Few state governments, or even countries, will agree to ‘give’ another ‘their’ water and, to that extent, Punjab’s unwillingness to share waters with Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan is not out of the ordinary. But it has to be kept in mind that river waters don’t really belong to the state/country and, in this case, there was an agreement between the states on the sharing formula—it is this agreement that Punjab has tried to scuttle for nearly three-and-a-half decades now. And now that the Supreme Court has finally ruled as ‘unconstitutional’ Punjab’s 2004 decision to unilaterally abrogate the water-sharing agreements, and asked the centre to take over the responsibility to build the Satluj-Yamuna-Link canal, the state has gone and challenged the apex court’s authority. For one, it has demanded payment from the neighbouring states for the water they have used so far—since 1955—and its assembly has passed a resolution directing state government officials to ‘neither allow any body to work on SYL land not to cooperate (with any central agency) for the said purpose’. As prime minister, in any case, Narendra Modi has a responsibility to ensure the apex court’s orders are not challenged in any part of the country. What complicates things is that the BJP is an alliance partner with the SAD government in Punjab and there is an election coming up—so, given how Punjab farmers are opposing the water-sharing, the BJP doing the right thing will probably hit its electoral chances.
Apart from the fact that the centre would not want to be seen to be partisan towards a state because it is hoping to win an election there, there are larger issues. If the central government is unable to resolve the issue, the SC will play a more active role, pushing the standoff between the government and the judiciary to even more acrimonious levels. And while the centre has argued, in the Cauvery matter, that the SC has no role in the distribution of water across states, it will have no leg to stand on if it cannot resolve the matter on its own—and, given that Punjab is not the only state that has a water-dispute with a neighbour, the centre’s ability to resolve matters should never be seen as in doubt. And while resolution of a water dispute is tricky, the fact is that, should it want, the centre has a lot of tools at its disposal. It can offer the state financial packages, it can get its PSUs to set up projects in the state, and it can decide whether a state can borrow more funds or get projects funded from bodies like the World Bank and the ADB. Most important, since the demand for water is largely driven by agricultural demand, and states like Punjab grow crops that use too much water, the central government response should have included moving to a rational water-usage policy—while this would include not having special preferences for water-guzzling crops like rice and sugarcane, at least so far, the government has not moved towards a more rational agriculture policy. In which case, when the matter is heard by the SC again, you can expect it to take a more activist role—that, of course, will have its own implications.