Debate: Should water be brought under Centre's control to settle inter-state disputes?

Sushmita Sengupta curates a debate among India's top water policy experts

By Sushmita Sengupta
Last Updated: Wednesday 03 August 2016

Against the spirit of decentralisation

The rationale for shifting water from the Concurrent to the Central List of the Constitution is that this will help the Centre to deal with inter-state water disputes better. But this may not be the case. First, this is against the spirit of decentralisation. Second, most of the states would not agree as this would be seen as taking away their powers. Third, the Centre already has powers to effectively intervene in inter-state water issues and disputes through the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (IRWD Act) and the River Boards Act, 1956. Our experience with water tribunals has been dismal, and governments have never made serious attempts to implement the River Boards Act for political reasons. There is a need to revisit both these acts to ascertain whether we can streamline them and make them more effective.

If water is moved to the Central List, then the ambitious project of river interlinking will become easier. In fact, this is one of the primary reasons for pushing this agenda. The so-called “surplus” states are already up in arms against the interlinking project. So shifting water to the Central List would give more powers to the Centre to push this agenda, which in any case will not solve the problem of water scarcity.
Shifting water to the Central List will become essential

Water is not a commodity to be handled at the local level. It is a complex subject, as someone knowingly or unknowingly can use somebody else’s water. It should be handled in a manner as recommended in the National Water Policy. The approach should be at the basin level.

Shifting water to the Central List will become essential in the long run. No doubt, solutions can be local, but the implications will be at basin level only. It is time to think of demand management, rather than source exploitation.

Every time there is a dispute among the states, a tribunal is constituted. Our aim should be to avoid setting up tribunals. If you create basin boards, then we can avoid conflicts between states. States should have a clear understanding about their share of water. There are scientific tools available to quantify resource availability; to measure how much of it is surface water; and, how much is groundwater. Even environmental flows can be quantified. A demand agreement can be worked upon.

Once water comes under the Central List, the pollution problem can be tackled easily.

We need to legislate for this.

We need to ensure that the river water is clean before it leaves a certain state and enters another state. An adequate observational approach needs to be put in place, which can be done by the Union government.
Water is a common heritage

The need for local regulation of water has become more pertinent since groundwater extraction has increased significantly since the Constitution was adopted. Cooperation among states has become paramount since water needs to be addressed simultaneously, both at the local and global levels. This implies that the State—whether at the level of panchayats, state or Union level—cannot assert ownership or exclusive control over water because its regulation needs to take into account its multiple functions at multiple levels. Ultimately, water needs to be seen as a common heritage. At the same time, the fact that water is a state subject does mean that the Union government has no role to play; it needs to be a subsidiary. The Waterways Act, 2016, is an assertion of this centralisation, and this can be done within the existing constitutional framework—a number of rivers have already been given the “national” tag.

The real issue is how to resolve conflicts arising over allocation of water to different uses. One of the shortcomings of the River Boards Act is that it does not offer a framework to solve disputes. So each water tribunal has to adjudicate without any legal framework. This explains, in part, the length of the proceedings and the difficulty in getting awards implemented.
Against the grain

The proponents of this line of thinking, base their argument on the following: the difficulty in the resolution of longstanding inter-state water conflicts under the existing scheme of things and the present practice of states, being non-uniform, discourages a national consensus on water-sharing principles, and a shared national concern for conservation, and equitable use.

This argument flies in the face of certain systemic aberrations, institutional incapacities and conceptual problems inherent in legal formulations.

Much has been written about the Constitutional difficulties in making the law work effectively in relation to resolution of inter-state water conflicts. The reference is obviously to the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956. This has, indeed, been used as a handle for strengthening the arguments on centralisation of law-making power with the Union. There is hardly any concrete evidence available to demonstrate, in very clear terms, that such a route is more desirable and effective than trusting the states in that regard.

The problem is, essentially, the attitude of the central bureaucracy. A message attempted to be conveyed through this is that the Centre has the monopoly of wisdom, vision and direction for better management of resources. This, if not anything else, is undemocratic and against the grain of the Constitutional evolution leading to decentralisation of not just political power, but in the management of resources as well, ushered through the 73rd and 74th Amendements.
It will push privatisation

Shifting water to the Central List will not solve inter-state water disputes, such as the Mullaperiyar water dispute. In longstanding issues like the Mullaperiyar, the judgement of the Supreme Court and legal recourse taken by Kerala is binding, even if water is shifted to Central List. The solution lies in a combined strategy of local water harvesting, improving irrigation efficiency and ecosystem-based river basin planning for Tamil Nadu. As for Kerala, the river Periyar has lost much of its flows due to dams and diversions, which were built after the Mullaperiyar dam. It is presently struggling to reach the sea. The changed circumstances over the last 120 years since the Mullaperiyar dam was built compel us to take a holistic approach towards resolving inter-state water disputes.

