With the Supreme Court striking down a 2004 Punjab government law that allowed it to wriggle out of completing the Satluj-Yamuna-Link canal—completion is critical to ensure Haryana gets its share of water—the BJP government at the Centre is truly in a bind. It now has to complete the SYL canal on the Punjab side of the border—as per a 2004 decree passed by the SC soon after Punjab passed its law—but since sharing water with Haryana is an emotive issue in Punjab, starting work on the canal is likely to affect the BJP’s chances of winning the assembly elections next year. Indeed, it was to prevent the SYL canal from being built that, earlier this year, the SAD-BJP government in Punjab had returned to farmers the land acquired for the canal, encouraging them to dismantle the structures built on them.
While the Centre has been reluctant to take sides in the SYL dispute, indeed in any water dispute in different parts of the country, there is no other way to resolve them—an SC order also has to be enforced by the Centre if the states refuse to agree to it. The SYL dispute itself has an unresolved history since 1981 when the first accord was signed between Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan to share the Sutlej-Ravi-Beas waters. The insurgency in Punjab saw the project getting stuck but, in 1985, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and SAD leader Sant Harchand Singh Longowal struck a settlement which, among other things, said the state would complete the project by August the following year. However, in November 1985, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution repudiating the 1981 treaty and the project was again stuck, until, in January 1987, the Ravi-Beas Water Tribunal ordered the state to expedite completion. Punjab, however, halted construction in 1990 … The Supreme Court has twice ordered the completion of the project, but this didn’t help.
In any case, since as recently as October this year, in the case of the Cauvery dispute, the Centre argued that, as per Article 262 (2) of the Constitution, read with Section 11 of the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act 1956, the SC has no jurisdiction in the distribution of water, it has no option but to step in. Though there could be two views on the SC’s jurisdiction, it is clear that if the Centre does not come up with a solution, and the SC steps in, it will be accused on stepping in to the executive’s turf! No water-sharing solution is possible unless the states agree since it is difficult to send in troops within the country to enforce the Centre’s writ, so the Centre has to use all means possible to enforce its writ. This ranges from various aid packages to the promise of additional public sector investment in the state—thanks to Article 293, no state can borrow money, or get a loan from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, unless the central government approves it. Saam, daam, dand, bhed.