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Daily Editorial – Setting up a single permanent water tribunal

  • Setting up a single permanent water tribunal

  1. Constitutional and legal provisions for interstate water dispute resolution
  2. Reasons of delay in the proceedings
  3. Challenges
  4. Amendments proposed to Interstate water disputes act, 1956
  5. How this decision will benefit
  6. Would setting up single tribunal solve the problem?
  7. Way ahead

Setting up a single permanent water tribunal

Water is one of the most important natural resource for any country, state or human being. With time the demand for this resource is only increasing and on the other hand supply is decreasing. With the lesser per capita availability of water, conflicts are escalating.

And this is what we are seeing in India. Conflicts between the states are escalating and resolving these disputes have become a bone of contention for the central government.

At present, there are eight Tribunals including those on Cauvery, Mahadayi, Ravi and Beas, Vansadhara and Krishna rivers.

A discussion regarding challenges of resolving interstate water dispute is incomplete without knowing legal and constitutional mechanisms to resolve it.

Let’s have look at the legal and constitutional provisions.

Constitutional provisions

  • Water is essentially a State subject and the Union comes in only in the case of inter-State waters.
  • Article 262 of Constitution deals with adjudication of disputes relating to matters of inter-state rivers or river valleys.
  • Article 262(2) states that neither the Supreme Court nor any other Court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute.

Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956

  • Act provides for the adjudication of disputes relating to waters of Inter-State Rivers and River Valleys.
  • The act enables setting up of tribunals to settle disputes on Inter-State water or river, when negotiation doesn’t work.
  • Decisions given by the tribunals so constituted will be final and binding and no appeal can lie in Supreme Court.
  • Thus the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and other courts is clearly barred in such matters.


  • Tribunals are only vested with decision making role, without any implementation mechanism.
  • Functioning of such tribunals is not satisfactory as there is delay at every stage in the working of the tribunals.

River Boards Act, 1956

  • River Boards Act enables Union Government to create, in consultation with the State Governments, boards to advise on the integrated development of inter-State basins.
  • Boards can smoothen the process of negotiation between the contending parties
  • Boards can assist the concerned Tribunal also in expediting the dispute settlement process by supplying necessary data.


  • Nature of work of the boards is advisory in nature and is meant only for the purpose to give advice and suggestions
  • Indian government has been unable to constitute a River Board since the Act was enacted.
  • River Boards set up under separate legislation, but these were set up to implement a mutually agreed sharing agreement between States.

Reasons of delay in the proceedings

  • Centre takes years to decide whether a matter needs to be heard by a tribunal.
  • After formation of tribunal, it again takes years to pronounce the award by tribunals
  • Absence of authoritative water data that is acceptable to all parties currently makes it difficult to even set up a baseline for adjudication.
  • Procedural complexities involving multiple stakeholders across governments and agencies, makes it difficult to come up with a standard solution.
  • India’s federal polity creates another hurdle in the smooth functioning i.e. non-compliance with the orders.
  • Centers ineffective administration on the subject “regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valley in the public interest” mentioned in the union list also cause the delay.
  • Inter-state water disputes are no longer just about water allocation. They have become hugely politicized.
  • After an Award is given, there are problems of interpretation and implementation
  • States are becoming resistant to compliance with Awards of tribunals in spite of express provisions in the Constitution regarding the finality of such awards.


  • Time lost in delays due to wrangling both before and during tribunal proceedings is very costly, in terms of:-
    • Loss of production
    • Rising cost of constructing irrigation systems
    • Loss of farmers’ income growth
  • Process to constitute tribunals and giving awards and in pronouncements of interim Awards have been very lengthy, that leads to bad relations between the states.

Amendments proposed to Interstate water disputes act, 1956-

A decision to approve an amendment to the Act was taken at the Union Cabinet’s meeting held earlier this week. The amendment is likely to be introduced in Parliament in its next session.

Some of the following are proposed changes to the act:-

Single permanent tribunal

  • Centre has decided to set up a single, permanent Tribunal to adjudicate all inter-State river water disputes.
  • Tribunal will be aimed at resolving grievances of States in a speedy manner. This body will subsume existing tribunals.
  • Government has also proposed to float some Benches by amending the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956.

Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC)

  • Along with the tribunal, the amendment proposes to set up Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC).
  • The DRC, comprising experts and policy-makers, is proposed to handle disputes prior to the tribunal.
  • Whenever a State will request, the Centre will set up a DRC.
  • Most disputes will get resolved at the DRC’s level itself. But if a State is not satisfied, it can approach the tribunal.

Data agency

  • Amendment to the 1956 law also seeks to create an agency to collect and maintain all relevant water data, like rainfall, water flow and irrigation area, in each of the river basins of the country.
  • Data will come handy in resolving the water disputes.
  • A specialized agency would ensure that this kind of data is always available, in updated form, and does not need to be collected after a dispute has arisen.
  • The government has proposed a new National Water Commission (NWC) in place of the existing bodies i.e. Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB).

How this decision will benefit

  •  Even constituent assembly favored setting up the permanent tribunals, but it was later ignored by the government.
  • Practice of creating a tribunal every time as an interstate water dispute crop up has been subject to criticisms from experts.
  • These tribunals also face criticisms due to taking inordinate amount of time and not resolving the problems effectively.
  • These problems will be solved by a permanent single tribunal.
  • The agency that will collect and process data on river water will help in expedite the proceedings.
  • The awards will be notified automatically by the tribunal, without waiting for the central government.

Would setting up single tribunal solve the problem?

  • Constitution have given a significant status to interstate water disputes, they are out of the jurisdiction of Supreme Court or any other court.
  • Award provided by these tribunals are binding in nature but due to legal anomalies there is no enforcement mechanism.
  • Non-compliance of award by states has been the most challenging problem.
  • And this challenge remains unresolved even if there is a permanent tribunal in place.

Way ahead

These water disputes are not as simple as they look; there need to be evolving an innovative approach, which can solve the problem. Only resolving the interstate disputes will not resolve the water crisis, thus the following steps should be taken by the government:-

  • States and center must evolve a hierarchy of water usage, with drinking water being prioritised over farming, industrial and other needs.
  • Coastal states must, by law, be asked to use more desalinated water. They can be subsidised by the center for the installation of such plants.
  • If water is in short supply due to monsoon failure, those who get less than they were guaranteed should be compensated financially by state or center.
  • There should be fiscal incentives to reduce water usage. India wastes too much water, whether in farming or in industrial areas or even for urban home consumption.


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