After amendments, existing tribunals will cease to exist

The Central Government’s offer to create a separate Bench within the proposed single water disputes tribunal to look after the remaining work of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) has failed to evoke a positive response from the State Government.

In a circular to Chief Secretaries of all States a few weeks ago, the Union Water Resources Ministry had proposed to establish a single tribunal.

It would comprise Benches, each of which would have three members. A dispute referred by the Centre to the tribunal would be assigned by the chairperson to a Bench. An upper age limit of 70 years was prescribed for all, including the chairperson and vice-chairperson.

Once the proposed amendments came into effect, the existing tribunals would cease to exist as disputes lying with them would automatically stand transferred to the single tribunal. But, there would be separate Benches to take care of the remaining work of the Ravi Beas Water Tribunal and the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT).

The States were asked to give their views within three weeks and the Tamil Nadu Government sent its response reiterating its opposition to the proposal of the single tribunal.

Experts handling water issues say that the current institutional framework of an exclusive tribunal for each inter-State water dispute has stood the test of time and there is no need to disturb it.

They point out that the present system has been worked out in view of each river basin having unique characteristics.

Under the proposed system, there are chances for “ad hocism” as the composition of Benches may change more frequently. This may cause more confusion as Tamil Nadu feels there has to be continuity with regard to handling of water disputes. Only through a sustained and intensive perusal of a dispute can a body of persons acquire a comprehensive understanding of features of a river basin.

In the context of Cauvery dispute, petitions filed under Section 5(3) [provision seeking explanation or guidance from the Tribunal] of the Act are pending with the CWDT. In the event of the proposed amendments getting through, a situation may arise wherein a new set of persons has to hear the case. Eventually, only more time will be taken and this may not serve the stated purpose of reducing the waiting period under the new system.

As regards the reference of the Centre’s circular to the indefinite extension of the tenure of the Ravi Beas Water Tribunal or the CWDT, a water expert points out that it is because of the pendency of proceedings before the Supreme Court that these two Tribunals have not been able to complete their work. The bottom line is that one cannot find fault with the existing system per se. Besides, it is the Central Government that has to appoint chairperson for the CWDT and this post remains vacant for the last nine months.

However, the State Government has found acceptable one aspect of the Centre’s proposal. In the existing scheme of things, only after publication in the Union gazette, the decision of the tribunal acquires the same force as an order or decree of the Supreme Court. In fact, it is because of this provision that the CWDT’s final order, though delivered about six years ago, is yet to come into effect.

This is sought to be remedied now and the Centre has proposed to give immediate effect to the tribunal’s decision.