The tribunals dealing with inter-State river water disputes are notorious for the time they take to finalise awards, which often become contentious and get caught in a legal quagmire. The Ravi-Beas Water Disputes Tribunal has been at it for 33 years, the Cauvery one for 29 years and others adjudicating the Krishna, Narmada and Godavari waters close to a decade and yet no award is in sight. Over the years, there has been a growing number of inter-State water disputes, which often snowball into political fights, adversely affecting the interests of people on either side of the divide. Against this backdrop, a new legislation, passed by the Lok Sabha, to expedite and streamline the resolution of inter-State water disputes is a welcome move. The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019, is significant for two reasons: First, it provides for constitution of a single centralised tribunal with different benches to streamline the adjudication of disputes and make the present legal and institutional architecture robust to overcome these challenges. Second, it seeks to set strict timelines for adjudication. Though some opposition parties like the DMK and the Biju Janata Dal have raised serious concerns over appropriation of more powers by the Centre to decide water disputes between States, the issue must be analysed from a broader, national perspective. By seeking to put in place a new architecture for tribunals for faster redressal of disputes, the new legislation deserves bipartisan support from all States.
Though the existing Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956 provides for a legal framework to address disputes, it suffers from many drawbacks. There is neither any provision for fixing a time limit for adjudication nor is there any mechanism for continuation of work in case of any vacancy or time limit for publishing the report of the tribunal. The new legislation provides for a two-tier dispute resolution mechanism. The Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) to be headed by a secretary-level officer of the Central government with experts from relevant fields and a centralised tribunal with multiple benches, instead of multiple tribunals that exist now. The decision of the tribunal would be final, binding on States and have the same force as an order of the Supreme Court. A retired Supreme Court judge will head the tribunal and benches will be formed as and when required. States can approach the tribunal for resolution of their disputes and once resolved, the bench would be wound up. It is significant that both the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the YSR Congress Party have welcomed the new legislation. The leaders of the two parties have already become role models for other States in taking a fresh approach to resolve inter-State water disputes.