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Political and legal aspects of the Sutlej water dispute

columns Updated: Nov 11, 2016 21:26 IST
Vinod Sharma
Sutlej Yamuna link canal

The water-sharing dispute between Punjab and Haryana has festered since the reorganization of states in 1966.(JS Grewal/ Hindustan Times)

The war over water in Punjab is generally viewed from the Akali-Congress perspective. But the catch is in its legal nuances—and the Aam Aadmi Party’s bid for equity in the emerging emotive space.

“As AAP has no baggage from history in the State, it can draw no political advantage from the issue inherited from history,” argued Chandigarh-based political scientist Pramod Kumar. In contrast, the two traditional rivals have enough arrows to draw from history’s quiver; the water-sharing dispute between Punjab and Haryana having festered since the reorganization of states in 1966.

To identify with the popular rage water-sharing arouses in the agrarian State, the Congress has taken the path of renunciation and the Akalis of defiance. Capt Amarinder Singh resigned from the Amritsar seat he had in the Lok Sabha while his party legislators quit the state assembly. The Akalis under Chief Minister PS Badal refused to accept the view the Supreme Court tendered in response to the 2004 presidential reference.

Read | HT Explainer: Why SYL is a canal of controversy between Punjab and Haryana

Amarinder and Badal cancel each other out in terms of political dividend: the law declared unconstitutional was passed when Amarinder was CM; Badal refuses to accept the court’s view on the law bequeathed by his predecessor and political rival.

Struggling for stakes in the ongoing tussle, AAP has chosen to replicate the Akali protests of yore at Kapoori in Patiala. The venue is significant. It was there that Indira Gandhi inaugurated the construction of the SYL canal in 1982, triggering the Akalis’ “Kapoori Morcha” against the canal that’s still incomplete.

There’s intense speculation that the Akali defiance of the Court may push it to President’s rule. But a central minister told me the CM’s refusal to accept the court’s advice to the President under Article 143 does not amount to its contempt.

To that, the Congress’s Kapil Sibal averred: Badal might adopt a political stance, but the court’s view holding the Punjab law “unconstitutional” is binding on the Centre. “Wasn’t it the Centre that made the reference to the Court,” he asked.

The constitutional position, as explained by senior advocate K N Bhat is as follows: The Court’s reply to a presidential reference isn’t binding the way its judgments are. Theoretically, that’s the position. “In practice, it gets the primacy it deserves as a view expressed by the highest court,” he said.

The remedy available to Haryana in the face of Punjab’s intransigence was to have the dispute-- to which states like Rajasthan and Delhi are also a party—referred to a tribunal set up under Article 262 of the Constitution. The said article mandates that inter-state water disputes cannot be settled by Courts and have to be referred to tribunals.

There’s scope therefore to further delay the protracted dispute to which there can be no easy resolutions in election time. Like it took the Court 12 years to respond to the reference made in 2004 ---after Punjab unilaterally blocked SYL construction and scrapped water agreements with other states.

Read | SC Sutlej verdict a moment for Badal’s belligerence, Captain’s martyr stroke