Punjab’s move to effectively terminate a water-sharing project with Haryana—on which the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal project is based—portends unwelcome ramifications for India’s federal structure. With an eye on the upcoming elections in the state, all parties supported the passing of the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal (Rehabilitation and Re-vesting of Proprietary Rights) Bill of 2016, which seeks to return the canal land to those who had given it up three decades ago—as a result, farmers in Punjab are free to demolish whatever has been built of the SYL canal so far. Poor finances have severely limited the state government’s capacity for serious policy action or sops and the two-term incumbent, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine, hopes that the move will boost its electoral prospects, given land and water are both emotive issues in the primarily agrarian state—though, ironically, the BJP government in Haryana, which will be hit by the move, has called the move “unconstitutional”. The present situation is rooted in a 2004 legislation brought by the then Congress government in Punjab that terminated all sharing arrangements with neighbouring states for the waters of the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi.
While Haryana’s principal secretary, Ashok Khemka, claimed that returning the SYL project land was beyond the scope of the Punjab legislature, citing Entry 56 of the Union List in a column in The Indian
Express, the BJP-led Union government took a pro-Haryana stand at the Supreme Court hearing of the Presidential referral of the 2004 Act. This is in sharp contrast to the BJP’s self-serving stand in Punjab today. Also, ironically, while the foundation stone of the project was laid by Indira Gandhi in 1982 and land acquisition started in 1978, when the SAD was in power, work started in 1985 with, again, a SAD government at the helm of the state. It may pay to adopt such a cynical political stance in a state where growth fell in FY15 over FY14, thanks to negative agricultural growth, but the SAD, the BJP and the Congress will do well to keep in mind that such parochial stances weaken the Indian federal structure. The Centre, too, should consider creating a permanent river water dispute resolution tribunal, given inter-state water-sharing has been historically contentious—evident from the Cauvery, Krishna and Godavari disputes—and could get even worse with climate change. Even though the Supreme Court has banned Punjab’s blockade and ordered that status quo on the canal land be maintained for now—with 90% of the project already complete, and R700 crore of public money already spent—it is just a feeble relief for cooperative federalism.