Updated 8:04 am, Apr 28, 2021

Punjab Water Dispute: Thunder and Blunder

By  Dalip MacCune .
Nov 11, 2016

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Apex Court’s verdict on river water dispute has given a lot of thunder to the Congress party in Punjab. Will this water dispute become a game changer in the forthcoming elections?

The decision of the Supreme Court on 10th November 2016 on Presidential reference sent to it 12 years ago set the ball rolling for escalation of tension over water sharing between Punjab and Haryana. The highly emotive issue of water between the two states has led to violence and agitations in the past and can impact the political discourse.

The opposition party in Punjab is in no mood to let any chance fly-by without taking political advantage. State Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh resigned from Lok Sabha seat to protest against apex court’s verdict on water sharing with Haryana on 10th November 2016. All Congress MLAs belonging to Opposition party in the state assemble tendered their resignation to the Punjab Assembly Secretary to protest against the Supreme Court’s ruling favouring Haryana on the Sutley-Yamuna Link Canal .

The Congress party set off the block first and wants to steal the water thunder to corner ruling alliance of Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party. State Congress Chief Captain Amarinder Singh, launched a scalding attack on Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, alleging that “he failed to protect the interest” of the people and announced that Congress party will take out a rallies all across Punjab to mobilize the people against injustice done to Punjab. Speaking to media persons in Chandigarh, Captain Amarinder said, “I am not in Parliament and our MLAs are not in Vidhan Sabha. We will go to the people. We are going to burn the effigies of the government for not protecting Punjab’s rights.”

The Presidential reference pertained to a Legislation passed by the Punjab Assembly by the then ruling Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in July 2004 called the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act. This Act unilaterally cancelled all the agreements of Punjab with neighbouring states in sharing of Satluj, Ravi and Beas rivers, thus making the construction of Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) infructuous.
A five-judge Constitution Bench led by Justice Anil R. Dave gave its opinion on a Presidential Reference made to it twelve years ago, on July 22, 2004, questioning the constitutional validity of the Act. The apex court concluded that the Act was illegally designed to terminate a December 31, 1981 agreement entered into among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to re-allocate the waters of Ravi and Beas in “overall national interest and for optimum utilisation of the waters”. The SYL Canal was a product of this 1981 agreement.
By introducing the 2004 Act, the State defied two back-to-back apex court verdicts, pronounced in 2002 and 2004. The first one had directed Punjab to complete the SYL Canal in a year. The second judgment had ordered the formation of a central agency to “take control” of Punjab’s work on the canal. In short, the Supreme Court said Punjab acted as “a judge in its own cause”. “The State of Punjab exceeded its legislative power in proceeding to nullify the decree of this court and therefore, the Punjab Act of 2004 cannot be said to be a validly enacted legislation,” Justice Dave wrote for the Bench, also comprising Justices P.C. Ghose, S.K. Singh, A.K. Goel and Amitava Roy.
Referring to its 2006 Mullaperiyar dam judgment, the Supreme Court held that a State Legislative Assembly “cannot through legislation do an act in conflict with the judgment of the highest court which has attained finality”.
The Supreme Court’s Judgement sounds death-knell to the hopes of thousands of farmers in Punjab who were set to re-claim their lands acquired for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal. In Congress party thousands of supporters will love to live with hatred in election, not one without the entire water for Punjab.
The decades-long legal dispute between Punjab and Haryana on the sharing of river waters is back in the spotlight. Politics and litigation continue to play havoc with farmers in Punjab and Haryana over the contentious issue of sharing river water from Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL)Canal. The conflict over sharing of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej waters began in 1966, when Haryana was carved out of Punjab and the new state demanded a share under the Punjab.

Once this treaty was signed, the water from these three rivers was shared between Punjab, Delhi, and Jammu and Kashmir. Punjab was re-organised in 1966, and the state of Haryana was created out of it. As a successor state, Haryana was eligible to receive a share of Punjab’s river waters. The river Yamuna – whose course took it through undivided Punjab but now flowed only in Haryana – was never considered a part of this arrangement.

Predictably, the sharing of river waters became a bone of contention between Punjab and Haryana. In 1976, the then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi intervened in the matter , ruling that of the available 15.2 million acre feet (MAF) water from the three rivers, Punjab and Haryana would receive 3.5 MAF each. In 1979, Haryana approached the Supreme Court to implement this allocation. Punjab filed a civil suit in the apex court a few months later, challenging it. These lawsuits began a slew of legal battles that continue to this day.

As it stands now, the core issue is the completion of the Sutlej Yamuna Canal which was meant to carry water from Punjab’s rivers to Haryana. Construction of the canal was halted in 1990, after militants gunned down a number of workers, the superintending engineer, and the chief engineer.

In 2002, the Supreme Court issued a directive to the Punjab government to complete the canal. To counter this, Capt Amarinder Singh, then the chief minister of Punjab, helmed the Punjab Termination of Waters Agreement Act, 2004, which was unanimously adopted by the Punjab assembly.

The Act annulled all earlier accords and awards on the apportionment of river waters between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan, and provided statutory protection for the first time to the water already flowing to Rajasthan and Haryana. Within the state, the captain became known as ‘the Saviour of Punjab’s Waters.’

The river waters are on the boil again. This may well become the main issue in the upcoming state elections. Capt Amarinder Singh was responsible for bringing in the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act in 2004. He was criticised by his own party members then, as he had defied Congress party chief -Sonia Gandhi and the then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s authority by not consulting them before enacting the legislation in 2004.

Aam Aadmi Party, Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party’s are confused and ambiguous on the issue. This will help Congress in the long run. Yesterday’s blasphemy might become a boon for Congress party today, Capt Amarinder Singh’s previous stand might help his party regain Punjab in the forthcoming elections.

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