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Inter-State water disputes

By July 7, 2022May 22nd, 2023Mains Answer Writing, PSIR OPTIONAL

Ques. Comment on the Inter-State water disputes and the available mechanisms for resolving the same.


    • India faces a ‘water-stressed’ situation currently and the Union government has formed a Jal Shakti ministry to ensure water governance in India. As a result, a number of states sharing rivers like Godavari, Cauvery, Mahadeyi, etc have been involved in prolonged disputes. 
    • With respect to constitutional provisions, the subject of water comes under the entry 17 of State list, subject to the provisions of Entry 56 under the Union List, allowing the Union government to regulate on matters concerning development of inter-state river water and river valleys. In the matter of inter-state water disputes the Constitution of India has specified Article 262 where the Parliament
      • can provide for the adjudication of the dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution and control of waters in any inter-state river and river valley.
      • can provide that no court (not even Supreme Court) would exercise jurisdiction over any such issue.
    • Following this the Parliament enacted The River Boards Act (1956), Inter-State River Water Disputes Act (1956). The River Boards (1956) were supposed to prevent conflicts by preparing development schemes and working out the costs to each State. 
    • It must be mentioned however that no such board has been created under this Act. The Inter State River Water Disputes Act (1956) has empowered the Central Government to set up an ad-hoc tribunal for the adjudication of a dispute in relation to a state river or river valley between two or more states. This decision would be final and binding without the jurisdiction of any court in this matter.
    • The Inter State River Water Disputes Act is applicable in cases of interstate rivers where the action of one state affects the other one, be it by the building of a dam, barrage, anthropogenic activities or obstruction in flow of non-flood water. When the riparian states are not able to reach an amicable agreement on their own, section 4 of the Act provides dispute resolution in the form of a Tribunal. 
    • The tribunal that is formed has the power of a civil court but its verdict is equivalent to that of the Supreme Court. However, it can be challenged in the Supreme Court via civil suits. The Union Government has also used Article 143(1), 131 and 156 on matters of the Inter-state rivers by the involvement of the Supreme Court. The Act was amended in 2002 to include the following:
      • A tribunal predating 2002 cannot be altered by new tribunals while those post 2002 can be altered. This was done to address fresh water disputes that were not looked at by earlier tribunals/agreements.
      • The award should be given within three years with an extension of two years in special circumstances. This was done in view of the recommendation by Sarkaria Commission.
    • S. Modak and A.K. Ghosh argue that federal-jurisdictional ambiguity, historico-jurisdictional ambiguity and institutional ambiguity have led to conflictual federalism emerging with regard to water governance in India. ISRWD Amendment Bill 2019, River Basins Management Bill 2018 and Dams safety Bill 2019 are being touted as a correction to these ambiguities but it remains to be seen whether these bills will see the light of the day and resolve hydro-politics hostilities in the country.