Inter - State Water Dispute

Inter - State Water Dispute


Inter-State River Water Disputes pose significant challenges within the structure of Indian federalism. Recent instances, such as the Cauvery Water Dispute and the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal case, underscore the potential strain on interstate relationships.

Despite the establishment of Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunals, their operational efficacy has been beset by inherent issues. This article endeavors to critically assess the existing mechanisms, contemplating the need for a potential reevaluation and the exploration of a new framework to address and resolve these intricate disputes.

Constitutional provisions: 

  • Entry 17: Water finds a place as a State subject, designated under entry 17 of the State List in the Indian Constitution. This confers the power upon individual states to formulate and enact legislation concerning various aspects of water, encompassing water supply, irrigation, canals, drainage, embankments, water storage, and water power.
  • Entry 56: Complementing the state's jurisdiction, entry 56 of the Union List empowers the Union Government to regulate and develop inter-state rivers and river valleys. This authority is exercised based on declarations made by Parliament in the interest of the public.
  • Article 262: In anticipation of potential water disputes, the Constituent Assembly incorporated a specific provision, Article 262, into the Indian Constitution. This article provides a framework for the resolution of disputes related to water. According to Article 262:
  • Parliament is granted the authority to pass laws for the adjudication of disputes or complaints regarding the use, distribution, or control of waters in inter-State rivers or river valleys.
  • Article 262 empowers Parliament to decide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction over such water-related disputes or complaints. This provision acknowledges the intricacies and sensitivities inherent in water-related issues and establishes a mechanism for their resolution at the parliamentary level.

Laws Enacted Under Article 262

1) River Boards Act, 1956:

The River Boards Act of 1956 was established by Parliament to empower the Union Government in creating Boards for Interstate Rivers and river valleys. These Boards, developed in consultation with State Governments, serve the purpose of providing advice on inter-state basins. Their primary objectives include the formulation of development schemes and the prevention of conflicts among different states.

2) Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956:

In situations where one or more states approach the Union Government seeking the constitution of a tribunal, the Inter-State Water Dispute Act of 1956 comes into play.

  • Consultation Attempts: The Central Government initially endeavors to resolve the matter through consultations among the aggrieved states.
  • Tribunal Formation: If the consultation process proves ineffective, the Central Government has the authority to constitute a tribunal to address the water dispute.

Composition of the River Water Tribunal:

The tribunal is formed by the Chief Justice of India and comprises a sitting judge of the Supreme Court along with two additional judges who may be from either the Supreme Court or a High Court. This composition ensures a fair and knowledgeable representation for the resolution of inter-state water disputes.

Factors Contributing to Inter-State Water Disputes

  • Asymmetrical Access to River Water: When a river flows across state boundaries, the upstream state often has an advantage, creating an imbalance between upstream and downstream states.
  • Rising Water Demand: Projections indicate a 22% and 32% increase in India's total water demand by 2025 and 2050, respectively. This heightened demand exerts pressure on limited water reserves, exacerbating inter-state water disputes.
  • Ambiguity in Water Usage Rights: The allocation of water usage rights is outlined in Schedule VII of the Indian Constitution, with states having authority over aspects like storage, electricity, and irrigation. However, these powers are interrelated, leading to ambiguity and potential conflicts over water usage.
  • Lack of an Integrated Approach: The existing water governance structure in India follows a fragmented, piecemeal approach, relying heavily on quantitative measures like arithmetic hydrology. This approach neglects the intricate social, ecological, and cultural dimensions associated with water.
  • Other Contributing Issues:
  • Impact of MSPs: Government policies, such as the Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) for rice and wheat, contribute to a significant increase in water demand. This surge has resulted in interstate water conflicts, evident in basins like Krishna, Cauvery, Teesta, and the SYL dispute between Punjab and Haryana.
  • Dynamic State Boundaries: The continual alteration of state boundaries in India, driven by cultural and political factors, adds another layer of complexity to inter-state water disputes.

Current Mechanism for Resolving Inter-State River Water Disputes in India

In India, the resolution of water disputes between states is governed by the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956. According to this law, if a state government has a water-related disagreement with another state, it can approach the Central Government to refer the matter to a tribunal. The decision of this tribunal is considered final.

Active River Water Sharing Tribunals in India

  • Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal II (2004):
    • States Involved: Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra.
  • Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal (2018):
    • States Involved: Odisha, Chhattisgarh.
  • Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal (2010):
    • States Involved: Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra.
  • Ravi & Beas Water Tribunal (1986):
    • States Involved: Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan.
  • Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal (2010):
    • States Involved: Andhra Pradesh, Odisha.

Challenges in Resolving Inter-State Water Disputes

  • Delayed Resolution: Prolonged proceedings and extended delays in resolving river water disputes contribute to inefficiencies. An illustrative example is the 11-year duration for the Godavari water dispute tribunal to reach a decision.
  • Ambiguity: Article 262 prevents the Supreme Court from directly adjudicating inter-state river water disputes. However, Article 136 empowers the Supreme Court to hear appeals against tribunal decisions, leading to ambiguity in the execution of tribunal orders.
  • Politicization of Disputes: Some political parties exploit inter-state water disputes as platforms to pursue political objectives, complicating the resolution process.
  • Lack of Multidisciplinary Approach: Tribunals in India predominantly comprise judicial members, lacking input from specialists such as ecologists. This gap hampers the quality of orders and decisions.

Way Forward

  • Enabling Cooperation: A fundamental shift is needed from the current conflict-centric approach towards a cooperative one. Deeper integration of states in deliberative processes and reinforcing cooperative federalism are essential.
  • Basin Approach: Emphasis on ecological restoration, conservation of river ecosystems, balancing water supply and demand for human use, and adopting a regional approach for effective river water management.
  • Multidisciplinary Approach: Institutional structures, such as Water Management Boards, should include experts from various disciplines, including environmentalists and geographers. This inclusion enhances the efficacy of water boards in providing ecologically and environmentally friendly solutions.
  • Water Policy: Parameters such as the extent of the river basin drainage area in each state, contribution of water to the river basin by each state, climate, dependent population in the river basin, and the extent of arid and semi-arid areas in each state should be integral components of the water policy. These parameters contribute to resolving water disputes on reasonable and equitable lines.


India encompasses 2.4% of the Earth's land area and sustains 18% of the global population. However, its renewable water resources constitute only 4% of the world's total. Therefore, the intricacies of Inter-State Water Disputes in India necessitate a careful examination of existing challenges and potential solutions. Achieving sustainable water management and equitable resolution demands collaborative efforts, an inclusive approach, and a commitment to balancing the diverse needs of the nation. Striking this delicate equilibrium is crucial for fostering interstate harmony and securing the nation's water resources for future generations.

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