India’s River Water Disputes – Domestic and International

Though blessed with rich water resources, increasing population and growth of water intensive agriculture has aggravated water stress and disputes over sharing of river water between many states in India. India also has some water conflicts with neighbouring countries, which have been partly resolved with agreements. Let us see the history and legal structure to manage river water in India.

Water in the Constitution of India

  • Water is a subject in the state list of the seventh schedule.
  • Article 262 of Indian Constitution
    • empowers parliament to make laws to provide for adjudication of inter-state river water disputes
    • empowers parliament to deny (by law) supreme court or any other court jurisdiction in such disputes
  • Parliament has enacted two laws under powers given by Article 262
    • River Board Act, 1956
      • enabled Union government to create advisory boards for interstate rivers
      • NO BOARDS HAVE BEEN CONSTITUTED SO FAR UNDER THIS ACT. (though various river boards have been constituted under separate acts and orders)
    • Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956

Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956

  • enables union government to arbitrate, or constitute a tribunal to adjudicate a river water dispute between states of India
  • supreme court can’t question the award given by the tribunal
    • supreme court doesn’t have jurisdiction over water sharing issue directly, but indirectly through other related issues – such as right to life 
    • Though the law initially mentioned that Supreme Court has no right to intervene in water disputes, Supreme Court has re-interpreted the law and now adjudicates disputes when states are dissatisfied by the award (result) given by the tribunal constituted by the Union government. The Supreme Court does so on the argument that it has the responsibility to protect Right to Life of people, and also admits petitions challenging the tribunal award under the Special Leave Petition under Article 136 of the Constitution of India.
  • 2002 amendment to the act made changes aimed at reducing delays – which earlier were extraordinary and very long at times
    • tribunals are required to submit its report and decision in 3 years, + 2 years extendable. The award (final result) is given by the Union government considering the tribunal’s decision.
  • Provisions
    • The tribunal shall consist of a chairman and two other members nominated by the Chief Justice of India from among the judges of the HC or the SC.

Issues with the tribunal system:

  • States did not accept tribunal awards (in 5 out of 8 tribunal awards) and approached supreme court under article 136 (Special Leave Petition) or linking it with other issues (such as Right to Life)
  • delays due to lack of credible data
  • lack of credible expertise in tribunals as members were constituted from the Judiciary.

Inter-State Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017

  • suggests a Dispute Resolution Committee
    • expertise based
    • tribunal will be approached when this committee fails to settle the dispute (in 1 year)
  • Single Permanent Tribunal rather than a new tribunal for every new dispute.
    • new benches for every dispute
  • transparent, expert data collection system at national level for each river basin. Single agency to maintain all the information system.

The example of Cauvery Water Dispute

  • more than a century old dispute between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry
  • Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal
    • constituted in 1990 by the Supreme Court
    • delivered its verdict in 2007, 17 years after its formation. 
    • The award was challenged in the SC – it was the first time that SC allowed  a Special Leave Petition (under Article 136) challenging a tribunal’s award. The court clarified that Article 262 and River Disputes Act were not meant to curtail its powers and that its appellate jurisdiction under Article 136 can be invoked even after a tribunal adjudicates a river water dispute.
  • Feb 2018: Supreme Court has delivered the verdict on the Cauvery water dispute.
    • it modified the 2007 award of the CWDT tribunal, and increased the allocation of Karnataka.
    • It stressed – 
      • equitable sharing
      • efficient and sustainable manner of usage 
      • collective solutions – sharing data on reservoir storage
    • Differences over interpretation of the SC verdict and mechanism of its implementation is delaying the implementation of the verdict. SC will clarify.

Other active domestic inter-state river water disputes in India:

  • Ravi and Beas water – between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan
  • Krishna water- between Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra
  • Vansadhara water – between Andhra Pradesh, Odisha
  • Mahadayi water- Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra
  • Mahanadi water – between Odisha, Chhattisgarh

International water disputes of India:

India-Pakistan river water disputes:

  • The Indus river system comprising of six major rivers is lifeline of Pakistan and the northernmost states of India. To solve the dispute over its waters The Indus Waters Treaty was signed.
  • Indus Waters Treaty
    • Ratified in 1960 by India and Pakistan. The treaty was brokered by the World Bank.
    • The treaty gave the control of three western rivers – Indus, Jhelum, Chenab – to Pakistan, and the three eastern rivers – Ravi, Beas, Sutlej to India.
    • India is allowed to use the three western rivers for limited irrigation use, small power projects and non-consumptive use such as fisheries.

India-Bangladesh conflict:
India and Bangladesh have disputes over sharing of waters of Ganga-Brahmputra river system. A particular dispute is over river Teesta, which originates in Sikkim and passes through West Bengal to reach Bangladesh.

India-China conflict:
Major river systems of India such as Indus river and Brahmputra river originate in Southernmost parts of Tibet. Due to lack of developmental activities in Southernmost-Tibet, China does not/can not exploit substantial water from these rivers, so there is no dispute over water sharing. But there is conflict over sharing of river data. India demands regular data of river hydrology to predict floods and manager water better for the Brahmputra river. The 2018 floods in Assam were partly blamed on China for not giving river data to India leading to unpreparedness in Assam.

More related information:

Press note from December 2018 at PIB –

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