The tensions which characterise inter-state river water disputes in India are never far from the surface. This is clear from the sequence of events following a ruling by the five-member Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court against the Punjab Termination Agreements Act 2004 in which Punjab had unilaterally annulled all water-sharing agreements with the neighbouring states. The verdict has resurrected a water tangle that has defied political and legal solutions since 1966 when Haryana was carved out of Punjab.
It has opened the sluice gates of political one-upmanship in Punjab with both the ruling parties and opposition hitting the protest button. With elections around the corner, political temperatures have shot up sharply in the border state where water has historically been an emotive issue.
The SC ruling is a body blow to Punjab’s stand calling all previous water-sharing treaties discriminatory to the agrarian state. The court has invalidated the Termination Act, which now affects the SC judgments of 2002 and 2004, directing both Punjab and the Centre to complete the long-aborted Sutlej -Yamuna Link (SYL) canal to carry Haryana’s share of the Ravi-Beas water from Punjab in accordance with the 1981 water-sharing agreement.
HT Explainer | Why SYL is a canal of controversy between Punjab and Haryana
The development has set the stage for a constitutional showdown as the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government has struck a stridently defiant posture against the SC ruling. With his trademark ‘not-a-drop-to-spare’ bellicosity, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has sworn that not even one brick would be laid at the SYL canal site.
It’s hard not to see the new situation through the prism of the past when this issue had led to outbreaks of religious extremism by way of protest. Punjab could well be staring at a constitutional flashpoint as the ruling alliance, hell bent upon blocking the adverse SC fiat, has called an emergency assembly session on November 16 ostensibly to pass another Act to scrap, again, all water-sharing treaties.
Pushing the envelope, it may even block the current flow of Punjab waters to Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi – a scenario fraught with law and order problems. Faced with the severe anti-incumbency of two-terms, the Akalis see the SYL row as vehicle to revive their sagging fortunes.
Not to be outdone in the race to project itself as the true custodian of Punjab’s rights, the opposition has also jumped headlong into the fray. Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh, now fighting the electoral battle of his life, resigned from the Lok Sabha as Amritsar MP as did all 42 Congress MLAs from the assembly.
This competitive belligerence has pushed the Modi government into a corner as the BJP is in power in both Punjab and Haryana. It’s time for the Centre chart a new course centred on Punjab’s demand for a fresh tribunal for division of the river waters. For that, it’s imperative that all stakeholders stop muddying the waters.