The channel dug for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal starts in Palla village near Delhi and travels west through Haryana. But it peters out long before its destination near Nangal in Punjab. This waterless channel, and the unbuilt stretch ahead of it, is the subject of an old conflict between the two states. Last week, tensions flared up again.

The canal was meant to carry to Haryana its share of the Sutlej and Beas waters from Punjab. But Punjab has long maintained that it has no water to spare. On March 14, the state assembly unanimously passed the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016. It denotified the land acquired for the canal and provided for it to be returned to farmers for free. Levelling work along the canal has reportedly started, in order to turn it back into agricultural land. On March 17, the Supreme Court directed that status quo be maintained. But the Punjab assembly remains adamant – it will not allow the canal to be built “at any cost”.

Like most conflicts over water resources, it has turned into an occasion for political brinkmanship, between states and between parties. In poll-bound Punjab, it has fed into a competing regionalism among political parties. In Haryana, a government struggling to deal with the Jat quota agitation is even more beleaguered and khaps in the state threaten to block Punjab’s access to Delhi. The Delhi government has now chosen the judicious middle path, saying there should be no politics over water. But this is the Aam Aadmi Party government, which swept to power on promises over water. So it is not surprising that it has started a massive online campaign called #AAPWaterRevolution, signalling that the capital’s water supply is still a prime concern.

Past tensions

Part of the reason why India’s water wars acquire such political resonance is that they go back decades and have struck deep roots in public memory; witness the Cauvery dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. With the SYL canal, it is a similar story – a conflict born of changing state borders, long legal wrangles, inadequate mechanisms to handle the dispute and a political failure to come to an understanding.

In 1966, Haryana was carved out of the state of Punjab under the Punjab Reorganisation Act. The new state staked a claim on the waters of the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, which were already shared by Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Undivided Punjab got 7.2 million acre feet or MAF of these waters.

In 1976, after a decade of stalemate, the Union government decided that 3.5 MAF of its share would go to Haryana. The conduit of this water, the SYL canal, was to span 214 kilometres, 122 km of which ran through Punjab and the remaining 92 km through Haryana.

Inevitably, there was resistance in Punjab and Giani Zail Singh, then chief minister, wanted a review of the notification. In 1978, the Akali government asked the Supreme Court to examine the validity of it. Digging went ahead, nevertheless, and the first phase of the canal, running for 75.5 km across Haryana, was completed in 1982.

Things changed in 1981, during the tenure of Darbara Singh’s Congress government in Punjab. A tripartite agreement, mediated by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was signed by Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. The available volume of water from the Beas and the Ravi was calculated to be 17.7 MAF. Rajasthan got 8.6 MAF, Punjab 4.22 MAF, Haryana 3.5 MAF, J&K 0.65 MAF and Delhi 0.20 MAF.

In 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Punjab Accord with Akali Dal president Harchand Singh Longowal. It registered Punjab’s grievances with the water-sharing arrangement and set up the Justice Eradi tribunal to look into it. In 1987, the tribunal raised the Punjab’s share to 5 MAF and Haryana’s to 3.83 MAF. But the tribunal’s award could never be notified.

The 1980s was also the decade of insurgency in Punjab, and the canal was soon drawn into the larger conflict. Work took off in 1985, after two years of president’s rule, but there were sporadic incidents of violence around the canal. In 1990, as the unrest intensified, work ground to a halt.

Haryana spent nearly a decade asking the Centre and the courts to ensure that work continued. But in 2004, the dispute entered a new phase of deadlock. A month after the Supreme Court directed Punjab to continue with construction in its territory, the state assembly passed a defiant piece of legislation. The Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, summarily ended all its water-sharing agreements and the SYL canal project seemed to have been put to rest.

Earlier this month, the presidential reference on the 2004 act came up for hearing in the Supreme Court, triggering a fresh bout of agitation.

Not a drop to drink

The current crisis has left national parties in a peculiar quandary. The Central government ostensibly backs the construction of the canal but in Punjab it is in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal, which is anxious to push the bill through. The Congress in Punjab has loudly upbraided the SAD government for failing to safeguard the state’s interests and stall the construction of the canal. But the party’s state unit in Haryana wants construction to continue.

As parties spar over the canal, the real problem, of providing water to states that have faced scarcity in recent months, lies unattended.