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A single tribunal to adjudicate inter-state river disputes is a step forward, but not sufficient to settle claims and complaints.

By: Editorial |
Updated: December 19, 2016 12:12:12 am

On December 15, the Union cabinet announced wide-ranging amendments to the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956. It has proposed an agency to collect and maintain water data including those pertaining to rainfall, irrigation and inter-basin flows. For a country beset with numerous water conflicts, the salience of this move cannot be overstated. Collection of data is the first step towards resolving water disputes. The country has lacked a specialised agency for the purpose. The new agency will ensure that water data is regularly updated and this will obviate the haste to collect data every time there is a water dispute. The cabinet has also decided to constitute a permanent tribunal to adjudicate on all inter-state water disputes over river waters. This will mean doing away with the current practice of having a separate tribunal for every inter-state river dispute.

In recent times, the practice of creating a tribunal every time an inter-state water dispute crops up, has been subject to criticism. These tribunals take inordinate amount of time and do not resolve the problem satisfactorily. The Cauvery Tribunal, for example, took 17 years to give its final award and the dispute is by no means resolved. The cabinet’s decision to constitute a permanent tribunal is in consonance with the National Water Policy 2012, which had pointed out that a multiplicity of tribunals militates against the early resolution of water conflicts and tribunals often work at cross purposes.

There is, however, an even more serious shortcoming of these ad hoc tribunals. That stems from their Constitutional status. The Constitution attaches a special status to inter-state water disputes, whereby they neither fall under the Supreme Court’s nor any other court’s jurisdiction. The courts can, at best, interpret a tribunal’s award. The award is binding, but legal anomalies have meant that a tribunal’s decision is not enforceable — one reason inter-state river disputes have become virtually irresolvable. Non-compliance of tribunal awards by states remains a weak link in dispute resolution. That might persist even when there is a permanent tribunal. In recent times, scholars and administrators have recognised the limitations of the litigation-centred approach to resolving water disputes. Rights of lower riparian states or regions — and concomitantly duties of upper riparian regions — are finding their way into water management discourses, globally. An agency to collect water data can aid the development of such a discourse in the country. A permanent water tribunal too can facilitate the just sharing of water resources. But it should be free of the legal anomalies of its ad hoc predecessors and also try to work around the changing discourse of water management.

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