The Supreme Court in a five-member constitution bench headed by Justice Anil R Dave invalidated the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 – the Act by which Punjab had terminated its pact with Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi for the sharing the Ravi-Beas river waters.

The judgment in effect mandated Punjab to comply with the courts previous two judgments on completion of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (hereinafter SYL) canal.

The History of the SYL Canal Feud

The Punjab-Haryana Water Dispute
Dilapidated Satluj Yamuna Link Canal at Ropar. -Express photograph by Swadesh Talwar

For a better context of the ruling, it’s advantageous to have a historical understanding as to what exactly the SYL issue is and where it all started.

The SYL canal was built between Rivers Sutlej and Yamuna to provide water to Haryana from the Punjab side of the water bodies. In 1966, when Haryana was carved out from Punjab, a central high level panel in 1971, came up with the recommendation to share Punjab’s water with Haryana.

The center later issued notification instructing the SYL to be constructed. While Haryana constructed its share of the canal, Punjab, however, was not ready to build it. After pressure from the Central and Haryana Government in 1985 a “Settlement Agreement” was signed by the then PM Rajiv Gandhi and Akali Dal President Sant Harchand Singh Longowal however, the constructions never met the set deadlines and the situation never improved in spite of several orders from the Water Tribunal to finish the construction expeditiously. The matter took its toll in 2004 when the then Chief Minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh terminated the water sharing vide the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004.

The present ruling by the Supreme Court was made after a presidential reference was sent to the Court regarding the constitutional validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004.

Contentions of the State

The contentions pleaded before the Court by the State of Haryana was that the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 was an effort by the state of Punjab to bypass the judgment on completion of the SYL canal. Punjab enacted another law this year, to give back to the farmers the land acquired from them for completion of the SYL canal and the state of Haryana further contended that this law was an effort to render the presidential reference invalid.

The state of Punjab on the other hand contended that an effect of the 2004 Act was that the previous judgments on the SYL canal issue was invalid and hence, the 2016 law to return the land acquired from the farmer back to them did not violate any court order.

Developments Post the Judgment

The judgment was met with widespread political protest. Capt. Amarinder Singh resigned from his Lok Sabha seat and all the party MLAs resigned from their assembly seats as mark of protest against the alleged “injustice meted out to the people of the state.”

The Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal while stating the judgment to be unwelcome termed the resignation of Capt. Amarinder Singh Badal as a political stunt while Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal even before the judgment had stated that even in case of an adverse judgment he would not let any outside elements enter the state and “take even a drop from Punjab”.

Meanwhile, in Haryana the decision was welcome with much aplomb and the incumbent Chief Minister Manohar Lal hailed the persistent efforts made by the present state government for resolving the issue. The khap leaders of Haryana went on to announce that they would disconnect Punjab from New Delhi by blocking all connectivity by rail and road if the Punjab government refused to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court.

Ramification of the Judgment on the Upcoming ElectionThe Punjab-Haryana Water Dispute

The implication of the order on the upcoming Punjab election is manifold.

It was the then incumbent Chief Minister of Punjab, Capt. Amarinder Singh who was responsible for the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004. And, invalidation of the Act may augur well for the other parties in contention. It is interesting to note that in 2004, Capt. Amarinder Singh in an act of rebellion had defied party chief Sonia Gandhi and the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while enacting the act and today this might just be the mileage the Congress Party would need to reclaim the state.

The stand taken by the BJP at the center is neutral however, the Narendra Modi led party did not shy away from pointing out the fact that the 2004 Act was in violation of two previous Supreme Court judgments on the very same issue. The ploy of BJP may not augur well for its chances in the upcoming elections as it threatens its alliance with the Akali Dal in Punjab, however, it is to be kept in mind that the BJP is the ruling party in the state of Haryana and hence staying totally neutral on the issue was never an option.

The Aam Aadmi Party, who secured their only seats to the Lok Sabha election from Punjab, is still grappling with the nuances of the issues and is yet to take a firm stand on the same.

Conclusion

The court after directing to maintain a status quo on the issue appointed three receivers in connection to the case and has sought a report from them on the next hearing of the issue scheduled on 15th December on the situations in relation to the land involved in the SYL canal. Senior Supreme Court lawyer, Mr. Harish Salve, appearing on behalf of the state of Punjab on the SYL issue was met by the Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal stating that the issue was not merely one pertaining to a legal issue but was one that involved emotions.

Former Chief Minister of the state and the man behind the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, Capt. Amarinder Singh has warned that the judgment on the SYL canal can lead to the resurgence of Khalistani terrorism in the state because of possible denial of water to residents of Malwa and other regions of southern Punjab which have a past history of violence.

The debate surrounding the judgment may go on but what is to be seen is the execution of the same. Given the legal and emotional perspective attached to the SYL canal it is well and truly a very sensitive issue and any judgement was bound to come with both welcome and unwelcome responses. The SC hearing on December 15 will indicate how deep the water is and any possible instances of violence or any form of opposition towards the judgment by the state of Punjab, which seems likely at this stage, is how the Supreme Court clamps down upon them. Arguably, this judgment may decide the fate of the upcoming Punjab elections and in the face of it   the conduct of the parties with diametrically different opinions on the issue is to be observed.

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