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India Centralizes Inter-state Water Dispute Resolution Process

NEW DELHI, India

The government of India's lower parliamentary house has passed a bill to amend the country's Inter-State River Water Disputes Act. The purpose of the amendment to 1956 legislation is to address shortcomings that have led to lengthy proceedings and, often, no resolution of ongoing disputes.

Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat said July 31: “Disputes have to be resolved and they have to be done in a time-bound manner. Today climate change and water scarcity are issues that need our immediate attention". 

Since the 1956 legislation, only four of nine water tribunals have submitted a report; some after extended delays of 28 years.

The original law did not set an enforcebale time limit for adjudication, and tribunals have been extended indefinitely. There is little data on river basins, and has been no defined retirement schedule for members.

The new Bill establishes a single central tribunal with regional benches and sets out strict time lines for adjudication: a dispute resolution committee of 1.5 years, a centralized tribunal of 3 years, and possible appeal period of 1.5 years.

The tribunal will be appointed by the country's Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and ministers for law and justice as well as Jal Shakti. The tribunal will have a chairman, a vice-chairman and six members, three judicial and three experts. Age limitations have been set and retirements will occur upon resolution of a dispute.

Once the Bill is approved and the new tribunal established, all existing disputes will be transferred. It is hoped this may help to bring a conclusion to the Ravi-Beas Water Disputes Tribunal that has been sitting for 33 years and the Cauvery Disputes Tribunal (29 years and counting).

Additionally, there is provision for a transparent data collection system at the national level for each river basin.

There have been objections to the new amendmenton grounds that States have not been consulted, and that the central government wants more control over water.

Environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar says mere tinkering with the system without developing a proper understanding of the nature and process of the resolution would not help.

“When it comes to resolution, he says the tribunals look at a river as a channel of water and its distribution, ignoring that it is a complete ecosystem and that water in a river depends on the state of its basin and catchment area. It also depends on the extraction of groundwater. These aspects are ignored by the tribunals. Moreover, a state does not represent a river basin or all its stakeholders (the people using river water.”

India Today describes the new amendment as “forward thinking” by India's central government: “The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill says the number of inter-state water disputes is on the rise due to an increase in demand for more water by states. Though the existing Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956 provides for a legal framework to address such disputes, it suffers from many drawbacks, which this Bill seeks to address".

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