The Punjab Assembly continues to thumb its nose at the law of the land. > A day after a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ordered status quo on land marked for the construction of the > Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, on Friday the Assembly unanimously resolved that it cannot be allowed to be built. It is not clear whether this is an emotive cover for the Punjab government to wind down the efforts to change the facts on the ground by even levelling the canal. But the events of the past week frame political adventurism of an order that this country has not witnessed in a long time. Supported by a political consensus that brings the Opposition Congress and even the Aam Aadmi Party on board the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government’s unilateral repudiation of inter-State agreements, they put the onus on the Centre to reiterate the redlines that cannot be crossed in a federal set-up. On Monday, the Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab > Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (Rehabilitation and Re-vesting of Proprietary Rights) Bill 2016, seeking to return land acquired for the canal’s construction to the original owners free of cost, and thereby completely destroy the work (still incomplete after more than three decades) to channel to Haryana its duly allotted share of the waters of the Ravi and the Beas. Even though the Governor’s assent has not come for the Bill, work on levelling the land, scooping earth and flora along the canal began at fever pitch, causing ecological damage and wiring up the original owners into frenzied activity.
The origins of the crisis go back to 2004, when the State passed the Punjab Termination of Agreements legislation. With this, it reneged on its upper-riparian responsibility to share water with Haryana through the SYL Canal. The matter went to the Supreme Court, and hearing finally started this month. The 2004 abdication has now been aggravated by wilful destruction of parts of the canal, on which hundreds of crores of rupees have already been spent. The earlier effort to reap political dividend by raising the spectre of Punjab’s fields turning barren has been topped by exciting hopes on the possibility of farmers getting back lost land. All political parties are on board. The 2004 law was passed under Amarinder Singh’s Congress government. The 2016 Bill has been guided by Parkash Singh Badal’s SAD-BJP government. Twelve years ago, the Congress-led government at the Centre refused to read the Riot Act to a Congress Chief Minister. Today, a BJP-led Central government is keeping silent at the outrage fomented by its own coalition in Punjab. Inter-State water disputes tend to be particularly emotive, and thereby amenable to populist politics. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, most issues relating to the SYL Canal had been sorted out. Indeed, by the 1990s, much of the construction of the 212-km-long canal had been completed in Punjab. It is against this groundwork that the Punjab government-led destruction and repudiation of a federal agreement must be squarely condemned.