Punjab defies Supreme Court, to return SYL land to farmers
Setting the stage for a constitutional confrontation with the Supreme Court, the Punjab cabinet on Tuesday decided to denotify 5,376 acres of land that was acquired for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and return it to its original owners free of cost.
The Parkash Singh Badal-led SAD-BJP government’s “ground-altering” move, which came a day before an emergency session of the Vidhan Sabha on SYL, is being widely seen as defiance of the apex court and might lead to a constitutional crisis of sorts with just days to go for the assembly elections in the state. The decision taken in “public interest” came into effect immediately and necessary orders were being passed by the government to deputy commissioners at the time of going to press.
The probability of Badal government bringing in a bill appears highly unlikely. However, plans are afoot to introduce a strongly-worded resolution on the contentious inter-state water dispute, making Punjab’s position absolutely clear.
The Supreme Court had in March 2016 ordered the state to maintain status quo on the SYL canal land after the Punjab assembly had unanimously approved the ‘Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill 2016’ to return it to its owners. The order was passed on an application moved by the Haryana government.
The top court, in its interim order, also appointed Union home secretary and Punjab’s chief secretary and director general of police as joint receivers of land and other property associated with the canal. While the bill is still awaiting assent of the governor, the state cabinet went ahead and issued the “executive decision”, denotifying the canal land.
“The land acquired for SYL canal project, which is presently vested in the Punjab government, free from all encumbrances, stands denotified with immediate effect and shall forthwith vest in the original land owners of their lineal descendants/legal representatives, free of cost,” reads the statement released by the state government after the meeting.
The chief minister refused to add to the statement, his son, deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, also ducked queries. “This is only the first step today…for the cause of our people and to protect their interests, we will take every necessary step. Water is the lifeline of every citizen of Punjab,” he said.
The land-denotification move left the ruling BJP in Haryana stunned. The Haryana BJP Legislature Party, which met in the evening, decided to take a delegation to Punjab governor VP Singh Badnore on Wednesday (Nov 16) to urge not to approve any unconstitutional step of the state government. Even as chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar is still to comment on the denotification move, he has convened an all-party meeting to discuss all issues relating to the contentious canal.
In Punjab, the Congress dismissed the state cabinet’s decision as “political gimmickry”. Earlier, the core committee of the SAD, which was closeted for two hours to decide the contours of this political gambit, declared that it would neither allow the construction of the SYL canal, nor had any water to spare for any other state. “We stand by the Constitution of India, which guarantees us absolute and exclusive right over the waters of rivers that flow through our state,” it said.
The denotification decision came within a week of the Supreme Court verdict, invalidating the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act-2004 passed by the then Congress government to unilaterally annul all water-sharing agreements with the neighbouring states. The SAD, making its intentions of taking the SC head on, said: “The opinion (on Presidential reference) finally given by the apex court has further deepened the belief that Punjab cannot get justice from the top constitutional institutions in the country.”
The court verdict has brought the emotive river-water dispute between Punjab and Haryana to the centre-stage, raising the political temperature in the poll-bound state. The Akali Dal and Congress, acting as the true “flag bearers” of the cause, are trying to outdo each other for electoral dividends.
Govt’s return gift
July 12, 2004: The then Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh gets the assembly to pass ‘Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004’, annulling the 1981 agreement and all subsequent ones
Feb 29, 2016: Supreme Court resumes hearing on presidential reference on the validity of Punjab Termination of Agreements Act-2004. Centre contends the Act was not valid
March 14: Punjab Vidhan Sabha unanimously clears SYL bill to return land to owners, Haryana House resolution flays move. Two days later, the apex court directs Punjab to maintain status quo
March 16: Haryana CM requests Punjab governor not to clear SYL bill. Punjab sends cheque for `192 crore to Haryana against latter’s contribution for the canal
November 10: Supreme Court holds invalid Termination of Agreements Act-2004
November 15: Punjab cabinet de-notifies and decides to return land acquired for SYL canal to owners