GS 2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
It amends the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. The Act provides for the adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-state rivers and river valleys. Under the Act, a state government may request the central government to refer an inter-state river dispute to a Tribunal for adjudication. If the central government is of the opinion that the dispute cannot be settled through negotiations, it is required to set up a Water Disputes Tribunal for adjudication of the dispute, within a year of receiving such a complaint. The Bill seeks to replace this mechanism.
Highlights of the bill
Disputes Resolution Committee: Under the Bill, when a state puts in a request regarding any water dispute, the central government will set up a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC), to resolve the dispute amicably. The DRC will comprise of a Chairperson, and experts with at least 15 years of experience in relevant sectors, to be nominated by the central government. It will also comprise one member from each state (at Joint Secretary level), who are party to the dispute, to be nominated by the concerned state government.
The DRC will seek to resolve the dispute through negotiations, within one year (extendable by six months), and submit its report to the central government. If a dispute cannot be settled by the DRC, the central government will refer it to the Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal. Such referral must be made within three months from the receipt of the report from the DRC.
Tribunal: The central government will set up an Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal, for the adjudication of water disputes. This Tribunal can have multiple benches. All existing Tribunals will be dissolved, and the water disputes pending adjudication before such existing Tribunals will be transferred to the new Tribunal.
Composition of the Tribunal: The Tribunal will consist of a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, three judicial members, and three expert members. They will be appointed by the central government on the recommendation of a Selection Committee. Each Tribunal Bench will consist of a Chairperson or Vice-Chairperson, a judicial member, and an expert member. The central government may also appoint two experts serving in the Central Water Engineering Service as assessors to advise the Bench in its proceedings. The assessor should not be from the state which is a party to the dispute.
Time frames: Under the Act, the Tribunal must give its decision within three years, which may be extended by two years. Under the Bill, the proposed Tribunal must give its decision on the dispute within two years, which may be extended by another year.
Under the Act, if the matter is again referred to the Tribunal by a state for further consideration, the Tribunal must submit its report to the central government within a period of one year. This period can be extended by the central government. The Bill amends this to specify that such extension may be up to a maximum of six months.
Decision of the Tribunal: Under the Act, the decision of the Tribunal must be published by the central government in the official gazette. This decision has the same force as that of an order of the Supreme Court. The Bill removes the requirement of such publication. It adds that the decision of the Bench of the Tribunal will be final and binding on the parties involved in the dispute. The Act provided that the central government may make a scheme to give effect to the decision of the Tribunal. The Bill is making it mandatory for the central government to make such scheme.
Data bank: Under the Act, the central government maintains a data bank and information system at the national level for each river basin. The Bill provides that the centr al government will appoint or authorise an agency to maintain such data bank.
What is new in the bill?
Put simply, the bill has three new elements — one, a permanent tribunal with exclusive benches for each dispute instead of separate tribunals in the principal act; two, a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC) to attempt an ex-ante resolution through mediated negotiations, instead of the Centre’s mediation; and three, a provision for appointing a technical agency for a data bank to support dispute resolution
The loopholes of the bill
The bill has at least three blind spots. One, it is oblivious to the recent landmark decisions of the Supreme Court. A December 2016 ruling effectively established the Court’s jurisdiction over interstate river water disputes. The party states can now appeal against the decisions of the tribunal. The Court followed it up with another order in February 2018 where it modified the allocations of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal Final award of 2007. The bill does not address the implications of these decisions. The bill has to resolve this conundrum first. In simple terms, the Supreme Court says it has jurisdiction over interstate river water disputes while the legislature says it doesn’t. The Supreme Court may have to deal with this contradiction next time a dispute escalates and is brought before it. The politicised nature of river water disputes makes the chances of such an escalation rife.
Two, the challenges around implementing the tribunal/Supreme Court’s decisions persist. The power to create the mechanism remains with Parliament, as provided by the principal act. The last instance of creating a mechanism was under the Supreme Court’s orders when the Centre created the Cauvery Water Management Authority.
Three, one cannot miss the inclusion of a committee to select the tribunal judges. The committee comprises the prime minister or a nominee as the Chairperson, the Minister of Law and Justice, the Minister of Jal Shakti and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. There may be good reasons for this, but the likely consequences do not bode well for effective resolution. States often thrive on politicising disputes. This composition will now risk states politicising not just the disputes, but their adjudication by the tribunal.
The bill has elements that convey the government’s seriousness to look for out of the box solutions. Even then, the proposed piece of legislation makes one wonder if it has enough to fix the longstanding problem. Policy making is an incremental process. That is particularly so in case of a matter as complex as interstate river water disputes — as enigmatic as the rivers themselves. The American poet Henry Longfellow’s tribute to the River Charles captures this, “Half in rest, and half in strife”.
Previous Year Questions