The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019

The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed by Lok Sabha on 31 July, 2019. It will amend Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. It aims to speed up the resolution of long-festering inter-state water disputes by establishing a single central tribunal in place of the numerous existing ones.


  • Because large areas of India are relatively arid, mechanisms for allocating scarce water are critically important to the welfare of the country’s citizens. Water contributes to welfare in several ways: health (e.g. clean drinking water), agriculture (e.g., irrigation), and industry (e.g., hydroelectric power). Because India is a federal democracy, and because rivers cross state boundaries, constructing efficient and equitable mechanisms for allocating river flows has long been an important legal and constitutional issue. Numerous inter-state river-water disputes have erupted since independence. Due to ambiguousness and opaqueness the dispute settlement process is slow, and effectively binding arbitration does not exist.


The following are major challenges affecting river water dispute settlement in India:

  • Interminable Delay:Many tribunals are in existence for years without any sign of final award. For e.g. Ravi-Beas Water Disputes Tribunal (33 years), Cauvery Dispute Tribunal (29 years) etc. Major reasons are :
    • Initial delay at the time of Constitution of the tribunal.
    • Lack of strict time limit for adjudication as the central government keeps extending their tenure indefinitely.
    • Absence of time limit for publishing the report/award.
    • No upper limit for retirement of the chairperson or other members.
    • Nomination by Chief Justice of India in case of vacancy further delays the process.
    • Absence of data on river basins.
  • Shortage of Men and Material: Inadequate enforcement machinery (physical+ human) to assess the demands and to enforce the award of the Tribunal
  • Lack of Institutional Mechanism: Lack of uniform standards to resolve such disputes and creation of separate tribunals for each dispute.
  • Subsequent Litigation: Non acceptance of final award when it goes against the aspirations of any party leading to appeals in the Supreme Court. Only three out of eight awards of Tribunals have been accepted by the States.

Salient Features

  • Two Tier Mechanisms: Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) to be set up by the Central Government, would be referred to once a dispute arises, to resolve it amicably by negotiation within a year (with an extension of six months). Subsequently it would be referred to a Central Tribunal if the committee fails to arrive at a conclusion.
  • Single Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal: It will be set up by the centre. The tribunal can set up multiple benches for different disputes. All existing tribunals would be dissolved and the pending cases will be transferred to this tribunal.
  • Time Limit: The maximum time for the tribunal is three years and for reconsideration another one-and-half years.
  • Appointments: Tribunal will have a chairman, a vice-chairman and six members - three judicial and three experts, appointed by the central government on the recommendation of a selection committee, comprise of the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and Ministers for Law and Justice and Jal Shakti.
  • Retirement: Term of office of the chairperson and vice-chairperson is five years or until the age of 70 years and of other members is co-terminus with adjudication of dispute or until 67 years.
  • Basin-wise Data: There will be a transparent data collection system at the national level for each river basin by an agency to be appointed and authorized by central government.
  • Binding Decision: The decision of the tribunal would be final, binding on states and have the same force as an order of the Supreme Court. There would be no requirement of publication of the report in the official gazette. However, in case the dispute persists, the matter could be referred back for reconsideration. The bill also makes it mandatory for the Central Government to make a scheme to give effect to the decision of the Tribunal.


  • Speedy Decision: It will speed up the process under concrete timelines.
  • Data Analytics: Data bank of river basins can provide insights on the rivers associated with a particular dispute as well as other basins.

Shortcomings of the Legislation

  • Centralisation: Some states like Tamil Nadu and Odisha, have raised serious concerns about the appropriation of more powers by the central government to decide water disputes between states.
  • Fear of Impartiality: Instead of nomination by Chief Justice of India, now central government would make the appointments through a selection committee.
  • Temporary: Benches of Permanent Tribunals are proposed to be created as and when need arise. Thus it is not clear how these temporary benches will be different from present system.
  • Appeal: Decision may still not be final as the Supreme Court had reserved the right to hear appeals against water tribunal.
  • Implementation: Institutional mechanism to implement tribunal’s award is still mired in ambiguities.
  • Approach: Tribunals look at a river as a channel of water instead of an ecosystem. Further they ignore the fact that water in a river depends on the state of its basin and catchment area and the extraction of groundwater.

Way Forward

  • Cooperative Federalism: Central government should demonstrate fair play and manage post-award squabbling.
  • Depoliticization of Issue: States should depoliticize the issue of rivers and dissociate it from regional pride.
  • Water Conservation: Further, policy measures must be taken to promote efficient use of water.
  • Promotion of Dialogues: A single tribunal to streamline all the inter-state water disputes would require a healthy dialogue between center and states apart from the administrative arrangement. Alongside, centre must bring water under Concurrent List as suggested by Mihir Shah Committee, declare rivers as national property to reduce states’ control over rivers and utilise Inter-State Council to facilitate dialogue to resolve disputes.