River water dispute in SC, Political ripples in Punjab

  • Hitender Rao, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 04, 2016 19:57 IST

With the Supreme Court resuming hearing this week on the Presidential reference by the Centre on the validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, enacted by the Punjab assembly in 2004, the dormant dispute between Punjab and Haryana over river-water sharing is back in focus.

While Haryana has sought its “rightful share” of the Ravi-Beas water and the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal to get that extra water, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has stridently reiterated his ‘not-even-a drop-to spare’ stand. Even after over a decade, the river-water tangle has been a deeply emotive issue.

Special correspondent Hitender Rao dissects the dispute that has already stirred up political waters in poll-bound Punjab

What’s the genesis of the river-water dispute?

After the reorganisation of erstwhile Punjab into Punjab and Haryana on November 1, 1966, disputes arose with regard to the sharing of the surplus Ravi-Beas water. Haryana laid claim to 4.8 million acre feet (MAF) of water out of the 7.2 MAF (composite Punjab’s entitlement) on the principle of equitable distribution. Punjab, however, decided not to give anything to Haryana, taking the plea that the latter was not a riparian state (a state located on the bank of a river).

The Centre tried to resolve the dispute by passing a statutory order on March 24, 1976, under the Punjab Re-organisation Act, allocating 3.5 MAF of surplus Ravi-Beas water to Haryana out of the 7.2 MAF share of erstwhile Punjab. A Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal was to be built to carry Haryana’s share in the surplus Ravi-Beas water. Haryana started construction in its territories towards the end of 1976 and completed it in June 1980. Upset with the Centre’s decision, Punjab moved the Supreme Court. Haryana too moved the apex court, seeking implementation of the Centre’s decision.

What was the 1981 tripartite agreement?

In December 1981, the chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan signed an agreement. It was decided that Punjab could use the surplus Ravi-Beas water out of Rajasthan’s share till the state was able to fully utilise its share. Thus, Punjab got an additional 1.32 MAF besides its normal share of 4.22 MAF. Haryana’s share remained 3.5 MAF. The agreement stipulated for the completion of the SYL by Punjab in its territory within two years. The suits pending in the apex court were withdrawn. On April 23, 1982, Punjab issued a white paper hailing the agreement. In 1982, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led the ground-breaking ceremony for the SYL Canal at Kapuri in Patiala. The Shiromani Akali Dal launched a ‘dharma yudh morcha’, pushing Punjab deeper into turmoil and terrorism. Work on SYL was stopped in 1990 after the completion of 90% work as terrorists killed two top engineers and 35 workers engaged in the project.

What was the Rajiv-Longowal accord?

The Punjab Settlement was signed on July 24, 1985, in New Delhi between then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Sant Harcharan Singh Longowal. The accord included provisions related to the Ravi-Beas water sharing. It was agreed that the construction of the SYL Canal would be completed by August 15, 1986; claims of Punjab and Haryana regarding their shares in the remaining water would be referred for adjudication by a tribunal presided over by a Supreme Court judge. A tribunal under Justice V Balakrishna Eradi was set up that year.

What was Eradi tribunal’s conclusion?

The tribunal gave its report on January 30, 1987, and it was forwarded to the Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan governments on May 20, 1987. The tribunal increased the share of Haryana to 3.83 MAF from 3.5 MAF and that of Punjab to 5 MAF from 4.22 MAF. Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and the central governments made references to the tribunal seeking explanation/ guidance on the report in August 1987, which are still under consideration. The tribunal’s award could not be notified by the Centre.

What was the legal recourse taken by Haryana?

In 1996, Haryana filed a suit in the Supreme Court, seeking directions to Punjab, and in the alternative to the Centre, to complete the SYL Canal that was 90% ready after Rs 700 crore of taxpayers’ money had been spent on it.

What did the Supreme Court order?

On January 15, 2002, and June 4, 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to complete the SYL Canal in Punjab.

What did Punjab do to circumvent the Supreme Court order?

On July 12, 2004, the assembly enacted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, annulling all inter-state agreements signed by the state relating to sharing of the Ravi and Beas water, including the December 1981 tripartite agreement.

What did the Centre do in the wake of the Punjab Act?

On July 22, 2004, the Centre sought the Supreme Court’s opinion on the validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act by making a Presidential reference under Article 143 of the Constitution.

What’s the status of the Presidential reference?

The reference matter was first heard by the apex court on August 2, 2004, till July 14, 2009, without any outcome. Haryana filed an execution application for implementing the two judgments in the SYL suit on February 19, 2011, which is also pending for hearing. A resolution was passed by the Haryana assembly on March 11, 2011, requesting the Centre to pursue the matter in the apex court for an early decision. On January 24, 2015, Haryana decided to file an original suit in the apex court to get the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act declared illegal.

What did the Punjab government do?

In 2015, Punjab filed a suit in the Supreme Court for setting up a new tribunal for settling the issue of sharing of surplus Ravi-Beas water on the plea that the availability of water in these rivers had reduced from 17.17 MAF to 14.35 since the award of the Eradi Tribunal (which was never notified) and also on the plea that Haryana had received its share in the Yamuna as per the 1994 agreement that did not exist at the time of the award of the Eradi Tribunal.

What will be the political fallout?

The resumed hearing on the Presidential reference comes as Punjab is headed for elections in less than a year. With the BJP-led government at the Centre taking a stand before the apex court that Punjab’s legislation annulling all inter-state agreements relating to the sharing of Ravi and Beas water was against the two orders of 2002 and 2004, the Shiromani Akali Dal, an NDA ally, would find it hard to defend itself during the polls in case the court declares the Punjab law invalid. Former chief minister and Punjab Congress chief Capt Amarinder Singh, under whose watch the Punjab law was enacted, has already mounted an attack on the SAD and the BJP, saying the latter had betrayed Punjab by opposing the law.

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