Sounding the death-knell on the hopes of thousands of Punjab farmers set to re-claim their lands acquired for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal and triggering a political crisis in the poll-bound State, the Supreme Court on Thursday declared that Punjab reneged on its promise to share the waters of rivers Ravi and Beas with neighbouring States like Haryana by unilaterally enacting the controversial Punjab Termination of Water Agreements Act of 2004.
A five-judge Constitution Bench led by Justice Anil R. Dave gave its opinion on a Presidential Reference made to it twelve years ago, on July 22, 2004, questioning the constitutional validity of the Act.
The apex court concluded that the Act was illegally designed to terminate a December 31, 1981 agreement entered into among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to re-allocate the waters of Ravi and Beas in “overall national interest and for optimum utilisation of the waters”. The SYL Canal was a product of this 1981 agreement.
By introducing the 2004 Act, the State defied two back-to-back apex court verdicts, pronounced in 2002 and 2004. The first one had directed Punjab to complete the SYL Canal in a year. The second judgment had ordered the formation of a central agency to “take control” of Punjab's work on the canal.
In short, the Supreme Court said Punjab acted as “a judge in its own cause”.
"The State of Punjab exceeded its legislative power in proceeding to nullify the decree of this court and therefore, the Punjab Act of 2004 cannot be said to be a validly enacted legislation,” Justice Dave wrote for the Bench, also comprising Justices P.C. Ghose, S.K. Singh, A.K. Goel and Amitava Roy.
Referring to its 2006 Mullaperiyar dam judgment, the Supreme Court held that a State Legislative Assembly “cannot through legislation do an act in conflict with the judgment of the highest court which has attained finality”.
The opinion, which may see a rise in border tensions with neighbouring Haryana, termed the enactment of the Punjab Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill in 2016 by the current Akali Dal government as “unwarranted developments” when the Presidential Reference was still pending in the Supreme Court. The Bench noted that the Punjab government had returned possession of some of the acquired land to its landlords and used earth-movers to destroy the still under-construction canal.
The 2016 Bill, which is yet to receive the assent of the Governor, assumed to give back over 5000 acres of land acquired for the canal back to the Punjab farmers. The apex court opined that this Bill would have clearly violated the 1981 water-sharing agreement had it been made law.
Tracing the dispute
The dispute over the rivers can be traced back to Indus Water Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan, allowing the former “free and unrestricted use” of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.
Subsequently, Haryana was carved out of Punjab through the Punjab Re-organisation Act of 1966. The Centre went on to allot Haryana with 3 M.A.F. quantity of water under a notification issued in March 1976. To implement this notification and for water to flow into the State, Haryana began its construction of SYL Canal the same year while Punjab delayed it till the early 1980s.
The 1981 agreement saw the States mutually agree to the re-allocation of water, this time taking into consideration the needs of Haryana. SYL canal was supposed to be completed in the next two years.
However, work came to stop after militant attacks on senior canal staffers.
In 1996, Haryana approached the Supreme Court for early completion of the canal. In 2002, Supreme Court ordered Punjab to complete the canal in a year. A subseuent suit filed by Punjab against the canal was dismissed in June 2004.
Punjab Assembly responded by passing the 2004 Act, terminating all its obligations under the 1981 Act despite the Supreme Court judgments.
Apprehending trouble, then President A.P.J Kalam sought the Supreme Court's opinion on the 2004 Act under Article 143 (1) of the Constitution.