Water has an uncanny history of inflaming passions in Punjab. Thursday’s verdict by a five-member constitutional bench of the Supreme Court rejecting the validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, is yet another watershed in the protracted dispute over sharing of river waters between Punjab and Haryana.
Coming ahead of the Punjab assembly elections due early next year, the SC’s extraordinarily unanimous stand on the Presidential reference on the Act has resurrected the long-dormant, but potentially emotive issue.
The court’s action has quickly stirred up turbulence in Punjab’s political waters that is set to resonate heavily during a charged poll campaign.
In fact, an unfavourable verdict was a possibility that the ruling SAD-BJP government and the principal opposition Congress were both anticipating ahead of the SC closure on the Presidential reference that has upheld Haryana’s case and dealt a major legal setback to Punjab’s stand on the dispute.
Plainly put, the highest court has cleared the decks for implementation of its 2004 decree asking the Centre to complete the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal in Punjab’s territory to carry Haryana’s share out of its rivers.
Punjab has long been resisting the canal tooth and nail on the ground that previous water-sharing agreements, brokered and “foisted” by the Centre, were “unjust and not based on the riparian principle” that mandates the first plain-basin state to be prime user of the river water.
Not surprisingly, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had lately been upping the ante on his ‘not-even-a-drop-to-spare’ bellicosity. On November 1, he escalated his stand to a new level, asserting that his government will not accept any adverse SC judgment on the SYL issue — all this in the presence of Union minister Arun Jaitley and BJP chief Amit Shah.
The Presidential reference had arisen out of Haryana’s petition challenging Punjab’s 2004 Act, wherein the latter unilaterally annulled all inter-state river agreements with neighbouring states. The overriding objective of the Act, passed by the Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government (2002-07), was to forestall the apex court’s directions to the Union government to complete the contentious canal project that has been in limbo since 1990.
The legal tangle has since then been a ticking time-bomb. Its eruption has not only uncorked a torrent of political reactions, but also added fire and brimstone to the parties’ competitive ‘pro-Punjab’ pitch.
In a premeditated and well-choreographed move, Punjab Congress chief and Amritsar MP Captain Amarinder Singh drew first blood by announcing his resignation from the Lok Sabha and that of all 42 Congress MLAs from the Punjab assembly. His martyr stroke is aimed at buffing up his widely-acknowledged credentials as a gritty fighter for Punjab’s interests.
This is the second time that the scion of the erstwhile Patiala royalty has resigned from Parliament after taking a moral stand on an issue concerning Punjab and the Sikhs. In 1984, he had quit the Lok Sabha in protest against Operation Bluestar.
And the Akalis, who style themselves as unrivalled champions of Punjab’s interests, were quick to match the Congress’ grandstanding with a double-barrel strategy. While keeping their legal option under wraps — that may include a fresh ordinance to scrap the inter-state water treaties — they have sounded the bugle for a mega protest rally on Badal’s birthday on December 8. For the Badal dispensation, lugging a decade of anti-incumbency baggage, the next diversionary tactic could well be ‘morcha politics’ to whip up the peasantry’s passions. Clearly, Punjab is in the throes of a fresh ferment over water.