Putting water on the Concurrent List is not necessarily an act of centralisation, though it could lead to such a development. That danger is real and needs to be avoided.
The Union Ministry of Water Resources has for long been arguing for a shift of water to the Concurrent List without any serious expectation of its happening, but has now begun to pursue the idea more actively. The Ashok Chawla committee, which was primarily concerned with the question of rationalising the allocation of natural resources with a view to reducing the scope for corruption, was reported by the media to have recommended inter alia the shifting of water to the Concurrent List. There seems to be no such specific recommendation in the draft of the Committee's report that one has seen, but the possibility is referred to in the text and there is an Annexe on the subject. These developments have revived the old debate.
Let us first be clear about the present constitutional position in relation to water. The general impression is that in India water is a State subject, but the position is not quite so simple. The primary entry in the Constitution relating to water is indeed Entry 17 in the State List, but it is explicitly made subject to the provisions of Entry 56 in the Union List which enables the Union to deal with inter-State rivers if Parliament legislates for the purpose. This means that if Parliament considers it “expedient in the public interest” that the “regulation and development” of an inter-State river, say the Ganga or Yamuna or Narmada, should be “under the control of the Union”, it can enact a law to that effect, and that law will give the Union legislative (and therefore executive) powers over that river. That enabling provision has not been used by Parliament. No law has been passed bringing any river under the control of the Union. Under Entry 56, Parliament did enact the River Boards Act 1956 providing for the establishment of River Boards for inter-State rivers, but no such board has been established under the Act. That Act is virtually a dead letter. The reasons are political, i.e., strong resistance by State governments to any enhancement of the role of the Central government.
Is the present constitutional division of legislative power relating to water between the Union and the States satisfactory? The Centre does not think so. None of the Commissions that has gone into the subject so far has recommended a change, largely because it seemed unrealistic. (The Sarkaria Commission thought that a change was unnecessary.)
The present writer had earlier argued against a move to shift water to the Concurrent List on two grounds. First, a move to put water into the Concurrent List at this stage will be generally regarded as a retrograde step that runs counter to the general trend towards decentralisation and enhanced federalism, and it will face serious political difficulty because there will be stout opposition from the States. Secondly, an entry in the Concurrent List will mean that both the Centre and the States can legislate on water, but the Centre can already do so in respect of inter-State rivers under Entry 56 but has not used that power. It seemed sensible to use that enabling provision, and also re-activate the River Boards Act, rather than pursue the difficult idea of a constitutional amendment to bring water on to the Concurrent List.
It will be seen that the above arguments against pursuing the idea of moving water to the Concurrent List are practical ones: the political difficulty of doing so, and the fact that the Centre can do certain things even without such a shift. That does not amount to a statement that there is no case for the shift. Let us ignore political and practical considerations, and ask: if the Constitution were being drafted for the first time now, where would one put water? The obvious and incontrovertible answer is: in the Concurrent List. There are several reasons for saying so.
First, it appears that to the Constitution-makers ‘water' meant essentially river waters and irrigation. This is quite evident from the wording of the entries. In that context, it might have appeared appropriate to assign the primary role to the States, and provide a specific role for the Centre in relation to inter-State rivers. However, even from that limited perspective, a primary rather than a secondary or exceptional role for the Centre might well have been warranted: most of our important rivers are in fact inter-State, and inter-State (or inter-provincial) river water disputes were an old and vexed problem even at the time of drafting the Constitution.
Secondly, that limited perspective is in fact inadequate. Water as a subject is larger than rivers; ponds and lakes, springs, groundwater aquifers, glaciers, soil and atmospheric moisture, wetlands, and so on, are all forms of water and constitute a hydrological unity; and there is more to water than irrigation. If the environmental, ecological, social/human, and rights concerns relating to water had been as sharply present to the makers of the Constitution as they are to us, it seems very probable that the entries in the Constitution would have been different. (Incidentally, there are serious concerns now relating to groundwater — rapid depletion of aquifers in many parts of the country, the emergence of arsenic and fluoride in many States, etc. — and it is interesting that there is no explicit reference to groundwater or aquifers in the Constitution.)
Thirdly, the Constitution-makers could not have anticipated the sense of water scarcity and crisis that now looms large. It is clear that while action will be called for at the State and local levels, the perception of a crisis casts a great responsibility on the Centre: national initiatives will definitely be called for.
Fourthly, a new factor not foreseen even a few decades ago is climate change and its impact on water resources. This is a subject which is still under study and research, but it is clear that coordinated action will be called for not only at the national level but also at the regional and international levels. The Central government has necessarily to play a lead role in this regard.
The theoretical case for water being in the Concurrent List is thus unassailable. Of all the subjects that are or ought to be in the Concurrent List, water ranks higher than any other. The practical and political difficulties of shifting it there remain, but these would need to be overcome.
However, if those difficulties prove insuperable, then we have to settle for the second best course (a modest one) of greater use by the Centre of the legislative powers relating to inter-State rivers provided for in Entry 56 in the Union List, and re-activation of the dormant River Boards Act 1956. It would further have to be supplemented by recourse to the wide-ranging provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (EPA). It is of course possible for Parliament to legislate on a State subject if a certain number of State assemblies pass resolutions to that effect: that was the route followed in the case of the Water (Control and Prevention of Pollution) Act 1974.
At present, the EPA is being extensively used by the Centre for water-related action. For instance, the Central Groundwater Authority was set up in 1998 by a notification under the EPA. More recently, when it was considered necessary to set up a National Ganga River Basin Authority this was done under the EPA, instead of following the right but difficult course of enacting legislation under Entry 56.
Finally, putting water into the Concurrent List is not necessarily an act of centralisation, though it could lead to such a development. That danger is real and needs to be avoided. Legislation and executive action must continue to be undertaken at the appropriate level (Central, State or local) in each case. The subsidiarity principle, i.e., the principle that decisions must be taken at the lowest appropriate level, will continue to be valid.