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Wednesday, 21 December 2016 05:08
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Sarthak's edit

Proposed river-disputes law changes won't do the trick


Since water-sharing disputes are only going to rise, and the existing mechanisms of setting up tribunals for each case are clearly not working, the government’s plan to set up a permanent, over-arching tribunal to adjudicate all such fights looks appealing. The proposed amendment to the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act of 1956 talks of benches under the permanent tribunal that will look into specific disputes; it also provides for setting up of a dispute resolution committee, comprising experts and policy-makers, every time a clash crops up—the committee must try and resolve river-water sharing fights before these are taken to the tribunal. The plan to put a 3-year deadline for delivering a verdict is also appealing given how long disputes last. For instance, while the dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing of Cauvery waters can be traced back to as early as 1924, the Cauvery Waters Tribunal was set up in June 1990 but gave its final order only in February 2007—the Union government got around to notifying the order, at the Supreme Court’s instance, only in 2013. Since the 1956 Act also had a 3-year deadline for verdicts, the new deadline is only meaningful if there is no scope for giving extensions.

More important than the tribunal’s verdicts, of course, is the issue of implementation. Karnataka, for instance, has been stalling on releasing water even though the Supreme Court had ordered that this be done. And, in the case of the Sutlej-Yamuna-Link canal, the case has been dragging since 1981 when Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan first signed an accord on water-sharing. In 2004, when the Punjab government passed a law to wriggle out of the water-sharing, the Supreme Court passed an order that the canal be completed. While nothing happened on this, the Punjab government recently even gave back the land acquired from farmers in the state for building the canal. And despite the SC having directed the Centre in 2004 to complete the canal, there has been no progress. Indeed, the Centre’s position continues to be that, under Article 262(2) of the Constitution along with Section 11 of the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act of 1956, the SC has no jurisdiction in the distribution of water. The problem here is that even if the tribunals do give awards, if the Centre is not going to ensure these are implemented, what is to be done? Indeed, even if the SC does give an order, only the Centre can ensure it is implemented on the ground. Considering the Centre has so many levers to get its writ implemented—it controls how much money states can borrow, can ensure PSUs invest in the state and can even stop multilateral agencies from extending support—unless it actively decides to use them, coming up with a permanent water tribunal is a waste of time.



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