Interstate Water Disputes are a continuing challenge to federal water governance in India. In this light, discuss the reasons behind the prolonged existence of many interstate water disputes in the country. What measures should be taken to effectively resolve these disputes?
(GS-2, Polity and Governance, 250 words


  • Introduce your answer by elaborating on inter-state water disputes.
  • In the body, mention the reasons behind the prolonged existence of interstate water disputes. Also, mention measures that can be taken to resolve these disputes effectively.
  • Conclude your answer accordingly.

Model Answer:

India has 25 major river basins, with most rivers flowing across states. Interstate rivers in India have become sites of contestation and numerous inter-state river-water disputes (ISWDs) have erupted, such as the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, Krishna water dispute, Cauvery dispute, etc. India is a federal democracy, and because rivers cross state boundaries, constructing efficient and equitable mechanisms for allocating river flows has long been an important legal and constitutional issue.

The reasons behind the prolonged existence of interstate water disputes are as follows:

  • Federal jurisdiction ambiguity: Schedule 7 gives the Union Parliament the power to formulate laws and mechanisms for regulating interstate rivers. While the states retain autonomy regarding water utilisation for purposes such as water supply, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power. This approach towards the evolution of the legislative and constitutional mechanism regarding ISWDs has resulted in an imprecise distribution of power between the centre and the states, creating federal-jurisdictional ambiguity.
  • Historic-geographic ambiguities: The boundaries of Indian states have continued to evolve based on cultural and political factors, with little regard for the historical and ecological dynamics of these regions. The changing borders complicate the existing jurisdictional and resource-sharing agreements and eventually become sources of interstate political contestation, leading to historic-geographical ambiguity in interstate river water governance.
  • Political factors: Interstate water disputes in India are no longer just about water allocation. They have become hugely politicised due to electoral considerations and regional aspirationsE.g.: the Cauvery dispute is often framed as an ethnic identity issue between the Tamilians and Kannadigas.
  • Increasing water scarcity: Uneven distribution of water across the country and changing rainfall patterns during monsoon lead to water stress in the country. In recent years, increasing water scarcity and a rapid rise in urban and rural demands for freshwater have further exacerbated the problem.
  • Opacity in the institutional framework: There are too many options, and there is too much discretion at various stages of the interstate water dispute resolution process. This is partly because of procedural complexities involving multiple stakeholders, such as state governments, central governments, water tribunals, courts, etc.
  • Delays in dispute resolution: Water disputes in the country are delayed due to protracted proceedings. E.g.: the Cauvery and Godavari River water disputes have been delayed for a very long time period.

Measures that can be taken to effectively resolve inter-state river water disputes include:

  • Institutional mechanism for mediation: There is a need for creating an institutional space for inter-state mediation. In this context, bringing river water disputes within the jurisdiction of the inter-state council can help in mediating the dispute between the states.
  • The National Commission to review the working of the Constitution (NCRWC) recommended a comprehensive central legislation for regulating, developing and controlling the inter-state rivers.
  • There is a need to develop a strong and resilient institutional model for interstate cooperation, collaboration, and compliance.
  • The Sarkaria Commission has recommended the establishment of a national-level data bank and information system for the effective management of inter-state rivers.
  • The existing processes and institutions for resolving inter-state river disputes are not sufficiently well defined or definite. Since water is being more and more fully utilized, the possibility of disputes of a conflictual nature increases. It is therefore crucial that the dispute resolution mechanisms should be better defined.
  • Raising public awareness about the economic, environmental and developmental losses as a result of a prolonged continuation of disputes is also crucial.
  • Given the increasing water stress in the country, the states within the basin should consider reducing their water demand by implementing water-efficient cropping patterns and techniques, such as drip irrigation.

As river basins are shared resources, a coordinated approach between the states, with adequate involvement of the Centre, is necessary for the preservation, equitable distribution and sustainable utilisation of river water. The focus should be on strengthening the existing and evolving institutional mechanisms and accommodating political sensitivities to find a long-term and mutually amicable path for the governance of interstate river water.