Can a centralised approach help solve water disputes?

A single national tribunal for inter-state water disputes will also enable discussion on the issue of international waters

By Heli Shah
Published: Saturday 13 July 2019
A view of Kaveri river that flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Photo: Getty Images
A view of Kaveri river that flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Photo: Getty Images A view of Kaveri river that flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Photo: Getty Images

The Union Cabinet on July 10, 2019, approved the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019, to solve dispute over rivers and river valleys between different states in the country.

The bill, which talks about an all-encompassing single tribunal, promises to solve the dispute in a time bound manner. It will also set up a dispute resolution committee to undertake peaceful negotiation between the parties, at the failure of which the tribunal can be approached.

Currently, India has several tribunals to act on conflicts between states on water. The 122-years-old Kaveri water dispute also saw the formation of a tribunal in 1990s, but it did not end the dispute.

So can a centralised tribunal help solve dispute on rivers like Kaveri?

“Making sub-tribunals under a single tribunal will make no substantial difference. But what is positive is to note that the government plans to create a large common database for all the cases relating to the disputes, which is agreed and approved by all the concerned parties,” said K J Joy, Senior Fellow with Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), Pune.

However, there should be a clarity on the principles and norms on which the tribunal is based, which is currently inaccessible for everyone, he added.

Further, a national consensus is also required to decide on how much water should be allocated from the rivers for each state.

“The need for water for domestic use must be a priority and how much water should be left in unallocated river should be identified,” Joy said, pressing on the need to monitor the flow in the rivers.

Water has a direct connectivity with livelihood and therefore measures must be taken to ensure a contingency on availability of water to address climate change adaptability, he said.

As of now the tribunals have failed to identify the availability of water through sources such as groundwater. They should focus on allocation of water not only based on surface water but also verify the amount of water pumped out of the ground, Joy said. 

Importantly, since India is placed at the heart of a geopolitical landscape, where its vulnerable to water disputes with China (Brahmaputra) and Pakistan (Indus), a tribunal will help set a base for international discussions.

“Local issues are always not local, they’re intertwined with external and internal entities therefore a single national tribunal for inter-state water disputes will enable people to discuss the issue of international waters also,” Medha Bisht, Assistant Professor from the Department of International Relations, South Asian University.

But so far, the tribunals and its process are part of the problem of water sharing rather than solution, Biksham Gujja, Founder and Chairperson, AgSri Agricultural Services Pvt Ltds, Hyderabad.

While instituting a single tribunal might be good idea, in practice it might further aggregate the problem, than accelerate the solution, Gujja said.

Thus, the government must have a process on how to "present a robust institutional architecture" as well as understand the significant changes on water flow and relation between groundwater and surface water, before rushing to form the single tribunal.

The current allocation of surface water based on "dependable flow" concept are fundamentally flawed, Gujja said. The concept itself is based very outdated method and is the root cause of the problem.

Most often, the total allocated water is even greater than entire flow of river during many years.

Gujja said that without first figuring out the major changes required for functioning of water dispute tribunals, constitution of a single tribunal at the best might aggregate the existing issues within one mega institution and even lead to “centralisation” and “bureaucratisation”.

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