River Water Disputes

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Context: Inter-State River Water Disputes Amendment bill was passed by Lok sabha and is yet to be discussed in Rajya Sabha as of October 2019. The bill proposes some changes to the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act 1951. In this context, let's look at the various longstanding water disputes and the measures that should be considered for time-bound solutions.

Mains: GS II-

  • Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues, and challenges pertaining to the federal structure, devolution of powers and finances up to local levels and challenges therein.
  • Separation of powers between various organs disputes redressal mechanisms and institutions.

What are Inter-State Water Disputes?

Inter-state water disputes are disagreements on the sharing of water and other resources of rivers and other water bodies between two state governments. They arise due to unresolved problems regarding the sharing of the costs and benefits of multi-purpose projects on these rivers.

The Inter-State River Water Disputes are one of the most contiguous issues in Indian federalism today and they provide parochial mindset making regional issues superior to national issues. In extreme cases, it may hamper the relationship between the different states. The recent cases of the Cauvery Water Dispute and the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal case are examples.

What does the Constitution say about Inter-State Water Disputes?

Water is a State subject as per entry 17 of State List in the 7th Schedule of the constitution and thus states are empowered to enact legislation on water.

  • Entry 17 of State List deals with water i.e. water supply, irrigation, canal, drainage, embankments, water storage, and water power.
  • Entry 56 of Union List gives power to 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.

Constituent Assembly anticipated the emergence of water disputes in the future. A specific provision of Article 262 is mentioned in the constitution itself due to the sensitivity of such disputes. In the case of disputes relating to waters, Article 262 provides:

  1. 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.
  2. Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, Parliament may, by law provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute or complaint.

Under this provision, the Parliament has enacted two laws – the River Boards Act (1956) and the Inter-State Water Disputes Act (1956):

  1. The River Boards Act provides for the establishment of river boards for the regulation and development of inter-state river and river valleys. A river board is established by the Central government on the request of the state governments concerned to advise them.
  2. The Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 empowers the Central government to set up an ad hoc tribunal for the adjudication of a dispute between two or more states in relation to the waters of an inter-state river or river valley.
    • The decision of the tribunal would be final and binding on the parties to the dispute.
    • Neither the Supreme Court nor any other court is to have jurisdiction in respect of any water dispute which may be referred to such a tribunal under this Act.

The need for extrajudicial machinery to settle inter-state water disputes is as follows: “The Supreme Court would indeed have jurisdiction to decide any dispute between states in connection with water supplies if legal rights or interests are concerned; but the experience of most countries has shown that rules of law based upon the analogy of private proprietary interests in water do not afford a satisfactory basis for settling disputes between the states where the interests of the public at large in the proper use of water supplies are involved.”

So far (2016), the Central government has set up nine inter-state water dispute tribunals. The name of the tribunals, the years in which they were constituted and the states involved in the dispute are mentioned in the table below: 

Name Year of Formation States Involved
Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal  1969 Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh
Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal  1969 Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha
Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal  1969 Rajasthan, Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra
Ravi and Beas Disputes Tribunal  1969 Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan
Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal  1986 Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry
Second Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal  1990 Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh
Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal  2004 Odisha and Andhra Pradesh
Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal  2010 Goa, Karnataka, and Maharashtra
Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal  2018 Odisha and Chhattisgarh


Need for a change:

Even after the formation of tribunals, the award has not been given in many disputes. Policymaking is an incremental process. That is particularly so in case of a matter as complex as interstate river water disputes- as enigmatic as the rivers themselves.

  • 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. The minimum a tribunal has taken to settle a dispute is seven years, by the first Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal in 1976.
  • The multiplicity of tribunals has led to an increase in bureaucracy, delays, and possible duplication of work. 
  • To address these issues, the center has brought out the Inter-State Water Disputes Amendment Bill, 2019. The main purpose is to make the process of dispute settlement more efficient and effective.
  • The bill has three new elements:
    1. a permanent tribunal with exclusive benches for each dispute instead of separate tribunals in the principal act;
    2. a Disputes Resolution Committee (DRC) to attempt an ex-ante resolution through mediated negotiations, instead of the Centre’s mediation;
    3. a provision for appointing a technical agency for a data bank to support dispute resolution.
  • The rationale of a permanent tribunal mechanism is to reduce the delays in resolving inter-state river disputes. It may now take six and a half years at most for the tribunal to arrive at a decision on an interstate river-water dispute. A permanent tribunal could also save costs compared to long-running individual tribunals. 
  • The replacement of five existing tribunals with a permanent tribunal is likely to result in a 25 percent reduction in staff strength, from the current 107 to 80, and a saving of Rs 4.27 crore per year.

Major Inter-State Water Disputes:

Cauvery Water Dispute: 

    • States Concerned: Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
    • The genesis of this conflict rests in two agreements in 1892 and 1924 between the Madras Presidency and the Kingdom of Mysore.
    • The 802 kilometers (498 mi) Cauveri river has 44,000 km2 basin area in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 km2 basin area in Karnataka. The inflow from Karnataka is 425 TMCft whereas that from Tamil Nadu is 252 TMCft
    • Based on the inflow Karnataka is demanding its due share of water from the river. It states that the pre-independence agreements are invalid and are skewed heavily in the favour of the Madras Presidency, and has demanded a renegotiated settlement based on “equitable sharing of the waters”.
    • Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, pleads that any change in the water sharing pattern will adversely affect the livelihood of millions of farmers in the state.



Satluj- Yamuna Water Dispute:

    • States Concerned: Haryana and Punjab
    • Satluj Yamuna Link Canal or SYL as it is popularly known is a proposed 214-kilometer (133 mi) long canal in India to connect the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers. However, the proposal met obstacles and was referred to the Supreme Court of India. 
    • The dispute regarding the sharing of river water emerged after Punjab was reorganized in 1966, and the state of Haryana was created.
    • Haryana demanded 4.8 MAF out of Punjab's total 7.2 MAF share of water from the rivers, while Punjab claimed the entire quantity belonged to it.

Ravi and Beas Water Dispute: 

    • States Concerned: Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan
    • Prior to the partition of the country and up to the time of the signing of the Indus Treaty, 3.86 cubic kilometers (3,130,000 acre-ft) of water was used by major irrigation systems such as the Upper Bari Doab Canal System (1959) and the Lower Bari Doab Canal System (1915). The unused flow in the two river systems was assessed at 19.22 cubic kilometers (15,580,000 acre-ft), which was planned to be developed by the four states of J&K, PEPSU, Punjab, and Rajasthan.
    • However, with the merger of PEPSU with Punjab and subsequent bifurcation of Punjab into two states, a dispute arose on the allocation of Ravi and Beas waters for which a tribunal was set up under the Interstate River Water Disputes Act.
    • As a counterclaim to the exclusive claims of Punjab, Haryana claims that a small part of the Haryana state lying north in Panchkula district is part of the Sutlej river basin area in addition to Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in India. Thus Haryana claims to be a riparian state of Indus river basin.



It is crucial to resolve inter-state water disputes at the earliest to avoid any friction between the neighbouring states and also to enhance cooperation which further will lead to strong federalism. There is a dire need for political will to bring about the required changes in water dispute mechanisms so that the water resources can be fairly and adequately used. There is an existing water scarcity which seems to haunt India in the near future, water wasted due to these disputes is not wise. 

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