The origin of the riparian rights lie in the common law. They are traced to be recognized by the common law as they are based on historical practices and case laws rather than being laid down in a statute. The Indian courts recognize these rights as they have been enjoyed by the owners for a long time as a result of continuous usage and customary rights.
Meaning of Riparian Rights
The term ‘riparian’ has been derived from the Latin word ‘ripa’ which means riverbank. A riparian owner is the one who owns land along the bank of a river or lake or any other water body. Certain rights enjoyed connected to the land owned by a riparian owner, are called riparian rights. In other words, a riparian owner is the owner of land adjoining a water body. These rights are natural rights that have arisen due to the location of the house of the riparian owner. These rights exclusively belong to the riparian owners who reside along the shore or banks of the river.
- Right to use the bank or shore of a water bed
- Access to and from the water
- Building of structures
- Right to fishing
- Right to navigation
- Use of water
- Protection from soil erosion
- Drinking and for domestic purposes [i]
In M.C.Mehta v. Union of India[ii], ( famously known as the Ganga River case) the Supreme Court reiterated the doctrine of riparian rights. It held that the petitioner was a riparian owner who was troubled by the nuisance created by the contamination of the river Ganga. Such a contamination was a public nuisance and the petitioners were entitled to riparian rights of access to unpolluted water and hence a Public Interest Litigation was a valid remedy.
In Vippalapati v. Raja Vizianagram[iii], the court held that riparian rights are encompassed of a right to access free-flowing water without any obstruction if it is an obstruction by a dam. Hence section 7 clarifies the general principle of law that essentially easements are restrictive in nature, that is they do not operate to exclude the rightful owner from enjoying his property.
A riparian owner under the Indian Easement Act 1882 is a person who owns the land adjoining a water body. He is bestowed with the rights ancillary to the location of the land owned by him. He is entitled to make use of the water body equally along with other riparian owners. He is also entitled to have access to undiminished flow of water and quality and quantity of such water body without obstruction. Under section 7 of the Act, a riparian owner has been defined as a person legally entitled to a right to continued flow of water without any destruction or unreasonable contamination of it. However a riparian rights are not absolute rights, they are subject to Government’s rights to regulate the collection, retention and distribution of water flowing in the natural channels. [iv]
Scope of Riparian Rights
Every riparian owner who owns a land abutting to a natural stream, lake or pond is entitled to use and consume its water for drinking, household purposes and watering his cattle and sheep and to consume the water for irrigating such land and for the purpose of any manufactory situate thereon, provided he does thereby cause any material harm or injury to other like owners. A natural stream is a stream whether permanent or intermittent tidal or tideless on the surface of the land or underground which flows by the operation of nature only and in a natural and known course. Hence a riparian owner is a person whose land abuts on a natural stream. Streams may be natural or artificial. Riparian owner can be anyone who owns a land which comes in contact with a river and even which has a reasonable proximity to a riverbank.
The rights of a riparian owner are threefold
- He has a right of user that is he can use the water for certain purposes
- He has a right to flow. He has a right to have the water come to him and go from him without any obstruction
- Lastly, he has a right to purity. He is entitled to have the water come to him unpolluted. [v]
In the case of M. Seshareddy v. K. Gopala Reddy [vi], the Andhra Pradesh High Court reiterated that a person as a riparian owner of a land abutting a natural stream has a natural right to use the water of the stream to irrigate his land without diminution of the flow of water and without affecting the right of the riparian owners below the stream.
Hence the above article highlights the meaning and concept of riparian rights and a riparian owner. Riparian rights are natural rights. They cannot be taken away or granted to an individual. They are linked or connected to the riparian owner residing or owning land abutting a stream or river or lake. They have no statutory origin but are rights enjoyed since time immemorial by the owners of the land adjoining the water bodies.
“The views of the authors are personal“
[i]Annie Mampilly, Riparian Rights in India, Lex Terra Issue
[ii] AIR 1988 SC 1115
[iii] AIR 1937 Mad 310
[v]N.H.Jhabvala The Indian Easements Act 1882
[vi] AIR 1987 AP 1