Proposed Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017

With water increasingly becoming a scarce resource and the disputes related to river water sharing becoming so frequent and prolonging, the Central government has proposed to bring about an amendment in the current Inter-state River Water Disputes Act, 1956. The experience gained from the long drawn Cauvery water dispute among the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has given impetus to this Bill.

Drawbacks of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956

Some of the major drawbacks of the Act are:

Setting up of tribunals

Although the Act provided for establishing tribunals in every state for resolution of water disputes, states have shown a general reluctance to do this. This is due to a lack of mechanism for enforcing this provision to compel states to comply.

Constitution of tribunals

Even after tribunals are set up, there are no deadlines fixed on them to decide a dispute. There is also no age limit fixed for the chairman and other members of the tribunal. This has resulted in persons sitting on the chairs for years with little scope given for entry of fresh brains and skills in the tribunal.

Procedural issues

The procedure for hearing and declaring awards involves a huge period of time under the Act. The first stage that the central government has to be satisfied that a dispute has arisen wherein negotiation of parties is not possible itself takes years. After that regular delays in the legal system are a common phenomenon in India. In fact, the Sarkaria Commission had recommended certain time limits for the setting up of the tribunal as one year after the request of the state and five years for passing of the final award. But none of these were accepted and incorporated in the Act.

Lack of enforcement mechanism

There is no method by which any award passed by the tribunal can be enforced and made binding on the parties. The ISWD tribunal has been given power to pass an award but no power to enforce it. The only bar was in the form of further appeal. But this did not yield fruits as the Cauvery Water Dispute went to the Supreme Court on the issue of whether the interim order of the ISWD tribunal was binding on parties.

Proposed Amendments

  • The statement of objects and reasons of the Bill provides that it has been set up to amicably solve water disputes as early as possible.
  • There is a proposal for setting up one Inter-state River Water Disputes Tribunal which is to have multiple benches.
  • With respect to age limit it has been proposed that persons holding a post and above the age of 70 years shall cease to hold office. But this Bill has not been given a retrospective effect, so old matters already solved shall not be reheard.
  • There must be a Disputes Resolution Committee at the Centre for assisting the states. This Committee must consist of experts from all fields. This has been proposed owing to the fact that the deciding water disputes requires a lot of technical understanding and cannot be dealt with by a person merely from legal background.
  • The tribunal shall now consist of a chairperson, a vice chairperson and six members who are well versed with issues related to water disputes. The members are to be nominated by the Chief Justice of India or judges of Supreme Court and High Court.
  • The tenure for service has been laid down to five years or attaining the age of 70 whichever is earlier. Additionally the tenure of vice chairperson and members has been made co-terminus with the adjudication of disputes.
  • The time limit for adjudication of disputes is to be four and a half years. The decision is to be final and binding.

Most of the deficiencies in the Act have been addressed in the amendments. But the extent of its success will depend on its implementation in due course of time.

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