Tuesday, January 3, 2017

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The government has decided to constitute a permanent tribunal to adjudicate on all inter-state disputes over river waters, doing away with the current practice of having a separate tribunal for every dispute that arises.
  • All existing tribunals will be subsumed in this new permanent tribunal. 
  • Last week, the Cabinet approved an amendment to the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 to allow for the setting up of a permanent tribunal, and a few regional benches based on requirement.

In the past till now ?

  • Under current provisions of the law, an affected government has to make a request to the Centre, which, after having convinced itself that the dispute cannot be settled through negotiations, can constitute a tribunal. 
  • So far, eight tribunals have been set up under this law, including one on the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 
  • All of these tribunals have already given their awards. 
 Image result for permanent tribunal  inter-state disputes

 What else does the amendment include ?

  • Apart from the tribunal, the proposed amendment to the 1956 law also seeks to create an agency to collect and maintain all relevant water data, like rainfall, water flow and irrigation area, in each of the river basins of the country
  • Collection of data is usually the first exercise in resolution of water disputes. A specialised agency would ensure that this kind of data is always available, in updated form, and does not need to be collected after a dispute has arisen.

The Centre has already envisaged such a data agency as part of the institutional restructuring it is planning in the water sector. The government has proposed a new National Water Commission (NWC) in place of the existing Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB). One of the departments of the NWC is supposed to act as a comprehensive and specialised water data bank.

  • Before referring a dispute to the new permanent tribunal, the proposed amendment provides for setting up a Disputes Redressal Committee comprising experts
  • It is hoped that most of the disputes would be settled at the committee level itself, if the committee has access to reliable and updated data. The committee would also serve as the technical advisor to the tribunal.

Sources said the proposed amendment asks the tribunal to give its verdict within two years. Under the current law, the tribunals have three years to give their awards.

 Why is this move SIGNIFICANT ?

This move is significant in following ways:

• It is expected to provide speedier adjudication.
• Setting up a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) comprising experts and policy makers to handle dispute prior to tribunal is likely to lessen the number of disputes before the tribunal.
• As there will be a body of experts, it will have a neutral and holistic view on the issue. As it will have reliable data in its hand, it can fiercely question the data provided by states.

What are the CONCERNS involved ?

• It is unlikely that a single institution can handle so many disputes.
• The verdict of Tribunal can be appealed to the SC. Thus the finality & enforcement of tribunal’s award may remain elusive.
• It is also not clear how these temporary benches will be different form present tribunals.
Reluctance of state parties to abide by judicial orders.


Going deeper into the matter !

  • The Centre’s decision to create a permanent water tribunal to adjudicate over inter-state water disputes may, at first glance, look like an improvement over the current ad hoc nature of such tribunals, but it is unlikely to work very much better. 
  • The long-running Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka could not be solved this time even by the Supreme Court, since Karnataka, plagued by a weak monsoon, more or less refused to comply with it. Karnataka also had problems with the Mahadayi river tribunal verdict, which the state saw as favouring Goa. So the presumption that a permanent tribunal will do the job is naïve.  

Solving inter-state water disputes needs a different approach, one which does not merely look at distributing shortage, but optimising water use and augmenting supplies. In an era of growing demands for water and competing needs, the issue is not the forum used to settle disputes, but something larger.

First, the disputes need to be framed correctly. 

Image result for permanent tribunal  inter-state disputes

  • The problems cannot be assumed to be only between states; they could also be intra-state. Is the Cauvery water about Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, or also about upstream and downstream usage in Karnataka itself? 
  • The dispute is as much between upper riparian districts, which use the water for farming, and the lower riparian users, including cities like Bengaluru. 
  • This dispute, though, gets suppressed in inter-state political posturing. Water disputes should thus be framed holistically. Without a proper framing of the dispute, you will not get optimal solutions. 

  Second, optimising water usage.
  • States and centre must evolve a hierarchy of water usage, with drinking water being prioritised over farming, industrial and other needs. 
  • Economic value-add could be a criterion. If metros and cities add more economic value, they can well afford to pay more for water and be given a higher share too. 
  • Within farming, too, we need to prioritise. If sugarcane and rice are water guzzlers, logically cane and paddy farmers should be expected to pay more for growing such crops than those growing wheat or coarse cereals. 
  • Since livelihoods are at stake, water subsidies may be unavoidable, but this can only happen if water is paid for by all users to some extent. The free water threshold has to be low, so as to disincentivise wastage.
 Third, tapping alternate sources. 
Image result for desalination plants in tamilnadu

  • Coastal states must, by law, be asked to use more desalinated water. 
  • They can be subsidised by the centre for the installation of such plants. 
  • Image result for desalination plants in tamilnadu

  • Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are coastal states, and there is no reason why both should not be asked to augment supplies by tapping sea water for non-potable uses. 
  •  Tamil Nadu already does so; Karnataka needs to be encouraged to follow suit. This way the Cauvery water can be used for higher-priority needs.
Fourth, compensation must be the norm when monsoon fails. 
  • Once a water-sharing formula is agreed both between states and between districts within states, if water is in short supply due to monsoon failure, those who get less than they were guaranteed should be compensated financially by state or centre. 
  • Thus, if Karnataka does not release water, it should be asked to pay Tamil Nadu for the shortfall; but this can happen only after both states agree to the primary sharing formula. 
  • A tribunal should not only work out the water-sharing percentage in heavy and lean months, but also the financial compensation when a shortage develops.  
Fifth, fiscal incentives to reduce water usage. 
  • India wastes too much water, whether in farming or in industrial areas or even for urban home consumption. 
  • Clearly, water must be paid for, and fiscal incentives to reuse waste water, to adopt drip irrigation, and to line canals to prevent wastage are critical.

The only way to end the water wars is to think abundance, not shortage. This calls for less wastage, economising on consumption, and getting people to pay a price for it. What is not paid for will be wasted.


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