The terms of reference for the Punchhi Commission on Centre-State relations (2007), inter-alia, include the issues of sharing inter-State rivers and implementation of the river linking project. Though various high-power commissions and committees had examined these aspects in the past and made recommendations, some contentious points, as brought out below, on the Central government’s powers to regulate inter-State rivers, setting up river basin organisations, compensating the States for water surplus, etc., have remained unattended and hence would have to be addressed by the present Commission. More than 80 per cent of India’s water resources are contributed by interState rivers; but due to continued disputes among the states, a major portion of this precious asset has remained unutilised. An interState river physically links not only the upstream and downstream users but also the uses. Hence, a conflict of interest is bound to arise among the co-basin States unless they are motivated to cooperate and share the water to reap benefits. However, the government of India, whenever confronted with water disputes among the States, has been taking the stand that ‘water’ is a ‘State subject’.

This issue was examined earlier by the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations (1988). The Commission concluded that Entry 56 of List I under the Constitution gives ample powers to the Union government to regulate and develop the inter-State rivers.

Inter-State rivers issue

While the Sarkaria Commission strongly supported the Union to use the power given to it under the Constitution, it did not appear to have examined whether the term “control, regulation and development” would include the ‘allocation’ of water to the State, though the ‘Entry’ in the present form appears adequate to cover the ‘apportionment’ and ‘use’ of these rivers under the power given to ‘regulate’ such rivers. Since within each State, the State decides the allocation, it could be argued that similar action could be taken by the Centre to allocate inter-State waters to states. These aspects need to be deliberated and clarified further.

Groundwater is another disputed issue, since the Indian Easement Act (1882) links access to groundwater with land ownership. However, neither the Krishna, Godavari and Narmada Tribunals examined this subject, nor was it addressed by the Sarkaria Commission. The controversy has cropped up since the U.N. Convention on international water courses (1997) had defined the water course as a system of surface waters and groundwaters constituting a “unitary whole”. Also, the Working Group on inter–basin transfers, set up by the National Commission on water resources (1999), had observed that the fluvial part of groundwater needs to be considered as part of the water resources of a basin. The disputes arise mostly for want of agreement among the States concerned.

Move for consensus

Though the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has prepared detailed project reports, for implementation of the link schemes, the States have to agree. Water-rich States insist that they have no water to spare and do not want to negotiate away their future water uses. These have to be discussed in detail. Pricing the surplus water would encourage them to optimally use the water.

For enabling such discussions and for consensus building, River Basin Organisations (RBOs) with adequate powers, have to be constituted by amending the existing River Board’s Act (1956), which provides only for advisory boards. Constituting RBOs, pricing water, etc, would have to be addressed by the Commission.

With the spectre of drought looming large over many States while floods are ravaging large tracts in other parts of the country, the available option to minimise the distress, i.e., of linking rivers for transferring flood waters to water-deficit regions, continues to be a distant dream due to hydropolitics. It is to be hoped that the recommendations of the Commission would enable the Central government to take proactive decisions on the issues facing the water sector.

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