New Delhi: The Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed a bill designed to speed up the resolution of long-festering inter-state water disputes by establishing a single central tribunal in place of the numerous existing ones.
Inter-state River Water Dispute (Amendment) Bill, 2019, follows the failure of existing tribunals to resolve river water disputes in a time-bound manner. Of the nine tribunals set up to adjudicate such disputes, only four have given their awards and the time taken to do so ranged from seven to 28 years, minister for Jal Shakti, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat told Parliament.
Heading the list of unresolved disputes is the one over the waters of the river Beas, which has been awaiting an award for 33 years, followed by the Cauvery dispute (29 years). Issues related to other rivers—Krishna, Narmada and Godavari—also continue to rage.
The bill proposes to set up a dispute resolution committee of experts, headed by a secretary-level officer of the government.
Once a dispute arises, it would be referred to this committee, which would have a year to resolve it, with an extension of six months.
If the committee fails to arrive at a conclusion, the matter would be referred to a Central tribunal headed by a chairperson, and comprising a vice-chairperson, three judiciary members and three experts.
The tribunal can set up multiple benches for different disputes, but would be required to arrive at a decision within three years, with a further reconsideration period of up to one-and-a-half years.
The bill was welcomed by the majority in the House, but several members expressed concerns over its implementation mechanism, and the process of appointing members and data collection.
As per the bill, the decision of the tribunal would be binding on states and have the “same force as an order of the Supreme Court", but members pointed out that there have been instances when state governments had not complied with awards, most recently the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Concern was also raised over the centralization of powers to decide such disputes, since the tribunal members would be appointed by the Central government on recommendation of a selection committee comprising the prime minister, chief justice and ministers of law and justice and Jal Shakti.
A major concern has been over data collection from river basins, the core of adjudication. Members, including Congress member of Parliament (MP) Manish Tewari said the government’s decision to outsource it to an external agency could raise questions over its “reliability".
However, Shekhawat informed the House that the government has already constituted a National Water Informatics Centre, which will collate data from all organizations including the Central Water Commission, India Meteorological Department (IMD) and state departments.
“We will also prepare a scheme for implementing the award decided by the tribunal. The entire process would be completed in a time-bound manner. The amendments address all the drawbacks of the existing Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956 and streamline the adjudication of such disputes," said Shekhawat.
“It is time that we all should re-think our strategy about water management, not just within states, but at the national level keeping the water scenario in next 30 years," he added.