dispute tribunals, only those persons who belong to the judiciary can be a part. Hence, there’s not much difference between the inter-state water disputes tribunal and a Supreme Court Bench.
Politicisation of disputes
The political parties ruling the states have turned the inter-state water disputes into a political matter and have used it continuously for their vote bank. This politicisation has led to increased litigations and defiance by the states.
Lack of data
There’s a lack of authoritative data related to water resources which makes it difficult for these tribunals to adjudicate these disputes.
Even though the award rendered by the tribunal is final and beyond the jurisdictions of the traditional courts, the States can still approach the Supreme Court against the award rendered by virtue of Article 136 (Plenary Jurisdiction/Special Leave Petition)* and Article 32* by linking the issue with Article 21 (Right to life)
*Article 136: Under Article 136 the Supreme Court may grant a special leave to appeal and receive any judgement, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any court or Tribunal in the territory of India.
*Article 32: This article gives an extensive original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court for the enforcement of fundamental rights of the citizens, through issuing directions, orders and writs, popularly known as ‘writ jurisdiction.’
In order to overcome some of the above-mentioned shortcomings, the Inter-State Water Disputes Amendment Bill was introduced in Parliament in 2019. Some provisions of the Bill are as follows:
- When there’s a request made by any state for settling a water-sharing dispute, the Central Government would set up a DRC (Dispute Resolution Committee) for resolving this dispute. The structure of this DRC would consist of:
- A chairperson
- Experts with at least 15 years of experience in the relevant sectors, nominated by the Central Government.
- One member from each state involved in the dispute, nominated by the concerned state government.
- The DRC would be required to resolve the dispute within one year, and submit its report to the Central Government. The period of dispute resolution is expandable to 6 months. However, if the DRC is unable to resolve the dispute within this stipulated time period, the dispute would be referred to the Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunal by the Central Government.
- Under this amendment, all the existing inter-state water disputes tribunals would be dissolved and the Central Government would constitute new tribunals for the issue. The new tribunals can have multiple benches. And the pending water disputes before such tribunals would be transferred to the new ones. The new tribunals would consist of:
- Three judicial members
- Three expert members
- All these members would be appointed by the Central Government on the recommendation of a Selection Committee.
- The Central Government can also appoint two experts serving in the Central Water Engineering Services as advisors to advise the bench in the proceedings. These advisors should not be from the states which are parties to the dispute.
- In order to ensure efficiency and hasten the process of adjudication, the Act provides for various time frames within which the Tribunals must adjudicate the dispute, the time frames are mentioned below:
- The tribunal must give the decision within two years, the period could be extended by another year.
- If the dispute is again referred to the tribunal, the Tribunal is obliged to submit its report to the Central Government within a period of one year. This period could be extended by the Central Government for six months.
- The decision of the tribunal would be final and would have the same force as a Supreme Court Judgment. However, under the new act, it is not required to publish the decision in the official gazette. Moreover, this amendment makes it mandatory for the Central Government to make a scheme to give effect to the decision of the tribunal.
- The amendment act provides that the Central Government would appoint an agency to maintain a data bank consisting of information about each river basin in the country.
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