SYL canal, a ticking bomb on the table for next Punjab govt | punjab | Hindustan Times
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SYL canal, a ticking bomb on the table for next Punjab govt

The legal and political quarrel over construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal is fast turning into a ticking bomb that will be the first test of the next Punjab government.

punjab Updated: Feb 24, 2017 10:28 IST
Pawan Sharma
SYL canal
INLD leader Abhay Choutala along with other party leaders and workers protesting at Ambala in Haryana on Thursday.(Ravi Kumar/HT Photo)

The legal and political quarrel over construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal is fast turning into a ticking bomb that will be the first test of the next Punjab government.

By its telling observation during the hearing of the case on Wednesday that the canal (SYL) has to be constructed, the Supreme Court has sent a loud and clear message to Punjab. And the state seems to have run out of potent legal and legislative options to further delay or derail the project, by which it has to share waters from the Ravi and Beas with Haryana.

The ripples of the apex court’s tough stand have put the state administration in a tricky situation as Punjab is in a state of political flux at least till March 11, when the assembly elections result will be out. Till then, the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Parkash Singh Badal will have to deal with the emerging situation.

Also read |SYL face off: Abhay Chautala along with INLD MLAs sent to Patiala jail, sent to 4-day custody

But the worry of the state administration is that the top court, while declining to accept Punjab’s plea that there should be a “political solution”, posted the matter for March 2.

The state government mandarins are of the opinion that the court may pass an order on March 2, the fallout of which may require political handling. This was one of the reasons why the state wanted the hearing to be posted until after March 11, so that a new government is firmly in the saddle to tackle the matter politically, administratively and legally.

But the court’s reported observation, that “we are at a stage where the decree has to be executed”, clearly points towards a likely order that will put the next government on the back foot, putting under trial its political and administrative acumen.

The poll-bound Badal government had set the stage for a constitutional confrontation with the court when it denotified 5,376 acres of land that was acquired for the canal. Punjab has already “returned” this land -- in revenue records also -- free of cost to the original owners through an executive order of the council of ministers.

Also read |Water war: Pushed to the margins, INLD falls back on SYL to stay relevant

BEHIND SC’c TOUGH TALK

This “ground-altering” move was widely seen as defiance of the apex court before the elections in the state. Is this the provocation behind the court’s tough talk?

The state assembly had even unanimously approved the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill 2016 to return the land to original owners. But this move didn’t see the light of the day as the bill didn’t get assent of the governor.

Later, the cabinet issued the “executive decision”. This decision had come within a week of the court verdict invalidating the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004 that had unilaterally annulled all water-sharing pacts with neighbouring states. The 2004 act passed during the Capt Amarinder Singh-led regime (2002-07) of the Congress, which is now hoping to form the next government. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is also in fray, has found itself on sticky wicket on the SYL, as its convener Arvind Kejriwal is a native of Haryana and has changed stances on the canal confrontation.

DELAY TACTICS

Still, the options to “delay” the Supreme Court order are being explored. The thin thread that Punjab is holding now is that its suit in the SC — seeking directions to the Union government to set up a tribunal to resolve the water-sharing issue — is pending. Another plea is that water in its rivers has reduced.

All eyes are on March 2 now, when the court will take up this hot-button issue, and the court-craft that Punjab will devise.

TIMELINE: THE CANAL TO NOWHERE

Nov 1, 1966: Haryana carved out of Punjab; leaders disagree on how to share water from Ravi-Beas river system

Mar 24, 1976: Centre intervenes, allocates surplus water to Haryana; all parties agree to construct the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL)

1980: Construction of Haryana portion completed

1981-81: PM Indira Gandhi meets CMs of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan; Punjab told to finish construction in two years; she breaks ground to mark start of construction in Punjab; Akali Dal leads protests

1990: Punjab completes 114 of 121 km in its territory; work stalled after militants kill 35 labourers and two engineers; Centre hands over pending work to Border Roads Organisation, but no progress made since

1996: Haryana moves SC against Punjab, seeking resumption of canal construction.

2002: SC directs Punjab to complete construction

2004: Punjab assembly passes legislation — Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004 — annulling the 1981 agreement and all subsequent ones. In response, Haryana assembly passes resolution urging Centre to intervene; Centre seeks Supreme Court opinion through Presidential reference.

Feb-March 2016: SC resumes Presidential reference hearing; Punjab start filling canal

Nov 10, 2016: SC verdict on Presidential reference declares Punjab Termination of Agreements Act invalid

Nov 15-16, 2016: Punjab cabinet through executive order returns SYL land to original owners; in emergency session, assembly passes resolution directing government not to hand over land of Punjab to any agency for SYL

Nov 21, 2016: SC takes up Haryana’s petition against Punjab’s unilateral action in alleged violation of earlier SC orders

Feb 22, 2017: Apex Court says canal has to be constructed

March 2: Next, probably final, hearing of the contentious canal issue despite Punjab’s request that matter be deferred until after March 11, when results of the Feb 4 assembly election results are to be declared