The government’s move to set up a permanent tribunal for resolving inter-state water disputes makes little sense. Given the dismal record of tribunals, both present and past, in settling bitterly contested water rows and states’ minimal compliance with their awards, it would be futile to expect results from the proposed new tribunal. If the objective behind this plan is to expedite the dispute disposal process, as seems to be the case, it is unlikely to be served. After all, tribunals dealing with individual inter-state wrangles take years – usually decades – to deliver their verdicts; how exactly will a single tribunal looking simultaneously into all the cases save time?
Of the several tribunals or judicial commissions set up since Independence to adjudicate on various inter-state water conflicts, few have pronounced their awards. And those that have are yet to see expeditious implementation of their awards. Either most verdicts are sent to the courts for further adjudication, or they remain unimplemented by states for fear of public discontent. In the case of the Krishna tribunal award, the Centre was, in fact, forced to set up a second tribunal to look afresh into the arguments of the concerned states, despite having accepted and notified the verdict of the original tribunal. The fate of rulings on the rivers Ravi-Beas and Cauvery has been even worse.
Both these rows have remained unresolved for decades despite post-award interventions by the judiciary and the executive at the highest level. In the Cauvery water-sharing issue, even the recent order passed by the prime minister, as head of the river basin authority, was not honoured and the matter is now before the Supreme Court. The other significant disputes awaiting settlement for decades include those concerning the Vansadhara river, the Mandovi river, the Babhali barrage and the Mullaperiyar dam. Delaying the resolution of these conflicts has resulted in either the extravagant use of water – denying a rightful share to lower riparian states – or its underutilisation along the entire river’s length, allowing it to flow wastefully into the sea.
The underlying cause for the large number of inter-state water disputes and the overall poor management of this scarce natural resource is the constitutional provision (under Entry 17) that gives the states exclusive rights over the waters that are located within their territories. This stipulation ties the Centre’s hands in ensuring implementation of even just and well-balanced tribunal rulings. The real need is not for any permanent inter-state water dispute settlement body, but to amend the Constitution to increase the Centre’s jurisdiction. Though, of course, such an amendment would be politically close to impossible. A more practical alternative is an amendment to the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act to delete the provision for setting up tribunals, and to provide for the states to go directly to the judiciary for settling their water-related rows.