The Lok Sabha, on July 31, 2019, approved the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to amend the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, by a voice vote. A key feature of the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019, is the constitution of a single tribunal with different benches and the setting up of strict timelines for adjudication.
Piloting the bill, union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat said, the existing tribunals constituted for resolution of river water disputes among states, have failed to resolve the issues and a change in approach was needed. The minister said there have been instances when a tribunal could not resolve a dispute between states for 33 years. While underlining the need for strict and timely implementation of the awards of tribunals, the minister observed: “We have to focus on management of water, as neither court nor tribunal can create water.”
On concerns expressed by members regarding reliability of data, the minister said that government will make all data on water public, with a view to make everything transparent. During the debate, opposition parties like the Congress and Trinamool Congress alleged that the proposed legislation had no provision, for consultation with states and was an assault on the federal structure. In his reply, Shekhawat said the bill aims to address long-standing water disputes permanently and urged all parties to back it. He said all states were consulted way back in 2013 and then, the draft bill was sent to a standing committee. Its recommendations were taken on board before the bill was finalised, he added.
Agreeing with the concerns expressed by many members over the issue of water availability, he said India has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% replenishable water. The water issue can become a matter of concern, like climate change, he said. Under the proposed law, a retired Supreme Court judge will head the tribunal. There will be benches formed as and when required. The benches, though, will be wound up once a dispute is resolved. The tribunal will be mandated to deliver the final award in two years and it is proposed that whenever it gives the order, the verdict gets notified automatically.
As per the current provisions of the 1956 Act, a tribunal can be formed after a state government approaches the union government with such a request and the centre is convinced of the need to form the tribunal. At present, there are nine tribunals, including those on Cauvery, Mahadayi, Ravi and Beas, Vansadhara and Krishna rivers.
Opposing the bill, Congress member Manish Tewari said the proposed legislation had no provision for consultation with states, which was an ‘assault on the Constitution’. The Congress MP said the selection panel, to be set up for choosing tribunal members, would have no provision for inclusion of either leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha or leader of the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha. He also said the bill also provides for membership of a retired judge and domain experts, instead of the current provision of only a sitting judge and it ‘defeats the entire purpose’ of the proposed legislation.
The DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran said that setting up a tribunal will not resolve the disputes, unless the awards are binding on the states. He alleged that Karnataka had not abided by awards of the Cauvery river water tribunal and the state was in ‘direct contempt of court’. Maran also said that without nationalisation of rivers, water disputes would not be resolved.
Trinamool Congress member Kalyan Banerjee claimed that there have been no consultations with states by the present government whenever it takes up an issue of concurrent list of the Constitution. BJP MP Varun Gandhi suggested that on lines of the GST Council, an inter-state water council could be constituted, which will look into all the water-related disputes between different states in the country.