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SYL’s Choppy Waters

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While the apex court has ruled in favor of Haryana and not Punjab in the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal dispute, it is sure to become a poll issue

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

IT may sound rather strange that the two main political rivals in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress, had at one point or the other endorsed the construction of the contentious Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and had worked towards its completion. For, now the parties are vying with each other to oppose its construction, tooth-and-nail.

The issue of sharing the Ravi-Beas waters with Haryana had been pending since the Reorganization of States 50 years ago. Ever since the construction of the canal was abruptly stopped in the early 80s after militants attacked and killed a senior engineer and workers, it has remained a dormant yet emotive issue which is always revived during election time.

This time round, with assembly elections just two months away, it was bound to become a major issue as the Presidential Reference before the Supreme Court was scheduled to come up before the retirement of one of the judges on the five-member bench.

PRESIDENTIAL REFERENCE

The apex court gave its decision in favor of Haryana on all the four points for which Presidential Reference was sought. These points related to the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which had sought to scrap all inter-state agreements unilaterally. While the Haryana government had moved courts against the Punjab legislation, Punjab’s governor had sent the Bill for the consideration of the President. He had subsequently referred it to the Supreme Court.

(From left) Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Photos: UNI
(From left) Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Photos: UNI

As expected, all major political parties in Punjab reacted sharply to the apex court decision. Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh was first off the block with his resignation as a Lok Sabha member. He also said that all party MLAs would be submitting their resignations from the assembly and the party would launch an agitation.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal reiterated his stand that “not a drop” of water would be allowed to flow out of Punjab even if that meant defying the country’s top court. He announced convening of a special meeting of the assembly to pass a resolution against the Supreme Court’s response to the Presidential Reference.

AMARINDER’S MOVE

Politics over the issue was revived in 2004 when Captain Amarinder Singh was the chief minister. He piloted a bill to scrap all agreements on the water issue. Badal was then the leader of the opposition and his party fully supported the move and the assembly passed the Bill unanimously.

While political parties in Punjab will rake up the issue, most people seem convinced that it is now a dead one. Only the use of force to complete the canal could lead to tension. Even that is highly unlikely.

Twelve years later, on March 14 this year, there was a role reversal. The SAD-BJP government led by Badal moved the contentious Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill 2016 seeking to return the land acquired for construction of the SYL canal. He and his government got the unstinted support of the rival Congress with Captain Amarinder Singh hailing the move.

Immediately after the Bill was passed, the state government encouraged farmers to level off the constructed parts of the canal. Some Congress leaders too joined in the effort by arranging earth-moving equipment. However, the High Court intervened after Haryana complained and the execution code was stopped.

BJP IN A FIX

This issue could become a major one in the election campaign as Punjab goes to polls early next year. Although, the stand taken by SAD is well-known, for the first time, the BJP will find itself in a bind.

While the BJP is the junior coalition partner in Punjab, it is the ruling party for the first time in Haryana. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has been pushing hard for getting SYL waters for Haryana, while the party’s Punjab unit does not favor water flowing outside Punjab.

The new entrant on the scene, the Aam Aadmi Party, is blaming both the Congress and SAD over the SYL issue and for not getting “justice” for Punjab. The party had given an affidavit in court favoring the flow of water from Punjab. However later, party supremo Arvind Kejriwal said the affidavit was filed by a junior advocate after Haryana reminded Delhi that it too was getting water from Haryana.

While political parties in Punjab will rake up this issue, most people seem convinced that it is now a dead one. Only the use of force to complete the canal can lead to tension. But even that is highly unlikely and certainly not during the run-up to the impending assembly elections.

The President may or may not accept the Supreme Court’s views, but it is certain that he will not take any decision in the near future.

Lead picture: The dilapidated SYL Canal at Ropar, Punjab. Photo: The Indian Express

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