A permanent tribunal to adjudicate river water disputes between States

A permanent tribunal to adjudicate river water disputes between States will undoubtedly be a vast improvement over the present system of setting up ad hoc tribunals.

The Union Cabinet’s proposal to have a permanent tribunal that will subsume existing tribunals is expected to provide for speedier adjudication.

But whether this will resolve the problem of protracted proceedings is doubtful.

  • Given the number of ongoing inter-State disputes and those likely to arise in future, it may be difficult for a single institution with a former Supreme Court judge as its chairperson to give its ruling within three years.
  • Secondly, its interlocutory orders as well as final award are likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court.
  • This month, in a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court said it had unfettered power to hear an appeal arising from a river water dispute tribunal under Article 136 of the Constitution.
  • It has interpreted the ouster clause in the Inter-State Water Disputes Act as one that merely bars the court from entertaining an original complaint or suit on its own, but not its power to hear appeals against a tribunal’s decisions.
  • Thus, finality and enforcement of a tribunal’s award may remain elusive.
  • The idea of a Dispute Resolution Committee, an expert body that will seek to resolve inter-State differences before a tribunal is approached, will prove to be another disincentive for needless litigation.

A positive feature of the proposed changes is that

  • There will be an expert agency to collect data on rainfall, irrigation and surface water flows. This acquires importance because party-States have a tendency to fiercely question data provided by the other side.
  • A permanent forum having reliable data in its hands sounds like an ideal mechanism to apportion water.

Confusing Aspect:

  • However, a confusing aspect is that benches of the permanent tribunal are going to be created to look into disputes as and when they arise.
  • It is not clear in what way these temporary benches would be different from the present tribunals.
  • A larger and more significant downside to any adjudicatory framework is the refusal or reluctance of parties to abide by judicial orders.
  • Having an institutional mechanism is one thing, but infusing a sense of responsibility in those helming State governments is quite another.
  • What is at stake is not merely a set of competing claims over riparian rights. Water disputes have humanitarian dimensions, including agrarian problems worsened by drought and monsoon failures.
  • Adjudication, by whatever mechanism, should not be at the mercy of partisan leaders who turn claims into dangerously emotive issues.
  • Institutional mechanisms should be backed by the political will to make them work.

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