In possibly the most ambitious change to India’s water governance since the founding of the country in 1947, the central government is pushing to bring all inter-state river basins under its control. The Indian Constitution has three sections of law, one set of laws are Central subjects, another are State subjects in which the provinces have final say, and the last – the Concurrent List of laws – is done in coordination. Water within a state is a state subject, but if the new River Basin Management Bill is passed, it may no longer be.
The problem has always been that rivers cross state boundaries, and inter-state river basins and trans-national ones, come closer to the purview of the Central government. Within India, inter-state boundary disputes have been one of the biggest headaches for many previous governments. This may have been what the Central government was referring to when it said that a, “need has been felt to have a new legislation for integrated management and development of inter-state river basins”.
This new law would allow the central government to take over management of inter-state river basins from state governments, starting with the 13 largest basins. This has led to a sharp response by many water activists and some state governments. In the words of India’s ‘waterman’, Rajendra Singh, who has championed the decentralisation of water management, and helped revive water bodies through his work, the new law is a “direct attack on the federal nature of the Indian Constitution.”
Despite the opposition, the central government plans to bring the River Basin Management Bill to Parliament during this winter session. The governments of the Indian states of Telangana and perhaps West Bengal are scrambling to pass laws before that to make the central law toothless. They know that given the majority of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha – the Lower House of the Indian Parliament – they will not be able to stop the bill there, and may not be able to stop it in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, which has members elected by state legislators.
The crux of the proposed law is to form a river basin authority with statutory water allocation powers for each inter-state basin – 13 to start with – and have a centre-appointed official to effectively head that authority. Chief ministers of each basin state will take turns to chair the authority, and there will be representation from state level as well as village level representation, but the key appointments will be by the central government. That means a state government that does not agree with the authority will have little say unless it happens to be holding the rotating chair. Even if that state does hold the chair at the time, the proposed law gives the final say to the official appointed by the federal government, and according to Clause 22, any decision will be binding on the governments.
Officials in the central Jal Shakti ministry point to India’s long history of inter-state water disputes to argue that this is the only way out. They also hold that under the Constitution, the centre is supposed to play a coordinating role in inter-state river basins. They argue that there is no reason to think the federally-appointed chief of a river basin authority will not be an impartial person.
But that is exactly what state governments – at least those not ruled by the BJP – do think. The Telangana government is asking why it has spent billions in water supply projects over the last few years if it cannot guarantee water supply through those projects. Most rivers flowing through Telangana start in Maharashtra, and in the proposed new dispensation, the downstream state will have relatively little say in how much water it will get from those rivers.
West Bengal, the most downstream state in the country’s largest Ganga basin, is even more worried. The Ganga and its tributaries flow through Uttarakhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. So, each chief minister will get to chair the proposed river basin authority only once in nine years. Members of the West Bengal assembly and state government officials say the state is already suffering due to the large number of dams, barrages and irrigation canals in the Ganga basin upstream, and now they will not be able to protest effectively if more such projects are passed while another chief minister is in the chair of the proposed authority.
Rajendra Singh and other water activism organisations affiliated to the Jal Jan Jodho (Connect Water and People) movement not only oppose the bill, they want to go beyond and move the powers of the state government to local governments – municipalities and panchayats. They argue that this is the only way the average citizen will be able to hold their elected representatives to account on a regular basis on something as crucial as water supply.
Other NGOs have held two public consultations on the bill, in Guwahati and Lucknow. Resolutions coming out of these two meetings show that many NGOs are aware of the need to break the current impasses over inter-state water disputes; they are not opposed to the central points of the bill, but they want safeguards such as the inclusion of NGO representatives in the proposed river basin authorities, and to have more than advisory powers given to these representatives. They have not been able to resolve who should choose these NGO representatives and how. Many NGOs have voiced the worry that the central government may end up appointing “convenient” NGO representatives.
There is no doubt that for decades, centrally appointed water sharing tribunals have failed to satisfy states embroiled in water disputes – be it the case of the Cauvery or the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal or the worsening disputes over the Mahanadi and the Krishna river basins. The judiciary has also found itself often helpless in the face of obdurate state governments backed by farmers’ groups, often driven into frenzy by some politicians.
Now the question in the minds of observers is whether the proposed solution in the form a River Basin Management Act that transfers key powers to the federal government is the right solution, or if it will worsen matters in fundamental ways. If centrally appointed tribunals could not solve the problems in the past, how will a centrally dominated river basin authority be better?
The Jal Shakti ministry is convinced that this is the only solution. Opposition-ruled states are afraid it will worsen matters because a federally appointed official may lean in favour of a state that happens to be ruled by the same party as the centre. Some experts are afraid that this will seriously dilute the federal structure of the Indian Constitution. There is the fear that the new law will enable the current government at the centre to push through its pet project to interlink most of India’s rivers – though that has been repeatedly shown to be economically and ecologically ruinous.
Members of Parliament from the Telangana Rastra Samiti, Trinamool Congress, Congress and the DMK have said they will oppose the bill in the Lok Sabha and definitely in the Rajya Sabha. They want a detailed discussion in the parliament’s select committee for the Jal Shakti ministry before it is tabled in the Lower House. Ministry officials say the bill has been on their website for public discussion since 2018, they have taken on board the comments they have received, and there is no reason for further delay.
Opposition MPs are afraid the government will table the bill and pass it without much debate. A reasoned and dispassionate debate on this issue is essential for the water future of India, they say.