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

India's Water Wars Updated: Nov 11, 2016 19:13 IST
Navneet Sharma
Satluj Yamuna link

Farmers of Jhansla village in Patiala district levelling the SYL canal with the help of earthmoving machines in March this year, after the Punjab assembly passed a bill providing for transfer of proprietary rights to the original owners.(HT File Photo)

Punjab and Haryana are locked in a dispute over the sharing of the Ravi-Beas waters for decades. While Haryana wants its share, as was decided when the state was carved out of Punjab along with Himachal Pradesh 50 years ago, successive Punjab governments have refused to share water.

In 2004, Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government enacted a law scrapping all water-sharing agreements with Ravi and Beas waters with neighbouring states. The Centre sought the Supreme Court’s opinion on the law.

Eight months ago, the SAD-BJP government passed another law to return the land acquired on its side for the Sutlej Yamuna link (SYL) canal, which was to carry Haryana’s share of water, to its owners. When Haryana sought its intervention, the Supreme Court called for status quo. On Thursday, the court junked the 2004 law, terming it “unconstitutional”.

Read | Political upheaval in Punjab after SC tells it to share Sutlej water

The brief history of the river water dispute and SYL canal, which will make poll waves with Punjab due for assembly election in early 2017:

What is the river-water row?

After the erstwhile Punjab was reorganised into Punjab and Haryana on November 1, 1966, differences arose between the two states over their share of the surplus Ravi and Beas waters. While Haryana claimed 4.8 million acre feet (MAF) of water of the total 7.2 MAF (share of the erstwhile Punjab) on the principle of equitable distribution, the Punjab government did not agree. Haryana approached the Centre, which issued a notification on March 24, 1976, spelling out the rights and liabilities of the states. Haryana was allocated 3.5 MAF of waters.

Why is the SYL canal important?

The 212km-long SYL canal was to carry Haryana’s share of water to its “dry and arid” southern part. While 121km of the canal was to run through Punjab, the remaining 91km through Haryana, which completed the work in June 1980. Around Rs 250 crore were spent on the canal system. Haryana also gave Rs 1 crore to Punjab in November 1976, the first instalment of the Rs 192 crore it would give the neighbour over the years for building the canal. However, Punjab did not start the work. Both the state filed separate petitions in the Supreme Court in 1979.

What made Punjab start construction?

Punjab began the work on the canal after a tripartite agreement. Though the petitions were pending in the court, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met the chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan on December 31, 1981. The three CMs signed an agreement that saw an increase in the available Ravi-Beas waters from 15.85 MAF to 17.17 MAF.

The agreement allowed Punjab the use of Rajasthan’s share till it could spare the water, allowing the state an additional 1.32 MAF. Punjab agreed to complete the canal work within two years and the two states withdrew the petitions from the Supreme Court. On April 8, 1982, Indira Gandhi led the ground-breaking ceremony near Kapuri village in Patiala district.

What was the Rajiv-Longowal accord?

Within weeks of the ground-breaking ceremony, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) launched an agitation against the canal under the leadership of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. They followed it up with protests. In August 1982, the agitation was converted into a “Dharam Yudh (holy war)”. The agitation took a violent turn, plunging the state into chaos. On July 24, 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Longowal signed the Punjab accord in New Delhi. The agreement called for completion of the canal by August 1986 and an SC judge-led tribunal to decide Punjab and Haryana’s share of the remaining water. In its report submitted in January 1987, the tribunal increased the share of both the states but the award was not notified.

Read | Will not accept court verdict on sharing river water with Haryana: Badal

What did Punjab suspend construction?

The SS Barnala-led SAD government started the work and 90% of it was completed, costing around Rs 700 crore. But the construction was stopped when Sikh militants gunned down two senior engineers and 35 labourers working on the canal. On November 23, 1990, the Haryana CM asked the Centre to hand over the work to one of its agencies. A decision was taken to rope in the Border Roads Organisation, but not a brick has been laid since. In September 1996, Haryana filed a plea in the Supreme Court, seeking directions for Punjab to complete the canal.

When were the inter-state agreements annulled?

The court, in January 2002 and June 2004, ordered the remaining portion of the canal to be completed. The Centre was on June 4, 2004 told to ask one of it agencies to take control of the canal work. But a month later, the Punjab assembly enacted the Punjab termination of agreements act, annulling all inter-state agreements on sharing Ravi and Beas waters.

Where things stand today?

The Centre on July 22, 2004 sought the opinion of the apex court on the validity of the Punjab law through a presidential reference. The court heard the matter the next month without any outcome.

Haryana filed an application in February 2011 for the implementation of the 2002 and 2004 orders. Last year, Punjab filed a suit, seeking a new tribunal to decide the water share.

In March this year, Punjab came out with another law, de-notifying the land acquired for the canal and for it to be returned it to its owners. Haryana challenged the law in the Supreme Court, which ordered status quo. Punjab also returned to Haryana Rs 192 crore it had received for the SYL canal only for the cheque to be sent back.

The hearing on presidential reference resumed on February 29, 2016, and concluded May 12. The court struck down the law on Thursday.

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