Political theatrics over a severe dispute
In a decision that can have serious repercussions on the upcoming Punjab elections, the apex court on Thursday cancelled a law passed by the Punjab Assembly, which had terminated a water-sharing agreement with five other states through the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.
In deeming the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act unconstitutional, the Court has once again exposed the deep regional fault lines that exist in the sharing of precious water.
To the uninitiated, the 2004 Act summarily ended all of Punjab’s water-sharing agreements with Haryana and other neighbouring states. As per the Act passed by the Punjab legislature, the state government was under no obligation to construct the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, a conduit for the waters of the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej from Punjab to other states. Despite the Supreme Court’s repeated calls since 2004 to complete the canal, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Land (Return of Property Rights) Bill, 2016, which provides for the restoration of land acquired for the project to its original owners.
It was passed with the intention to prevent any further construction of the canal ahead of the crucial Assembly elections. Experts had contended that the consequences for Haryana were dire, especially for its water-starved southern regions. But the court has ordered a status quo this recent legislation passed by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government.
The Centre will now take over the construction of the conduit meant to distribute water among six states – Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Delhi. This decision has also sparked a season of competitive regional politics a few months before the crucial Assembly elections. Moments after the apex court judgment, state Congress legislators sent in their resignations to Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Captain Amarinder Singh.
In response to his party legislators, Singh, too, resigned as a Member of Parliament to mark his protest against the court verdict, although he had reportedly asked other party parliamentarians not to follow in his footsteps. Of course, this editorial will go on to expose the hypocrisy behind not only the Congress party’s position but also the Bharatiya Janata Party's. The Aam Aadmi Party has also been caught between a rock and a hard place with this decision.
Akin to the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the conflict over the SYL Canal has stirred passions and incited acts of crude regional politics. The SYL canal in Punjab has been subject to the most deplorable forms of political opportunism in recent memory. “That legacy (of political opportunism) has shaped the terms of the debate, particularly in light of Punjab’s crop patterns; water-intensive rice crops cover over 60 percent of the state’s area under cultivation,” according to a recent editorial in Mint published on World Water Day.
“That makes it easy to portray any inclination to honour the SYL agreement as being anti-farmer, the kiss of death in Punjab’s politics.” It is imperative to gauge the historical context from which this dispute arises. One has to go back to 1996 when Haryana was carved out of the state of Punjab. Soon after its formation, Haryana staked its claim on the waters of the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. Fast forward to 1976 and the Centre under the Indira Gandhi government decided to allocate some of these waters to Haryana.
The SYL canal was meant to run through Punjab for 122 kilometres and then into Haryana for 92 kilometres. Despite vociferous protests from Punjab, the Centre managed to construct the entire Haryana section by 1982. But the same decade also saw the Khalistan militant movement in Punjab. In a bid to not alienate a restive populace any further, in 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Punjab Accord with the then Akali Dal government.
The accord took cognizance of Punjab’s protestations against the water-sharing arrangement and set up a tribunal to address them. But the Khalistani insurgency throughout the 1980s put a stop to any attempts at negotiating an acceptable settlement on the canal. Since 1990, construction work on it has more or less come to a grinding halt. In the months leading up to the polls, one can expect the opposition to go hammer and tongs against the present Akali-BJP government.
Various political parties are caught in a web of conflicting interests in different states over the SYL canal. The BJP, for example, is seemingly out of viable political options. The party holds power at the Centre and in Haryana and is in coalition with the Akali Dal in Punjab.
The Centre’s has maintained a neutral position, while its government in Haryana has celebrated the court’s decision. Bound by the decision to oversee construction of the canal, strategists in the BJP will have long nights assessing their next course of action. The Aam Aadmi Party, which was seen to have made significant headways into the state, is also caught in a quandary.
Throughout the course of this dispute, the party has sought to declare that no politics should be played on the subject. But it also has to consider that water through the SYL canal also extends to the water-scarce national capital. One of its key promises to the Delhi electorate was the provision of free water up to 20 kiloliters per family per month.
How will the apex court’s decision affect its interests in Punjab? Of course, the Congress party’s shameless political theatrics on the issue may reap some political dividends. Reports indicate with the party’s prospects in the state looking good; it is bound to keep up the kind of gesture witnessed on Thursday. One can expect further acts of political brinksmanship in the following days.