The tiff between Punjab and Haryana over sharing of Ravi and Beas waters has taken a turn for the worse with the Badal government moving the Punjab SYL Canal Land (Transfer of Propriety Rights) Bill 2016
By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh
On July 12, 2004, the Punjab assembly enacted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill, annulling all inter-state agreements signed by the state relating to the sharing of Ravi and Beas waters, including the December 1981 tripartite agreement.
The bill was moved by the then chief minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, and he got unstinted support from staunch rival, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which was headed by Parkash Singh Badal, the present CM.
Twelve years later, it was a role reversal. On March 14, the SAD-BJP government led by Badal moved the contentious Punjab Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Propriety Rights) Bill 2016. This bill, which seeks to return land acquired for construction of the SYL canal, has got unstinted support from the rival Congress with Capt Amarinder Singh hailing the move.
Though these two rival parties don’t see eye-to-eye on any issue in the state, they have joined hands to vote for a patently illegal and arbitrary legislation which has inter-state implications. Evidently, it suits the political agenda of the rival parties which could not have afforded to take a contradictory stand on the sensitive issue of water sharing with Haryana.
Ironically, while Badal and Amarinder are now tooth-and-nail opposing the SYL canal, both had in the past endorsed it. Notification for acquisition of land for the canal was issued in 1978 when Badal was the CM but now he has piloted the Bill to de-notify the land. Similarly, Amarinder had hailed the foundation stone laying ceremony of the SYL canal in 1982 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The latest Punjab action has led to an embarrassing situation for Prof Kaptan Singh Solanki who is holding the dual charge of governor for both Punjab and Haryana. Delivering his address in the Punjab house on March 8, he said: “My government has consistently been seeking a solution to the river water issue through the implementation of the nationally and internationally accepted riparian principle on the distribution of river waters.”
A week later on March 14 while opening the Haryana assembly session (and after the Punjab assembly had passed the SYL Canal Land Bill), Solanki said: “My government is committed to obtain its legitimate share of Ravi-Beas Waters and completion of Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal.”
While the genesis of the water dispute goes back to Partition, the inter-state dispute can be traced to the Punjab Reorganization Act, 1966. However, the immediate provocation for the Punjab assembly action is the hearing of the Presidential Reference to the Supreme Court on the 2004 Bill to terminate all water agreements unilaterally. The Haryana government had also challenged its provisions in the Supreme Court.
The hearing in the apex court prompted Punjab to bring in legislation to return the acquired land so that any adverse court ruling may become infructuous and unimplementable. Such a ruling could have been disastrous for the political parties particularly in an election year. The state is due for assembly elections in February next.
Political parties in Punjab were clearly apprehending adverse comments and advise from the Supreme Court on the Presidential Reference. The 2004 Bill was bad in law because it was aimed at unilateral termination of agreements where another state as well as the central government was involved. The Bill was beyond the legislative competence of the Punjab assembly as it was repugnant to the Punjab Reorganization Act, 1966 and the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956.
What also contributed to the haste in bringing in legislation to de-acquire the land was the fact that even the NDA government, which includes the SAD and the BJP, had taken a stand which went in favor of Haryana and against the legislation brought in 2004. Not surprisingly, all the major political parties have taken contradictory stands in Punjab and Haryana. Even the new entrant, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is making a concerted effort to wrest power in Punjab, took the stand that the canal should not be built. However, its supremo, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal had to beat a hasty retreat when Haryana pointed out that Delhi depended for water supply on Haryana.
The brazen action of Punjab in proposing to return the acquired land to farmers was followed by yet another bizarre act of allowing farmers and politicians to level off constructed parts of the 214-km-long canal (90 per cent of its construction had been completed) even before the approval of the Bill by the governor which would have made it into an Act. It was only after a prayer by the Haryana government that the Supreme Court intervened and asked Punjab to stop farmers and others from leveling the canal.
Even though the state government had to comply in this regard, the Punjab assembly again passed a resolution the next day virtually challenging the Supreme Court. The unanimous resolution said: “The SYL canal will not be allowed to be constructed at any cost.”
The blame for the SYL crisis must be shared by successive governments, both at the center and in the two states. The SYL canal was conceived way back in 1969. It took nine years for Haryana to release funds for acquiring land as per the agreement. Another four years were wasted before the foundation stone was laid in 1982. Work progressed at a slow speed till eight years later in 1990 militants forced the construction to stop after killing the chief engineer and 35 laborers.
It took another 14 years (and about 10 years after the end of militancy) to bring the issue back into focus when Capt Amarinder Singh annulled the water sharing agreement. It took the judiciary 12 years after the Presidential Reference to consider the issue and that too in an election year. Thus, it took a total of 45 years for this issue to fester.
Punjab’s legislations have hit at the core principles of India’s federal structure and opened a Pandora’s box. This sensitive and contentious issue is now unlikely to see an early closure. Perhaps the entire issue should be re-examined and a time-bound agreement agreed to.