The tussle over the Satluj Yamuna Link Canal between the governments of Punjab and Haryana would be amusing if it did not have major implications on the sanctity of our institutions, the rule of law and the upholding of federal democratic principles.

The Satluj Yamuna Link canal – land acquisition for which started in the late 1970s when Parkash Singh Badal was the chief minister of Punjab as he is now – is meant to allow Haryana to draw its share of water from the Ravi and Beas rivers. However, with elections coming up in Punjab next year, the issue is so tricky that each political party has changed its stand according to the state it is in. Thus, all parties support the canal’s construction in Haryana (which needs water) and are dead against it in Punjab (which doesn’t want to share its water any more.)

The dilemma is all the more acute for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the government at the Centre and Haryana, and rules in Punjab in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal. In the Supreme Court, which recently took up the case, representatives of the central and Haryana governments supported the canal – a stand directly opposed to that of the Punjab government.

Water wars

The tussle began in 2004 when Amarinder Singh, who was then the Punjab chief minister, presided over the Punjab Termination of Waters Agreement Act, which annulled all previous agreements pertaining to the sharing of the Ravi-Beas waters with Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. Singh did this in defiance of a 2004 Supreme Court call to complete the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal as he wanted to project himself as the protector of Punjab’s interests.

Since it involved inter-state issues, the President sent it to the Supreme Court for its advice. The issue remained dormant for almost 12 years till the apex court took up the presidential reference earlier this month and issued notices to the Centre and the Punjab and Haryana governments.

On March 14, in what looks like an obvious attempt to make any adverse Supreme Court advice infructuous, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal introduced in the Assembly the Punjab Satluj Yamuna Canal Link (Rehabilitation and Re-vesting of Propriety Rights) Bill 2016. This provided for the restoration of land acquired for the project to its original owners. This was aimed at pre-empting any possibility of further construction of the canal through Punjab. Not stopping at that, the government also encouraged locals to level off already constructed portions of the canal with the help of earth moving machines and handed over these portions to jubilant farmers for cultivation. The Opposition Congress too joined in to share the credit even as Haryana’s chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar wrote to Badal expressing his government’s displeasure at Punjab’s move to denotify the land acquired for the canal.

Political equations

One major reason the Shiromani Akali Dal has been keen to push through the Bill that will enable the handing over of land acquired for the canal to its original owners is that it feared that the central government’s stand in court – it backed the construction of the canal – may severely impact the SAD-BJP alliance’s fortunes during next year’s Punjab elections. The SAD is part of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.

The elections also explain the contradictory stand taken by all other parties.

For instance, while the Congress is strongly opposed to the canal in Punjab, its Haryana unit is in favour of it. Similarly, the Akali Dal's sole member in the state Assembly is against the canal, contradicting the stand of his party in Punjab. Also, Haryana’s Indian National Lok Dal, a long-term ally of the Akali Dal, has broken off ties with the party on the issue.

The Aam Aadmi Party faces a unique dilemma. It seeks power in Punjab but is in power in Delhi, a state dependent on Haryana for water. The party is treading carefully as openly taking sides will upset at least one of its constituencies. Haryana recently reminded AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal not so gently that Delhi was dependent on Haryana for its water and it could find another source if he sided with Punjab.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has taken strong notice of Punjab’s attempts to scuttle the project and has ordered status quo on the land acquired for the project, stalling its return. In a strongly-worded direction on Thursday, a five member Constitution bench said that the court “cannot be a mute spectator when attempts are being made to let our order remain in-executable”. It ordered an immediate stay and fixed the next hearing for March 31.

On Friday, the Punjab government instead, passed a resolution in the Assembly saying that it would not allow the canal to be built at any cost. The electoral politics in Punjab and the state government’s brazen handling of an issue that is being examined by the country’s topmost court has set a bad precedent. All eyes are on the Supreme Court to show a way out of the current impasse.