Water Disputes in India: Inter- State River Water Disputes Explained

4 Oct 2023  Read 2414 Views

In India, water disputes are like an endless game of tug-of-war over something as vital as water itself. These disagreements often revolve around how to use, share, and control the waters of rivers that flow through multiple states. It's a big issue in India's federal system. To sort out these disputes, India set up special tribunals through the Inter-State River Water Disputes (ISRWD) Act in 1956.

See, the fact is that India has a huge population but not a lot of water. With only 4% of the world's renewable water resources and 18% of the global population, things can get dicey if water disputes are not settled. If we don't take the right steps, these water tensions could bubble over into serious conflicts.

Say for example: The longstanding water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery River, which often had significant impact as such disputes leads to strained relations, protests, and even violence.

So, let's delve into this article for learning more about the famous instances of water disputes in India, its mechanism and tribunals that are actively working to resolve such disputes and many more. 

Water in the Indian Constitution

Let's take an example, water disputes in India are like heated arguments at a family dinner, with everyone claiming their share of the pie. Recent clashes over rivers like Krishna, Cauvery, and the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal show just how problematic it can get. Now, here's a twist, though there are special Inter-State Water Disputes Tribunals to sort these out, but they've also got their own problems. The deal is, water is a state matter, but the Union Government also has a say when it comes to inter-state rivers. Article 262 of our Constitution says that Parliament can make laws to settle these disputes, and it can even say, "Hands off!" to other courts. So, it's like a game of chess, "complex" where every move affects. 

  • Entry 17 of State List deals with water i.e. water supply, irrigation, canal, drainage, embankments, water storage and water power.
  • Entry 56 of Union List gives power to the Union Government for the regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent declared by Parliament to be expedient in the public interest.

Mechanism for Inter-State River Water Disputes Resolution

Parliament has enacted two laws according to Article 262 of Indian Constitution:

1) River Board Act, 1956

The purpose of this Act was to enable the Centre to create Boards for Interstate Rivers and river valleys in consultation with State Governments. The Board's objective is to advise on the inter-state basin to prepare development scheme and to prevent the rise of conflicts. however, until now, no river board as per above Act has been created.

2) Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956

When states in India can't agree on sharing river water, they can ask the Centre for help. First, they try to talk it out, but if that doesn't work, the Union Government sets up a special team called a tribunal. The Supreme Court however, won't question the tribunal's decision, but it can check if the tribunal is doing its job right. The composition of the tribunal is that it is constituted by the Chief Justice of India and it consists of the sitting judge of Supreme Court and the other two judges who can be from Supreme Court or High Court.

Source: IASGyan

Amendments to the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act, 1956

1. 2002 Amendment Act: This Act further has undergone amendments and its most recent amendment took place in the year 2002.

  • The 2002 amendment introduced a single tribunal system to replace multiple tribunals, streamlining the resolution process for inter-state water disputes.
  • It set a strict time limit of 3 years for tribunals to make their decisions, expediting the resolution of water disputes.
  • The amended act made tribunal awards final and not subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court, providing more certainty in dispute resolution

2. The Inter-State River Water Dispute (Amendment) Bill, 2019: This bill aimed to streamline the adjudication of disputes over inter-state river waters. 

  • Setting up a single permanent tribunal called the "Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal" for adjudication of water disputes.
  • Reducing the time for adjudication of disputes to a maximum of two and a half years.
  • Disallowing the water dispute tribunals from considering any dispute that has already been adjudicated upon by a previous tribunal.

3. The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2021: This bill proposed further amendments to the 1956 Act. 

  • The inclusion of a provision for a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) for the resolution of disputes before they are referred to a tribunal.
  • Setting a maximum time frame of 2 years for the DRC to submit its report.
  • The establishment of an "Inter-State Water Disputes Appellate Authority" to hear appeals against the decisions of the tribunals.

List of Water Dispute Cases in India 

The details of the Tribunals set up so far by the Government to settle water disputes among the States under the Inter-State River Water Disputes (ISRWD) Act, 1956 are as under (Data taken from official website):-



Name of Tribunal

States concerned

Date of constitution

Present Status


Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal

Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh & Odisha

April, 1969

Award given on July, 1980


Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal -I

Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka,

April, 1969

Award given on May, 1976


Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal


Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra

October, 1969

Award given on December, 1979


Ravi & Beas Water Tribunal

Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan

April, 1986

Report and decision under section 5(2) given in April, 1987. A Presidential Reference in the matter is before Supreme Court and as such the matter is sub-judice (pending).



Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal

Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puduchery

June, 1990

Report and decision given on 5.2.2007 which was published vide Notification dated 19.2.2013. Special Leave Petition (SLP) filed by party States in Hon’ble Supreme Court, as such the matter is sub-judice.


Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal -II

Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra

April, 2004

Report and decision given on 30.12. 2010. Further report given by the Tribunal on 29.11.2013.  Term of the Tribunal has been extended for two year w.e.f. 1st August, 2014 to address the terms of reference as contained in section 89 of Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014. However, as per Supreme Court Order dated 16.9.2011, till further order, decision taken by the Tribunal on references filed by States and Central Government shall not be published in the official Gazette. As such, matter is sub-judice.


Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal

Andhra Pradesh & Odisha

February, 2010

Report and decision not given by the Tribunal. State of Odisha has filed an SLP in Supreme Court against the appointment of one of the Members  of the Tribunal. The SLP in the matter filed by the State of Odisha in the Supreme Court is pending. Thus the matter is sub-judice. Besides, Hon’bleVansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal in its Order dated 17.12.2013 has directed to constitute a 3-member Protem Supervisory Flow Management and Regulation Committee on River Vansadhara to implement its Order.


Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal

Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra

November, 2010

Report and Decision not given by the Tribunal.


Active River Water sharing Tribunals in India

Tribunal Year of formation Comment States involved
Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal II 2004 Sri RS Bachawat chaired the common tribunal, and its members included Sri DM Bhandari and Sri DM Sen. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana & Karnataka
Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal 2018 In 2016, Odisha asked the Union Government to set up a tribunal for settling Mahanadi River disputes with Chhattisgarh. The Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal was created in March 2018. However, the Centre has extended the tenure of the Mahanadi Water Disputes Tribunal till April 13, 2026. Chhattisgarh & Odisha
Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal 2010 In 2002, Goa asked for a tribunal to settle the Mandovi River dispute, leading to the creation of the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal in 2010. By August 2018, the tribunal submitted its report to the Central Government. Karnataka, Goa & Maharashtra
Ravi & Beas Water Tribunal 1986 This was established in 1986 to verify the quantum of water usage claimed by Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan in relation to their shares in the remaining waters. In 1987, the Tribunal delivered its report. Rajasthan, Haryana & Punjab
Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal 2010 In 2009, the Supreme Court told the government to create a water dispute tribunal, so they made the Vansadhara Water Dispute Tribunal in 2010. This tribunal's in New Delhi, and in 2017, they gave their report to the government. Odisha & Andhra Pradesh


Famous Instances of Water Disputes explained

  1. Krishna River Dispute: A big fight took place between the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra over the Krishna River. They argued about how to split the river's water for drinking and farming. The dispute led to protests, court battles, and tensions between these states. After Andhra Pradesh split into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in 2014, they made a deal in 2015 to share Krishna River water. Telangana then started making a lot of electricity from the river, worrying Andhra Pradesh about having enough water. They argued about it, and the government told Telangana to follow the rules, but the problem continued.

  2. Cauvery River Dispute: Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been fighting for years over the Cauvery River's water. They both need it for farming, and the conflict has resulted in protests, sometimes turning violent. Hence, the tribunal in its verdict allocated 419 TMC of water annually to Tamil Nadu and 282 TMC to Karnataka; 30 TMC of Cauvery river water to Kerala and 7 TMC to Puducherry. In 2018, the Supreme Court said the Cauvery River is a national asset and approved the water-sharing rules set by the CWDT. They also told the government to create the Cauvery Management Scheme, which includes the Cauvery Water Management Authority and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee.

  3. Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Dispute: Haryana and Punjab, two Indian states, clashed over a canal called the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal. Haryana wanted to get its share of water through this canal, but Punjab didn't want to share. The dispute reached the Supreme Court, leading to legal battles and tensions between the two states. The Punjab Termination of Water Agreements Act, 2004, which gave Punjab the unilateral right to stop sharing the waters of the Ravi and Beas with other States, was rejected by the Supreme Court. SYL has been a source of conflict between Haryana and Punjab since then.


Solving water disputes is like finding the right balance between two sides. To make this happen, we could create a permanent tribunal with the Supreme Court as the ultimate decision- maker for the tribunal's decisions or can amend Art. 262 or the Inter-State Water Disputes Act as per the current needs (just a suggestion). With such changes, we may ensure that our rivers foster harmonious relationships among our states.

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 275 Post(s)

Kakoli Nath is a legal Content Manager at Finology Legal who pursued BBA.LL.B (5 years integrated course). She is a patent analyst & had also done advanced certification in Forensics Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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