The Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunal (Amendment) Act was introduced in the Lok Sabha earlier this month, primarily with a view to expediting the resolution of river disputes. The proposed amendment contends that the separate tribunals set up for each dispute under the Inter-State Water Disputes Act 1956 have failed to settle matters within a reasonable time-frame. Arguing for a single tribunal with separate benches for each dispute, the Amendment Bill observes: “Only three of the eight tribunals have made awards which are accepted by the States. Though the Cauvery and Ravi Beas Water Disputes Tribunals have been in existence for over 26 and 30 years respectively, they have not been able to make any successful award till date.” Hence, the new draft law says that the tribunal should settle a dispute in four-and-a-half years, and that the “decision of the Tribunal shall be final and binding with no requirement of publication in the official gazette”. Given that even under the existing law, a tribunal ruling is not meant to be overturned by the Supreme Court, it is not clear what “final and binding” really means. In practice, the Supreme Court has admitted review petitions on the final award of the Cauvery tribunal, rather than refer these to the latter; in 2016, it even instructed Karnataka to release water from time to time.

Tribunal awards are often based on flawed assumptions. For example, the Cauvery and Krishna awards are based on flows at 50 per cent ‘dependability’ (or the flows in 50 out of 100 years), which go awry in bad monsoon years. With precipitation believed to be on the decline — as well as variations between wet and dry years increasing — more realistic and dependable assessment is called for. The proposed national data gathering agency has its task cut out. It should take surface and groundwater into consideration. Besides improving data on water availability, it is also necessary to align demand for water with what rivers can bear. Groundwater, too, requires more regulatory attention. Overall, with rising population and greater urbanisation, water management assumes paramount importance. Any policy must prioritise the needs of people and animals, while ensuring that industrial water consumption is managed in a sustainable manner.

In this context, the Bill’s focus on creating a national agency for data on river flows is to be welcomed. Data on river flows are not considered to be reliable, Cauvery being just one example. The Bill moots a dispute settlement committee, again run by the Centre, to sort out matters prior to the tribunal stage. It betrays an overly administrative-legal mindset to a problem that calls for multi-stakeholder involvement. It will not work if the States view this as an imposition. Therefore, a more participatory approach will be beneficial. River basin commissions, which work in a cooperative manner to manage trans-boundary conflicts, might offer a more workable solution.

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