Interstate water dispute and federalism - Governance of interstate river water in India - A paper published in the journal Civil and Environmental Research

This paper published in the journal Civil and Environmental Research examines the methods and policies used before independence to tackle the problem of interstate river water dispute. The paper highlights a need for quick movement to arbitration or adjudication in case of a conflict. The paper presents some recommendations, including the setting up of independent federated institutions to adjudicate and negotiate between the parties to the dispute within a fixed time period.

The paper informs that India is served by two great river systems, The great Himalayan Drainage system and the Peninsular River network. It has 14 major rivers that are inter-state rivers and 44 medium rivers of which 9 are inter-State rivers. Constructing proficient and equitable mechanisms for allocating river flows has long been a significant legal and constitutional question in the context of the democratic political system of India and the geography where many of the rivers cross state boundaries. Many inter-state river-water disputes have erupted since independence and involve the following issues of:

  • Allocation of waters between different states
  • Apportionment of construction costs and benefits if a project is developed jointly by more than one state
  • Compensation to the states prejudicially affected by the implementation of a project by another state
  • Dispute settlement relating to interpretation of agreements and
  • Excess withdrawals by a state

The document goes on to provide the constitutional history, and the relevant provisions and legislations that have existed over the years for water sharing and argues that the current Indian water-dispute settlement mechanisms are ambiguous and opaque and that the centre has failed to provide an effective way to deal with the problem of inter-state river water disputes.

This has led to delayed agreements over water and thus led to ineffective, non- cooperative investments in dams, irrigation, and agriculture and industry. The process of agreement is slow and the absence of binding arbitration has led to lack of positive outcomes in several major disputes (e.g., Cauvery; Ravi- Beas) and inefficient levels of investments by the individual, non-agreeing states, generating a diversion of scarce investment resources, as well as inefficient use of the water. This in turn can have negative impacts on economic growth. The problems have been compounded by the entanglement of inter-state water disputes with more general Center-State conflicts.

The paper argues that these impacts can be reduced by a more efficient design of mechanisms for negotiating inter-state water disputes and by setting up of an independent federated body to adjudicate and negotiate between the parties to the dispute within a fixed time period.

The paper further argues that the interlinking of rivers also cannot be a solution and could further excaerbate the problem not only by leading to conflicts among states, but also lead to desctruction of communities, cultures and ecosystems. The paper ends by arguing for a holistic policy that would not only focus on the rivers, but on the hydrological cycle as a whole, promoting forest cover, preventing erosion, enhancing groundwater through microwatershed structures and maintaining existing tanks, lakes and reservoirs.

A copy of the paper can be accessed at this link