An omnibus court for solving water disputes may not be a panacea
The summer of 2016 was ominous for Bangalore. After the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water every day for 10 days to Tamil Nadu, the streets were afire with protests and violence against Tamilians. The crux of the problem: While Karnataka wanted a rejig of the British-era Cauvery water agreement and triple its share, its neighbour argued that it needs more water to sustain its agricultural requirement.
Like the Cauvery dispute, several other major inter-state disputes over water have been in the works for more than two decades.
In July 2014, the government in the Rajya Sabha listed the number of exiting disputes and their status at the various tribunals that were set up to find a solution: Ravi and Beas Water Tribunal (sub-judice); Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (sub judice); Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal II – (sub judice); Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal (status: decision awaited) and Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal (decision awaited).
The Centre is now keen to bring all these tribunals under one umbrella. The government on Tuesday introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha that will pave the way for the setting up of a single standing tribunal to resolve water-related disputes between states.
The bill, water minister Uma Bharti said, proposes to streamline the adjudication of inter-state river water disputes and make the present legal and institutional architecture robust.
The bill proposes to introduce a mechanism to resolve the dispute amicably by negotiations, through a Dispute Resolution Committee to be established by the Centre, consisting of experts, before it is referred to the tribunal.
Many experts have criticised this move, saying that it is nothing but a change of nameplate and will not solve the problem. They say this because there is a severe lack of reliable and transparent data (which can form the basis of an adjudication) and second, states have not been taken into account on the Bill.
Though the Centre has invoked Article 262 to say that it is well within its rights to do so, no water dispute can be solved without getting the states on board, even if they are BJP-ruled ones.
For example, none of the interlinking projects have gathered steam --- even though in many cases the states involved are BJP ruled, simply because water is an emotive issue and the local leaders have to take the electorate into account.
Second, there is a severe lack of comprehensive data that looks at hydrology, meteorology, ecology and economy in an integrated fashion. And we must not forget that climate change will have strong impact and our older assumptions will not remain valid and so fresh data is absolutely necessary.
Without having that data backbone, it will be difficult for a state-level tribunal or a central body to solve any issue.