Importantly, it is suspected that such a move by the Centre is to provide legality to the interlinking of rivers and push for privatisation of waterbodies.

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  • The river need to be in central list for the sustained benefit because they pass through several states.This will probably help in dealing inter state conflict. and implement policy for river development.

    Posted by: Asesh Lahiri | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Water should stay in the concurrent list because it is both a local and national resource.The arguments provided for Centre to take complete control are based on technical and legal time delays for inter-State river disputes.The solution for these delays is not centralization, but strengthening the current dispute resolution mechanisms by bringing a strict time bound legal framework that is protected from state level jingoism and political one-upmanship.Besides that Centre cannot usurp the constitutional powers of State governments.Another dimension to this is that how is the central government going to solve river disputes exclusively between two States without adequate representation from State governments and giving a verdict free of political patronage.This current trend of centralization of powers is not a good thing and its not the required evolution of our Constitution.

    Posted by: Aravind | 4 years ago | Reply
  • shifiting to central list, will not be a solution,because problem realated to water starts from our own habits,from our homes only....shifting it central indicates,as if we are blaming our neighbour for keeping the tap open of our home.so i think it will only increase the burden of a central.rather den rectifying it.bz thngs should be first shorted out at lower level.

    Posted by: Anita Bisht | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Observations are brilliant. " The primary entry in the Constitution relating to water is indeed Entry 17 in the State List, but it is explicitly made subject to the provisions of Entry 56 in the Union List which enables the Union to deal with inter-State rivers if Parliament legislates for the purpose." Thus, Water is today a State subject(list 2) except Inter-State Waters which are in the Union List(List 1). Correct the factual inaccuracies in the observations above.Headline itself is factually wrong. SRIRAM'S IAS, NEW DELHI. www.sriramsias.com

    Posted by: Sriram | 4 years ago | Reply
  • On this issue I discussed in my book “Irrigation and Irrigation Projects in India: Tribunals, Disputes and Water Wars”, BS Publications, Hyderabad, India and my proposals submitted to the government on two draft Acts relating to surface & ground water. In this I proposed a permanent system at the centre to resolve inter-state and intra-state disputes unlike present tribunals filled with retired judges with little technical knowledge on the subject matter but with unfettered powers. After this the irrigation minister and finance minister expressed their agenda on similar lines. Under this even the courts have no powers to intervene the decision of the tribunal even if it is a “technical Fraud” to favour one state at the cost of another state. The classical example is Brijesh Kumar Tribunal on Krishna River Water. This tribunal bulldozed the Bachawat tribunal award. Here the politicians from Karnataka and Maharashtra played the key role under the disguise of bifurcation of AP. They appointed the tribunal of their choice and even after words extended the tribunal term. In the bifurcated two states they are trying to show they are the first and in this way the past project were neglected and proposed at huge costs new ones. For example, though Polavaram project [this includes the inter-linking of rivers and water flows through gravity] was cleared, the AP new government initiated a lift irrigation scheme and put the water in to the Polavarams right canal and called it Pattiseema interlinking project as the credit goes to Dr. Y. S. Raja Shekar Reddy who initiated Polavaram project and completed right canal that help interlinking of rivers before he died in an accidental accident in 2009. He got all clearances and even the government ready to confer national status but at the cabinet meeting Jai Ram Ramesh a Karnataka politician created problem to use it as a bargain point for bi-furcation. The pattiseema project breached on two occasions with three time laying foundation stones to create publicity saying that he was the first to create interlinking. So far it helped to pump around 4 TMC. In the case of Telangana, the Pranahita-Chevella project was imitated by Dr. Y. S. Raja Shekar Reddy to irrigate and provide drinking water to 7 districts of 10 Telangana districts. Large part of the project work was completed. This was changed by the present TRS Chief Minister by limiting water mostly to his, his son’s & daughter representing districts in the north Telangana. For south Telangana he is building lift irrigation schemes without any allocated water either under allocated or surplus water to the level of more than 150 TMC and proposed to lift water at dead storage level of Srisailam Dam in the upper side of the river Krishna that create war scenario between south Telangana and AP. All these planned at more than two lakh crores. If we have permanent body, these will not happen. Politicians of the day will not act to get percentages on the name of remodeling.
    So, we need under the present political scenario a permanent body at the centre to media the states. As part of this they must maintain river water flows year-wise and their variability with natural precipitation variability.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy | 4 years ago | Reply
  • The dispute between is two parties is genuine in against their interest, then it is good in negotiation making better relation making more understandable. In the case of Seventh schedule, as quasi federal federal nature of Union of India making states become dependent rather more elaborative and having relation with other states in matters of etc. in addition of water as a factor as taking the subject now. My opinion is simple that only the water those sharing with different nations has be under List-I and others have to be in List-II of the Seventh schedule of Indian constitution.

