With elections to the Punjab Assembly just around the corner, the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and the Opposition Congress are in the middle of a game of one-upmanship over the contentious Satluj-Yamuna Link canal – which is meant to allow Haryana to draw its share of water from the Ravi and Beas rivers.

In open defiance of the Supreme Court, which ruled on November 10 that Punjab’s unilateral move to terminate inter-state water treaties was unconstitutional, the Punjab cabinet on Tuesday ordered that land acquired for the canal be returned to farmers. It also passed a resolution in the state Assembly prohibiting any official from handing over land for construction of the canal.

Upping the ante, the House passed another resolution the next day seeking royalties or a cost for water already flowing into the non-riparian states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi.

Punjab has taken the plea that it needs 56 million acre feet of river water for agriculture and, hence, cannot spare any for Haryana and the other states. It has said that the availability of river water for irrigation is only 27% at present. Groundwater is also in short supply with the Central Ground Water Board having declared that the water table in Punjab has gone down drastically and groundwater resources in 105 of the state’s 138 blocks are overexploited.

The 212-km-long Satluj-Yamuna Link canal is close to 90% complete. Punjab stopped construction in the early 1990s after militants killed an engineer and several construction workers. The canal, now virtually in ruins, cost Rs 900 crores of public money. A total of 5,376 acres of land was acquired and the landowners were paid Rs 35 crores in compensation. In the run-up to elections next year, the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government has now decided to give back the land for free.

Akali Dal versus Congress

In the half century since Haryana was formed during the Reorganisation of States in 1966, matters pertaining to inter-state disputes involving water or land have surfaced in the run-up to elections each time. But this time, the dispute over the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal has received a fillip with the Supreme Court giving the president its advice on a reference received from Rashtrapati Bhavan a decade ago. The presidential reference pertained to the passing of the Termination of Water Treaties Bill by the Punjab Assembly in 2004. The Bill, piloted by the then Congress Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, was aimed at preventing construction of the canal. However, the then governor refused to give the Bill his approval and instead, referred it to the president. The president, in turn, sent it to the apex court, seeking its view on the Bill.

After it was kept pending before the country’s highest court for over a decade, a verdict on the presidential reference was expected in November as one of the five members of the bench looking at it was scheduled to retire and was keen to send a response to the president.

While Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh, now the state Congress chief, fight for credit for preventing the completion of the canal, at some stage in the past, both were instrumental in encouraging its construction. In 1978, Badal, as chief minister, had released funds for the acquisition of land for the canal. In 1982, Singh, a Congress MP then, had supported the foundation laying ceremony by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

In 2004, Badal had supported Singh as he piloted the Bill to terminate the water treaties. In return, Singh had supported Badal’s move last year to bring in a Bill to return the acquired land to farmers. The implementation of that order was stayed by the Supreme Court in view of the pending presidential reference. Now, the Badal government has taken the plea that the stay is effectively lifted with the apex court giving its advice to the President.

Parties in a bind

The water dispute has put the BJP in a bind. Being a coalition partner of the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, it has no choice but to side with the government. But it is also in power, for the first time, in Haryana. The Manohar Lal Khattar government in Haryana had joined issue with the Punjab government’s decision to return land to farmers, and has now challenged its latest move in the Supreme Court, which has scheduled a hearing on November 21.

The newest entrant in Punjab’s political arena, the Aam Aadmi Party, cannot afford to ignore the issue, either. But it has appeared ambiguous in its stand. Haryana has been reminding the party that Delhi, where the AAP is in power, gets its water through Haryana and if the same principles were to be adopted, the Capital’s supply would also be stopped.

At one point of time, Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had favoured scrapping of the SYL canal. But his government later gave a contradictory affidavit in the courts, which it clarified had been filed by a junior advocate. The party’s state convenor, Gurpreet Singh, has now submitted a memorandum to the governor demanding that status quo be maintained on the water dispute for the next three months. He has expressed fear that the issue may be misused during the elections to whip up emotions, which may lead to violence.

The Congress, too, is divided between the two states. While in Punjab, Amarinder Singh is leading the demand to get the canal scrapped, the party’s Haryana unit is against this and has sought an all-party meeting to discuss the issue.

There could be trouble ahead if the Indian National Lok Dal, which is in the Opposition in Haryana, goes through with its threat to start digging the canal if construction is not resumed by February 28. With polling expected to be taking place in Punjab at around that time, there is a danger of a volatile situation arising.