Unresolved issues in Water Bills

While the intention of the Centre is commendable, it is important to infuse the federal spirit into the three Bills

By Author Salla Vijaya Kumar   |   Published: 16th Sep 2019   12:09 am Updated: 15th Sep 2019   11:35 pm

Three Bills pertaining to water are expected to be passed in Parliament this year. These Bills have been under the process for over a decade.

Since these Bills would have a large impact on the management and utilisation of water resources of the States, it would be prudent on the part of the Union government if some more elaborate discussions are carried out wherever necessary and specific changes made in the Bills as per the States’ needs. The three Bills are as under:

1. River Basin Management Bill, 2019

The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, have already been introduced in Parliament. The Draft River Basin Management Bill, 2019, is most likely to be introduced in the Winter session.

Eminent engineer, ND Gulhati, had said the intentions of Parliament about the scope of the River Boards Act, 1956 was “for the wider purpose, the positive function of promoting a basin-wide approach in developments on inter-State rivers, in a coordinated manner, to resolve the difficulties involving the rights of respective States in a cooperative manner.”

The Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, he said, was “for the limited purpose of settlement of disputes, as a judicial function of Government, essentially concerned with adjudication of disputes.” Unfortunately, so far, no river board has been established under the River Boards Act but eight Tribunals and a review Tribunal (on Krishna river) have been constituted.
The Draft River Basin Management Bill, 2019, is intended to amend the River Boards Act, 1956. The Bill has rightly stressed the river basin approach and integrated development of the basin. Recognising the hydrological unity of a river basin and environmental aspects seem to be the basis of the proposed Bill.

However, if river boards or river basin authorities had been notified before constituting of the River Water Dispute Tribunals, it would have helped in equitable and reasonable utilisation of water in basin areas. At this juncture, to constitute River Basin Authorities, which have to function as per the Tribunal Awards, may not help regions/States, which got a raw deal in the Tribunal Awards. A glaring example is of the Telangana region, which is now a State.

2. Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019

The purpose of the ISRWD Act, 1956, was “to provide for the constitution of an ad hoc Tribunal, as and when necessary” to adjudicate water disputes since “past experience has shown that water disputes have not been very frequent and there is not likely to be enough work to justify a permanent Tribunal.”

Since then, several ad hoc tribunals have been constituted and many of them gave their decisions. The present Bill does not change the ‘ad hoc’ nature of the tribunals. A timeframe is stipulated besides proposing disputes resolution committees consisting of experts and mandatory technical members in each bench of the tribunal along with two assessors. It has also mandated the Tribunal to cover the technical aspects of water. Apart from these, setting up a permanent Tribunal for reducing the time for logistics and infrastructure creation is a step in the right direction.

But there are some issues left unanswered in the Bill. It is pertinent to recall the observations of the KWDT-II that “Disputes… can be referred again considering the significant material changes…” For instance, Krishna water is being augmented by the waters of the Godavari or the areas currently served with the Krishna are augmented with Godavari waters, and projects like Prakasam barrage no longer require Krishna waters to serve the ayacut.

Hence, the saved Krishna waters can be utilised in drought-prone areas of Mahabubnagar, Rangareddy and Nalgonda districts. Koyna power-related diversions into the Arabian Sea can be utilised for the irrigation needs in the Krishna basin. Further, there are huge savings in water utilisations in the light of technological advancements. Similarly, there is non-realisation of waters under minor irrigation tanks in Telangana, which needs supplementation from main stream. Under all such changed circumstances, a relook by the Tribunals is inevitable.

Ghanshyam Jha, ex-chairman of Central Water Commission, clarified that “functional dynamics of the water sector must remain valid whenever an effort is made to have equitable distribution of water among the riparian States.”

“Protecting the first developer within the international rules institutionalises the inequity between riparian States, and therefore the rules are hindering late developing States from utilising water resources and at the same time allowing the first developers to continue using the water resources (even in an inefficient or wasteful manner),” state Kai Wegerich & Oliver Olsson.

3. Dam Safety Bill, 2019

Here the government intends to create a national committee on dam safety and a National Dam Safety Authority to prevent dam failure related disasters. State-level committees and organisations will be set up under the respective State governments. Already, several guidelines on dam safety are published by the Bureau of Indian Standards.

The role of the central authorities should be limited to advisory nature in normal circumstances and they should regulate the control of dams directly or indirectly only during emergencies. Their sphere of activities, including issues related to ‘inter-State conflicts’ must be confined to dam safety only. They should not involve in regular water-sharing arrangements and releases for irrigation, etc, which are in State governments’ domain.

States’ Initiatives

Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat signed an agreement among themselves in 1974 through which Rajasthan was made party to Narmada Water Dispute. In 2016, at the initiative of the Telangana government with a ‘give and take’ cooperative approach, and with the support of the Maharashtra government, a historic agreement was concluded which paved the way for construction of barrages on rivers bordering those States.
Keeping the national perspective in view, the efforts of the Union government in bringing the three Bills are commendable. It is equally the responsibility of the government to infuse the federal spirit into the Bills and make them go well with the changed circumstances with respect to the regions/States in the river basins.

(The author is Secretary, Telangana Engineers JAC)

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