Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956: It is vital to fix implementation loophole

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Published: March 16, 2017 4:37:23 AM

The proposed amendment Bill to the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act of 1956, chiefly to set up a permanent, over-arching tribunal for all such fights, is welcome given water-sharing disputes are only going to rise—all existing tribunals are to be subsumed in this and pending disputes will also be adjudicated by it.

The Bill says that “a dispute which has already been adjudicated and settled by an existing Tribunal … shall not be reopened”. (Representative Image: IE)

The proposed amendment Bill to the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act of 1956, chiefly to set up a permanent, over-arching tribunal for all such fights, is welcome given water-sharing disputes are only going to rise—all existing tribunals are to be subsumed in this and pending disputes will also be adjudicated by it. The approach is to have a staggered resolution mechanism—disputes are to be first examined by a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC), featuring subject matter experts from across “relevant fields”, set up by the Union government to negotiate a resolution within a year; if that fails, the dispute is to be taken up by a bench of the permanent tribunal. The bench must arrive at a decision in two years and also outline a sharing formula for distress situations (drought, poor rainfall, etc). The problem is the amendment Bill misses the mark on many of the shortcomings that hobbled dispute resolution under the principal Act.

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The Bill says that “a dispute which has already been adjudicated and settled by an existing Tribunal … shall not be reopened”. But, as is evident from the Cauvery river dispute, the issue has remained getting the states to implement the order though both the principal Act and the amendment Bill make it clear that a Tribunal’s order is to be final and binding. While the final order of the Tribunal had been notified by the Centre in 2013, Tamil Nadu had approached SC last year, which could then get Karnataka to commit to releasing only a much-reduced volume of water than it had originally ordered the state to release. In the case of the Sutlej-Yamuna-Link canal, the matter has been dragging since 1981, with the Punjab government passing all manner of laws to subvert the agreement it had entered into on the canal. Part of the problem is that with the 1956 Act not having given tribunals any power to enforce their awards, states have had a patchy record of adherence, keeping disputes alive for decades. Even so, with Section 11 of the Act, read together with Article 262(2) of the Constitution, effectively meaning awards can’t be challenged in the apex court—but their enforcement can—closure in, say, a Cauvery dispute has remained elusive. The amendment Bill fails to plug this loophole. At the same time, given how the real question is of implementation of awards, if the Centre doesn’t ensure that states abide by these, amending the law isn’t perhaps going to be any remedy at all. The Centre has many levers to get its writ implemented—it controls how much money states can borrow, can ensure PSUs invest in the state and can even stop multilateral agencies from extending support to states that don’t implement awards. It must use these; otherwise, a permanent water tribunal means little.

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