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Interstate River Water Dispute


For a long time, it has been commonly theorised that nations will go to war for control of water, particularly shared water, such as transnational rivers. However, contrary to popular belief, subnational conflicts are significantly more prevalent and economically and socially damaging.

In India, such battles between states have flared up from time to time over interstate river water. Because India has a federal political structure, the approach of the Union government and the concerned state governments is critical in comprehending the country's ensuing problems.

The Cauvery Conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Ravi-Beas River Water Dispute, and the conflict between the Krishna River basin states are examples of severe hostilities that provide a massive federal challenge to river water governance in India.

Root-Cause of the Problem

Constitutional-Legal Ambiguity

Surrounding the evolution of the legislative and constitutional framework regarding river water conflicts in India, there is significant ambiguity. In terms of the management of interstate rivers, this has resulted in an institutionally ambiguous distribution of power between the federal government and the states, resulting in a federal jurisdictional ambiguity.

Historiographically speaking, two important pre-Independence colonial statutes — the Government of India Act 1919 and the Government of India Act 1935 — laid the groundwork for a pattern that eventually formed the constitutional-legal environment pertaining to international river disputes.

Such a pattern laid the groundwork for the proposition that, while the "use" of river water falls under the purview of the states, the regulation of interstate river water and disputes related to the sharing of river water between states are the responsibility of the central government, which must initiate action in this regard. This is mirrored in the Constitution of India from 1950, which assigns the right of "use" to the states and the obligation of regulating interstate rivers to the central government.

This dichotomous and ambiguous division between the center's and the states' governance responsibilities demonstrates a lack of jurisdictional clarity. As a result, jurisdictional ambiguity exists in connection to interstate river water issues. As the basic notion of "water use" for transnational rivers is dynamic and multidimensional, and the acts of one state can impact the nature of another state's access to river water, the usage of river water is scarcely an issue that is exclusive to the interests of the individual states.

In this context, the appropriate responsibility of the centre to ensure properly coordinated equitable use of interstate river water remains a contentious issue, since the nation's "conflicted federalism" over interstate river water has continued for decades.

Historical Legacy

In addition to the legal-constitutional obligation to regulate interstate river water disputes, historical and geographical reasons have contributed to the ambiguity of the interstate river water governance architecture. The colonial legacy of geographical reconfiguration by redrawing "fabricated borders" of newly formed states has also opened the path for protracted disputes between newly constituted states in India after independence. India's state boundaries have continued to shift due to cultural and political causes, with little respect for the historical and ecological dynamics of these regions.

Who will Adjudicate - Institutional Ambiguity

The nature of the adjudicatory mandate in interstate river disputes has also resulted in institutional ambiguity between the tribunals established by the Centre and the Supreme Court of India. In a departure from the 1935 Act, the Constitution of India has laid down in Article 262 that the Parliament or the national legislative body would enact a law that would bar the Supreme Court of India from interfering in the interstate water disputes.

Consequently, this creates a constitutional exception for the Supreme Court, which is otherwise required by Article 131 of the Indian Constitution to adjudicate all other interstate and centre-state issues. On the other hand, Article 136 also grants the Supreme Court the authority to hear appeals against the verdicts and awards of all Tribunals and Commissions under its appellate jurisdiction.

Consequently, if Article 262 dissuades the highest judiciary from resolving interstate river water conflicts, Article 136 enables the Supreme Court to hear appeals against the tribunals and to ensure the tribunal's execution. Consequently, notwithstanding the constitutional prohibition imposed by one article, the supreme court and the tribunals continue to adjudicate interstate river water conflicts. This creates an institutional ambiguity regarding which body i.e. the tribunals or the Supreme Court is the ultimate adjudicatory power in the realm of interstate river water disputes in India.


The Interstate River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the planned River Basin Management Bill, 2018, are the two primary pending bills that seek to modify and renovate India's interstate river water governance architecture. Nonetheless, it is essential to recognise that any concrete step towards a more responsive and effective river water governance mechanism, despite its well-intentioned nature, will remain tainted unless these deeply rooted ambiguities regarding the issue are continuously understood, acknowledged, and questioned in a bipartisan manner.


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