In a setback to Punjab, the Supreme Court stopped it on Thursday from returning land meant for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal to farmers after Haryana accused its neighbouring state of attempting to undermine the top court’s authority by altering the land use.
“We cannot be a mute spectator when attempts are being made to let our order remain in-executable,” a five-member constitution bench headed by justice AR Dave said while ordering the status quo be maintained on the land. It appointed the Union home secretary and Punjab’s chief secretary and DGP as joint receivers of the land for the purpose and said the stay would continue till March 31.
The court’s order came on Haryana’s application alleging the Punjab government had given the go-ahead to landowners to destroy the existing canal. Senior advocate Shyam Divan informed the bench that the Punjab assembly passed a bill on March 14 to give back about 3,928 acres of land -- acquired for the SYL project -- to the farmers. He showed newspaper reports and photographs to point out how farmers had brought in tractors and machines to damage the canal.
Outside the court, MLAs of the Opposition INLD in Haryana and the Congress in Punjab attempted to storm each other’s state assemblies in Chandigarh. The stand-off over the canal threatened to embroil Delhi whose chief minister Arvind Kerjiwal is also opposed to its construction.
Led by Ajay Singh Chautala, INLD legislators and state unit president Ashok Arora staged a protest inside the Punjab assembly while the session was on. In retaliation, Congress MLAs from Punjab attempted to barge into the Haryana Assembly but were stopped by the watch and ward staff.
“Upon perusal of the contents of the application and upon hearing the learned counsel appearing for the parties, prima facie, it appears that an effort has been made to see that execution of a decree of this court is being made in-executable and this court cannot be a silent spectator of the fact and therefore, we direct that status quo shall be maintained by the parties,” the bench ordered.
The court paid no heed to Punjab’s protests. Its lawyers, senior counsel Ram Jethmalani and Rajeev Dhavan, pleaded not to appoint receivers as that would prevent the governor from giving assent to the SYL legislation and the state government from notifying the Act, which they argued was improper. The Centre, through solicitor general Ranjit Kumar, also opposed the court’s interim order.
The top court is hearing a presidential reference on the validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 that had effectively nullified Supreme Court verdicts. It gave time to Punjab and the Centre to file their responses by March 28.
Divan complained the farmers did not wait for the governor’s assent to the legislation before taking physical possession of the land. Jethmalani said the earlier SC verdicts did not survive in view of the 2004 Act. Therefore, the new law did not violate any judicial order, he told the bench.
Dhavan challenged Haryana’s statement made on the basis of media reports. At this, the bench shot back, saying, “Do you think what has been stated in the newspapers is incorrect?” For the Centre, Kumar said he wasn’t aware of the ground realities. The solicitor, however, asserted it would be improper on the court’s part to appoint a receiver.