The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017 was introduced in the last session of Parliament, proposing a single standing tribunal (with multiple benches) instead of multiple tribunal that exists at present.  The current legal framework pertaining to water in India is spread across a variety of instruments, legislation, legal principles and a number of judicial precedents. These are not necessarily in harmony with each other.

Under the Constitution of India, water is a State subject and the Centre regulates the inter-state water disputes under the provisions of Article 262 of the Constitution under two legislations - The River Board Act, 1956 and Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956. The major objective of the River Board Act was to create river valley boards in consultation with the state governments for the development of the interstate river basin as well as to prevent the conflicts of water sharing. However, the Union government has never used this Act to create any river board in the country yet. 
India’s water woes likely to exacerbate

India has just 4% of global water resources to serve to 17% of the world’s population. Water sharing disputes across the country seem to escalate with increasing demands for rightful share between competing users for sector-specific uses.  With the per capita availability of water continuing to decline, the nation hurtles towards water scarcity. Climate change, which might bring in its wake increased temporal and spatial variation in availability of water is likely to exacerbate the water situation further.
Most of the water sharing disputes in India gets escalated during lean season months where the competing parties quarrel over water usage for mainly sustaining their agriculture sector. The recent standoff between the Supreme Court and the state Government of Karnataka over Cauvery dispute, conflict over Mahanadi water between Odisha and Chhattisgarh and the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal issue between Punjab and Haryana has once again brought the focus on inter-state river water sharing in India. 
 Analyzing present and proposed legal mechanisms for river disputes

The present mechanisms to resolve the interstate water disputes are governed by Interstate (River) Water Disputes Act 1956.  Under the provisions of 1956 Act, a state government can approach the Centre to refer the dispute to a tribunal and for each dispute a separate Tribunal has to be established. The exclusive tribunals are to be dissolved after they give away their decisions and the decisions are binding on the states for a period of 25 to 30 years. The decision of the tribunal is considered final as the judiciary is barred (by Article 262 of the Constitution of India) from questioning the award or formula of water sharing given by tribunal. 
Till now, eight river dispute tribunals have been constituted, yet, only in three cases the award given has been accepted by the states. Some of the Tribunals like Cauvery and Ravi Beas have been existing for more than 25 years without any award. The extra-ordinary delays have occurred mainly because of adversarial adjudication process and litigation delay. For instance, Tamil Nadu requested the Union Government to constitute Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal in 1970 as well in 1986. However, the tribunal was constituted in 1990, after the intervention of the Supreme Court. Even after the final award of the tribunal in 2007 a major stakeholder- Karnataka has unswervingly breached the tribunal orders from by not releasing the apportioned water quantities to Tamil Nadu. The state legislature of Karnataka infact passed a resolution refusing to share water with Tamil Nadu against the tribunal’s decision. 
Proposed amendments to the Act

Although, the amendments to the Act in 2002 addressed the delays and made a specific time frame to constitute the tribunal and maximum period for the delivery of the award, there were rising concerns about the execution and implementation. Such disputes have been long-festering and been protracting from decades in India. 

Since the present ‘multiple-tribunal’ model unfortunately ends up delaying the resolution mechanism, the new Bill, introduced in Lok Sabha by the Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Ms. Uma Bharti, on March 14, 2017, suggests setting up of a single standing tribunal, seeking to amend the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.  The bill has provisions that seek to break the mold of long delays in adjudication and incompliance on part of the states on verdicts of the tribunals. 

The 1956 Act relied exclusively on tribunal template for resolution of disputes, keeping the Supreme Court and other courts away from jurisdiction, where tribunal was formed when the dispute arose- which were dispute specific. On the other hand, first, the new Bill proposes a permanent Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal (ISRWDT), i.e. “single standing tribunal (with multiple benches) instead of multiple tribunals” that exist at present. “The decision of the Tribunal shall be final and binding with no requirement of publication in the official Gazette”, said an official statement.

Secondly, the Bill requires central government to set up a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC), for resolving any inter-state water dispute amicably having members from relevant fields. Within a period of one year (extendable to six months), the DRC will need to submit its report to the central government. Only if the DRC fails to resolve a dispute within set time, the above-mentioned tribunals will have to shoulder the task. 

The tribunal shall consist of judges and experts. Currently there is no time limit for adjudication or publication of reports and no upper age limit for the chairman or the members. But, the good news is that the proposed Bill limits the tenure of the chairperson to 5 years or till they attain the age of 70, whichever is earlier. Under the Act, any water disputes tribunal has to give its decision on a dispute within a period of 3 years.  This period is extendable by a maximum of 2 years, whereas, under the Bill, the proposed tribunal will have to give its decision on a dispute within a period of 2 years., extendable by a maximum of 1 year. 
The tribunal will subsume all the existing tribunals and the water disputes’ pending adjudication will be transferred to this newly formed tribunal.

Another feature of the Bill calls for a transparent data collection system at the national level for each river basin “For this purpose, an agency to maintain data-bank and information system shall be appointed or authorized by central government.” But this much endorsed provision of a data bank is not new. The current 1956 act also mandates the Centre to create such a repository and the new bill allows the Centre to appoint an agency for the purpose, but the tenuous Centre - State relation over managing river waters may cause this to hit a roadblock. In any case, the collection of data doesn’t seem to be a challenge, the challenge is more about states agreeing over a particular piece of data, also about using this data to produce information that can feed into the process of decision making.
The Bill needs to address these loopholes

The Bill will undoubtedly improve adjudication but some questions remain unaddressed. The major one being the challenge of implementation of tribunal’s awards. The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal Award, given in 2007, remains ambiguous on mechanism to implement. How the Bill fills the critical gap towards effective   implementation remains to be seen. Even though ISRWDT is a permanent avenue, the question persists on an effective implementation mechanism. Often the states have been seen defying tribunals’ directives and disregarding awards, the resistance mainly coming from the affected group of stakeholders. The Bill however, offers little to check these tendencies. If the civil society has a say in the proceedings, may be in the form of rounds of public consultations, probably that would build more credibility and thus expedite the implementation process.   

Also, the DRC will have to be high profile in order to command credibility and legitimacy to engage proactively for negotiated settlements between states, or else with a broad-based definition, it may be relegated to performing perfunctory procedures.

The bill is well equipped with everything needed to tighten the adjudication of river water disputes. But will it qualify the basic purpose of the reforms — to expedite resolution of river water disputes? Probably, if the need to bridge the gaps in the larger ecosystem of interstate river water sharing, development and governance is recognised.

(This article has been written by Sarada Prasanna Das, Phd and Ira Sharma who are working with the Centre for Energy, Environment & Resources, New Delhi. Das is also affiliated with Institute for Governance, Policies & Politics)