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

On 31st July, 2019, the LokSabha passed a bill designed 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.


The Bill aims at amending the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956 to make the adjudication of inter-state river water disputes more efficient and smooth.


  • In 2002, the 1956 Act was amended with a target of five years for resolution of any river water dispute. However, the purpose of moving forward with the amendment was not fulfilledowing to the extensions given to the tenure of tribunals.
  • A bill similar to this was brought to LokSabha in 2017 which was then referred to the standing committee, but the draft law lapsed as the term of the 16th LokSabha had ended.

Key Features of the Bill

  • Provision for Single Tribunal: A key feature of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Amendment Bill, 2019 is the constitution of a single tribunal with different benches, and the setting up of strict timelines for adjudication.
  • Two-Tier Resolution Mechanism: Itputs forward a provision for a two-tier dispute resolution mechanism. When a dispute emerges, it would be referred to a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) which is to be headed by a secretary-level officer of the central government along with experts from relevant fields. If cases where the committee fails, the dispute will move to a centralised (single standing) tribunal with various benches - instead of the multiple tribunals that currently exist.

All the existing tribunals would be dissolved with the setting up of such a tribunal to which all the pending cases will be transferred to it.

  • Appointments: The tribunal would have a chairman, a vice-chairman and six members - three judicial and three experts. They would be appointed by the central government on the recommendation of a selection committee, which would comprise of the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India and ministers for law and justice and Jal Shakti.
  • Retirement: The term of office of the chairperson and vice-chairperson would be five years or until the age of 70 years. That of the other members would be co-terminus with adjudication of dispute or until 67 years.
  • Time Limit: The maximum time allowed for the DRC would be one-and-half years, for the tribunal three years and for reconsideration another one-and-half years - taking the total to six years.There would be no requirement of publication of the tribune's report.
  • Basin-Wise Data:It also provides for a transparent data collection system at the national level for each river basin, the lack of which has been felt for a long time.

Need for Such Amendment

  • Much Delay in Award: The existing tribunals dealing with inter-state river water disputes are legendary for the time they take to give awards. Under the 1956 Act, nine tribunals have so far been set up. Only four of them have given their awards. One of these disputes, over Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, took 28 years to settle. The Ravi and Beas Waters Tribunal was set up in April 1986 and it is still to give the final award.     

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, there are five major causes for the delays:

    • No strict time limit for adjudication as the central government kept extending tenure of the tribunals indefinitely, even though they were to resolve disputes within 5 years
    • No limit for publishing the report of a tribunal
    • no upper limit for retirement of the chairperson or other members
    • In case of any vacancy, the Chief Justice of India to nominate a person which took time and caused considerable delays
    • Absence of data on river basins.
  • Increasing Inter-water Disputes:The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill says the number of inter-state water disputes is on the rise due to an increase in demand for more water by states. Though the existing Inter-State River Water Disputes Act of 1956 provides for a legal framework to address such disputes, it suffers from many drawbacks, which this Bill seeks to address.
  • Saving of Manpower and Money as Well:The multiplicity of tribunals has led to an increase in bureaucracy, delays, and possible duplication of work. The replacement of five existing tribunals with a permanent tribunal is likely to result in a 25 per cent reduction in staff strength, from the current 107 to 80, and a saving of Rs 4.27 crore per year.


  • It seeks to streamline the adjudication of such disputes and make the present legal and institutional architecture robust to overcome these challenges.
  • The timely resolution of river water disputes will bring development of both the states as well as the country.

Constitutional Provision for Inter State Water Disputes

  • Article 131: It which deals with the Supreme Court’s exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate disputes between States is not an unrestricted one.
  • Article 262: It states that the Parliament may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or in, any inter-State river or river valley.
  • Entry 17 of State List: deals with water i.e. water supply, irrigation, canal, drainage, embankments, and water storage and water power.
  • Entry 56 of Union List: empowers the Union Government for the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent declared by Parliament to be expedient in the public interest.

Inter-State Water Disputes and States Involved

  • Narmada Water Dispute- Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan
  • Mahi River Dispute- Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh
  • Ravi and Beas Water Dispute- Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi
  • Cauvery Water Dispute- Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka
  • Krishna Water Dispute- Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh
  • Godavari River Water Dispute- Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh

Reasons for Water Disputes

  • Uneven Distribution of Water Resources: Some of the states having more flowing of rivers and they have enough water for their irrigation and the production of electricity, while some lack in water resources. Due to the uneven distribution of water resources some of the states are going to deficient of water and they will depend on the available resources.
  • Variation of rainfall and Frequent Drought: There has been a consistent drop in the average seasonal rainfall India receives during the summer monsoon months of July-August, resulting in frequent drought across the India. This, in turn, gives rise to more demand for water, ultimately leading to water disputes among the states.
  • Dam Construction: Construction of more dams across the river also creates disputes among the states. Because of these dams, downstream regions will not get water for irrigation projects and multi-purpose projects. Due to this demand for the river water increases and generates the disputes among the states.

Way Forward

Water disputes have humanitarian dimensions which include agrarian problems that are worsened by drought and monsoon failures. There must be a sense of responsibility in states to consider these aspects. The disputes should be depoliticised and there must be political will to make the institutional mechanisms work, contributing to overall development of country.