River Water Disputes Bill : A Step Forward?

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The proposed amendment to the water bill seeks to solve river-dispute resolution between states. Can it solve the water crisis?

In 1992, more than two hundred thousand Tamil migrants fled Banglore, India’s Silicon Valley, after riots erupted over sharing a river. By then, the two states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had been quarrelling over their shares of the river Cauvery for a hundred years.

Ironically, while India’s water sharing agreements with Pakistan have survived military conflicts, those between its own states have not yielded satisfactory results.

With this in mind, the Union water resources minister introduced a Bill in the Lok Sabha on March 14, calling it a” revolutionary step” towards resolving water conflicts between states. The Inter-States River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017 seeks to amend a 61-year-old Act and install a single overarching tribunal to settle water-related disputes.

Under the existing 1956 Bill, river disputes between states could be settled by the Central government appointing a tribunal, who would look into the matter and deliver an ‘award’ – the allocation of water determined fair for each state. These tribunals would have the final say in the matter – article 252 (2) of the Indian Constitution bars the Supreme Court from interfering with their judgements on inter-state river disputes.

But having one tribunal for each dispute proved a lengthy process. There have been five tribunals set up so far to resolve disputes between ten states in total, with two more on the charts. Only three awards have been successfully granted so far.

The proposed bill (pending in the Lok Sabha) seeks to reduce the burden on the courts by replacing all existing tribunals with one overarching authority. States will first go through a Dispute Resolution Committee, which will have up to one and a half years to negotiate and resolve their disputes. If negotiations are deemed hopeless, the matter will be escalated to the Centre-appointed tribunal who must make the verdict within two-to-three years. The bill also stipulates a new maximum age for its members – 70.

The need for a solution to India’s water woes is long-pending. While the new bill could save much-needed space in India’s overburdened courtrooms, is it likely to bring peace to disputed rivers?

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River disputes between states predate the Constitution – in 1892, the kingdoms of Mysore and Madras (now Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) signed an agreement to divvy up how much water each could take from the river Kaveri.

It was this agreement that the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal held as valid in its final 2007 judgement – wherein Tamil Nadu gets the largest share at 419 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of water, followed by Karnataka with 270. It’s a contested agreement, a factor as much of political brinkmanship as of market forces.

States often personify their rivers; the Kaveri was called the ‘mother’ of the Kannadiga people by groups who later went on a rampage hunting down Tamil migrants and burning their homes, shops, and vehicles.

Eight years later, India’s most infamous bandit – ‘Veerappan’ kidnapped one of Karnataka’s most popular actors, demanding ‘justice’ for the Cauvery issue. It’s strange how a river can split identities – some Tamil groups began to see Veerappan as a freedom fighter of Tamizh nationalism.

The threat of states politicizing river disputes is one factor any tribunal will have to take into consideration. Market forces are another.

A 2016 Observer Research Foundation (ORF) report notes that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of paddy was increased much faster than that of Ragi (millets), leading to farmers opting to grow rice and wheat – a peg in the national food security mission. By making paddy a more incentivized crop to grow, the Central government had created a situation where a water-scarce basin was growing a water-intensive crop.

India is a water-scarce nation, with half the population expected to face scarcity by 2030. With a largely agrarian-dependent population, water management is the only way to ensure a sane use of water resources. And as is often pointed out, poor water management prevents both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu from utilizing the water they already have.

In a pioneering study, environmental economists Alan Richards and Nirvikar Singh of the University of California call India’s water dispute mechanisms ‘ambiguous and opaque’. They point out that existing mechanisms allow only for negotiations or compulsory legal adjudication, and that tribunals take too long to produce a verdict.

By consolidating all the diverse tribunals into one and setting firm limits on judgement timelines, the proposed bill could potentially address some of the concerns about India’s water dispute resolution laws. But as long as the Centre has to wield a stick to get states to share water, there will increasingly emerge situations where one is made to suffer at the hands of another.

India has yet to utilize the endless amounts of wastewater it generates. The untapped potential of wastewater management, rainwater harvesting, and smarter water management outshines the gains of states ‘winning’ disputes in court.

When there is no water to drink, no amount of arbitration will suffice.

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