Inter-state Disputes and Their Redressal in India

In a federal constitution, the sovereignty is divided between the federation and its units. When sovereignty is divided, it is bound to raise disputes. There is a variety of mechanisms under the constitution and outside of it for settlement of inter-state disputes. For your examination, we can discuss the major topics under broad titles as follows:

  • Scope of Article 131 {original jurisdiction of Supreme Court} in Inter-state disputes settlements
  • Scope of Article 262 in Inter-state river disputes
  • Scope of Article 136 {Special Leave Petition}
  • Scope of article 263 {Inter-state Council} in Inter-state disputes.

We discuss each of them here one by one.

Scope of Article 131

Article 131 is the main provision in the constitution regarding centre-state / inter-state disputes. This article confers upon Supreme Court of India exclusive jurisdiction to deal with a dispute involving legal rights; and also disputes:

  • between the Government of India and one or more States; or
  • between the Government of India and any State or States on one side and one or more other States on the other; or
  • between two or more States.

However, there is a proviso to this article which says that such jurisdiction does not extend to a dispute that arises out of any treaty, agreement, covenant, engagement, sanad or similar instrument entered into by the Government before enactment of the constitution.

We note here that via various judicial pronouncements, the court has established that:

  • This article cannot be invoked if one party is a private individual.
  • This article cannot be invoked if one party is a public sector corporation.
  • This article is not applicable if dispute is purely political and does not involve any question of legal right.
  • The element of public law should be component of the dispute.

At the same time, Supreme Court has provided that such a dispute between two governments must be a “federal dispute”. Recently, the AAP government had filed a petition in court regarding statehood of Delhi under article 131 but court even did not hear that petition because as per court, it was not a federal dispute. Despite these, this article has a wide jurisdiction.

Further, we also note that via the 42nd amendment, 1976, an article 131-A was inserted which conferred the Supreme Court exclusive jurisdiction in regard to constitutional validity of the central laws.  But this article was later repealed by 43rd amendment 1977.

Scope of Article 262 in Inter-state river disputes

Water {including water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power} was put in the state list {entry-17} but the regulation and development of inter-state river valleys was put in entry 56 of the Union List. Under article 262, neither the Supreme Court nor any other court can exercise jurisdiction in respect of inter-state water disputes. Thus, this article gave weapon to parliament to enact a law and ban Supreme Court and high courts to adjudicate the inter-state river disputes.

Using powers of this article, Parliament enacted the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (IRWD Act) to resolve the water disputes that would arise in the use, control and distribution of an interstate river or river valley. This act is applicable to only inter-state rivers and river valleys and only when activities of an upstream state affect the interest or downstream state or vice versa. Further, when the riparian states are not able to reach to an amicable agreement, section 4 of this act provides for creation of a Tribunal. The tribunal created this way has power of a Civil Court but its verdict is equivalent to the Supreme Court verdict when pronounced in the ambit of IRWD Act. The final verdict of such tribunal when accepted by Central Government is notified in official gazette and becomes a law, binding upon the states for implementation.

However, verdict of the tribunal can be challenged in Supreme Court via civil suits. The IRWD act was amended in 2002 to provide that:

  • If there is any Tribunal award which predates 2002, itcan not be altered by new tribunals
  • If there is any tribunal award which post dates 2002,can be altered by new tribunals. The idea is to resolve fresh water disputes which were not addressed by earlier tribunals/ agreements as and when they surface.

So far,  the awards of four Inter-State Water Tribunals have been notified viz. Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal (April 1969), Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal (April 1969), Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (October 1969) and Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (June 1990)

Out of them, the first three tribunal awards were issued before the year 2002 which cannot be altered by the new tribunals. The tribunals formed on sharing water of Ravi & Beas rivers, Vamsadhara River, Mahadayi / Mandovi River and Krishna River-2 are either yet to pronounce the verdicts or the issued verdicts are to be accepted by the Government of India. Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal announced its final verdict on 5 February 2007; and it has mired into controversy, which we would discuss in upcoming documents.

River Boards Act

In 1956, the parliament had also enacted a River Boards Act to entrust the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to River Boards. A river board was to advise the central government on development opportunities; coordinate activities and resolve disputes. However, no river board has been created so far.

Scope of Article 136 {Special Leave Petition}

Article 136 says that Supreme Court, in its discretion, may grant special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any court or tribunal in the territory of India. Since article 262 bars the court to adjudicate the matters related to inter-state river disputes, this article has been used frequently to obviate this bar.

Scope of article 263 {Inter-state Council} in Inter-state disputes

Via article 263, the Constitution entrusts the President to create an inter-state council, which along with other functions, is competent tender advice regarding the resolution of inter-State dispute.

However, it took four decades to get such council established. Why? This was because initially {till 1967}, most states in India were under rule of a common party {Congress} and it was easier to resolve disputes. After 1967, other parties or coalitions than the one running at centre or neighbouring states started ruling. These governments with different opinions and political visions were unable to solve the disputes in inter-state problems. Setting up of this council was based on Sarkaria Commission recommendations. It was set up in 1990 but not a single meeting was held for long time. It was only during Atal Bihari Vajpayee government tenure when the council was revived and meetings happened almost every year. However, even today, the Inter-state Council has been largely under-utilized and ignored.

Last Updated: September 27, 2016

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