    Posted by: Sivaprasad Naik Barmavath | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Write Your comment
    The idea of moving water to central list gives an impression that water dispute and other matters would be dealt in a better way.But how to ensure the interest of the state?There is every liklihood that Central govt view may be imposed
    And in case of two diffrent government at the State and Centre, the state is likely to suffer as seen in recent times the Central govt views are imposed on states.
    There should be adequate safeguard mechanism to be devised first then initiate steps to move it.
    Before taking any steps in this regard,Why both the state and central government /its agencies are not taking water conservation measures to conseve water seriously?
    Last year There was a sever drought. From the Month of March onwards There should have been measures to water conservation measures to contain as much water as possible.
    There is no alternative to water.Nor any body can create water.

    Posted by: Sudhir Mishra | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Water disputes should be in the list 3 i.e. concurrent list , only it creates burden on centre. If it will included in union list then it creates huge chaos, waste the precious time of govt by amending & then making new provisions etc. & about Water sharing more focus & importance should be given origin state of the river provided there should not be any loss to other states.

    Posted by: Prafull Mittal | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Solution is always at local level

    It is the common people who are most dependent and also worstly affected because of these water conflict be it in shortage or in excess. Hence they are the first stakeholders and should having capacity to deal with all such conflict. A clarity through a policy on water use and maintaining ecological flow of the river to make it live can facilitate the role of local. Here the center can play a role. Otherwise bringin water to the list of center will hamper decentralization and ll increase monopoly.

    Posted by: Ghasiram Panda | 4 years ago | Reply
    • Ultimately the locals will have their control but as it's a river there is still a need for a governing body to monitor fair & equal distribution according to population not wealth. An excessive water usage fee should be charged & limited, with consideration to the down stream communities' supply.. Also to manage control of pollution. I see this as a huge opportunity for employment at the community level, which would be a wonderful boost to the local economy. But governments think 'revenue', so they'll probably commercialize the whole project, taking years & plummeting the country into desperation as the funds go to foreign contractors.
      Local level control will definitely help communities, but there is still a need for a central command to ensure Global responsibility.

      Posted by: Kelli Harris | 4 years ago | Reply
  • If center does control the water resources, it would lead to a pan India body that can exercise adequate measures to solve water problems in many parts of the country.

    Posted by: Shailesh Shriram Tanpure | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Water should be in central list since states have totally failed in management of both surface and ground water judiciously. Any decisions pertaining to water at states shall invariably linked with political vendetta and mismanagement of programs have been evidenced at each level of implementation.

    Posted by: Santhosh Kumar T M | 4 years ago | Reply
  • The water is precious so are rivers. The water should be in the Union List so that there is a proper utilization of natural resources, which under the states have become a hot cake for extraction and plunder. During monsoon the rivers are flooded. Large number of people become victim to after flood effects. The flood management is a state subject. Flood control schemes are planned and funded by the state government according to the priority of the politicians. Central government provides technical and logistic support only. If the water is under the Union, it will be well equipped to meet the flood situation. The plunder of river beds will stop in the states.

    Posted by: Shailesh Dhyani | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Constitution of India has guaranteed higher powers to central than states. Also Indian federal structure is 'quasi' in nature. If water goes to the Central list, there is no guarantee that Central would act in impartial way. Also one state with majority number of MPs may influence the decision. So water should remain in concurrent list. River linking projects, Environmental policies can also be implemented without much hurdles in the current situation if our will is good.

    Posted by: SANTOSH | 3 years ago | Reply