After a hiatus of over 10 years, the eleventh meeting of the Inter State Council (ISC) was held on 16th July 2016 and again on 7th April 2017. The central and state governments are looking to reignite the role of the ISC as a forum to resolve their long-standing disputes and prevent similar clashes in the future. Indeed, one of the key areas where the ISC can establish its indispensable role is in the field of inter-state disputes relating to environmental conservation and equitable development.
India has, since as far back as 1925, seen perennial conflicts between neighboring states over shared resources such as land and water. Most of these conflicts center on the principal demand for ground and fresh water. This demand has led to recurrent disputes such as the infamous Polavaram Project row – a multipurpose irrigation project on the river Godavari. While many of these conflicts have been addressed through legislations like the Inter State Water Disputes Act 1956, the pace of such processes has been remarkably slow.
In fact, recently the Inter-state River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2017 was introduced in Lok Sabha to improve the 1956 Act. However, while this bill does propose the setting up of a Dispute Resolution Committee and a Tribunal for water-disputes, it remains the case that the act comes into play only when a formal complaint is made and the proceedings under the changed act continue to be extendable for up to three years.
As opposed to this, in most cases where an adequate and amiable resolution to inter-state water disputes has been achieved, it has invariably been through mutual bilateral agreements. For instance, Telengana and Maharashtra had set up an Interstate Water Dispute Resolution Board to address their longstanding disagreements about ongoing and proposed projects for the Godavari. On the other hand, despite several court orders, discord over the centuries old Mullaperiyar Dam on the river Periyar continues to rage on between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Many of these conflicts can be effectively addressed through the ISC, where states governments have the opportunity to collectively confront problems and resolve them. In fact, the ISC, as opposed to the 1956 Act and its 2017 (proposed) amendment, can act as a preventive stage where any future water disputes can be anticipated and preempted, reducing the need for judicial proceedings to deal with these disputes.
Apart from water disputes, some of the key challenges and issues that the ISC would have to consider, specifically in relation to environmental justice, will include the legal, historical, ethical, and moral concerns of who can lay claim to shared natural resources. For example, is it the central government or the state government that holds the final jurisdiction over reserved forest lands? Or, as suggested by the Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006, is the claim of tribal men and women over forested lands stronger instead?
Owing to the existence of diverse state laws and traditions in India, many environmental and cultural issues are sometimes comprehended in very dissimilar terms across different states. Although the Central Government seems to be, by means of legislations such as the proposed National Water Frameworks Bill 2016, making an effort to standardize and streamline a code for understanding these issues, it is a cooperative effort between the states through the ISC that promises to pave a way forward, while at the same time preserving the diversity of thought and beliefs across the country.
To a large extent, then, the ISC promises to act as a platform to collectively address questions such as – How do states curb the polluting of shared rivers? How do they make sure that hydroelectric projects are not disproportionately benefiting certain groups? And how do they ensure that building a dam in a certain state does not adversely affect the biodiversity and livelihoods of its neighboring state? In fact, activities such as mining and interstate construction works such as building roads and highways, and efforts to curb soil, water, and air pollution, all hold potential to be constructively discussed and tackled through the ISC. Elephant migration and Human-Wildlife conflict, for instance, have become pressing issue in recent times. The ISC comes across as an outstanding stage to confront these problems. Perhaps reviewing and updating migration corridors across states, or linking more national parks to ensure ease of access for the animals, may rectify the conflict in some amounts?
Whatever the eventual solution may be, interstate cooperation holds immense promise to mitigate pressing policy, legal and cultural conflicts of the present day and age, and one hopes that the Central and the State governments will not miss the opportunity that stands in front of them in form of the Inter State Council.
Author: Aprajita Arya
You can reach author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
She completed her B.A. Hons. (English) from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. Currently, she is pursuing a two-year law course from University of Edinburgh. She is a content writer with TA.