Punjab’s legislative adventurism

There was never any doubt that Punjab’s legislative adventurism in enacting a law in 2004 to terminate all previous agreements on sharing the waters of the Ravi and the Beas with its neighbours would not survive judicial scrutiny. Answering a Presidential reference on the validity of Punjab’s action, the Supreme Court has >declared the State’s law illegal . It has ruled that Punjab reneged on its solemn promises by terminating its 1981 agreement with Haryana and Rajasthan to discharge itself of the obligation to construct the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal. Its objective was to overcome the 2004 decree passed by the Supreme Court directing it to complete the canal work expeditiously. The court’s reasoning draws from previous verdicts relating to the Cauvery and Mullaperiyar disputes, reiterating the principle that “a State cannot, through legislation, do an act in conflict with the judgment of the highest court which has attained finality.” It is another matter if legislation takes the form of a validating Act to cure specific illegalities or one that removes the basis for a particular verdict. The verdict by a five-member Bench is a timely reminder that it would be destructive of the rule of law and federalism if a State were to be allowed to usurp judicial powers by nullifying a verdict that has rendered findings on both fact and law.

As Punjab heads for the Assembly election, this issue has already led to posturing by all major parties on which among them is the best protector of the State’s interests. This attitude leads to a disturbing tendency among States to be judges in their own cause, especially when it comes to water disputes. Political parties in power increasingly resort to legislation or Assembly resolutions rather than negotiation. The Opposition parties collaborate in this with equal zeal, lest they be seen to be wanting in passion for the cause. Punjab may well have had legitimate grievances, historically, in the sharing of waters. This was, in fact, the reason the Rajiv-Longowal accord of 1985 contained clauses relating to river-water sharing too. Earlier, differences were first settled by a notification by the Centre in 1976. When the matter led to litigation, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi brokered an agreement in 1981. In effect, the present arrangements, which Punjab seeks to wriggle out of, are backed by three agreements. The Supreme Court ruled against Punjab in 2002 as well as in 2004. The State’s obligation to allow the completion of the SYL Link Canal, so that Haryana can utilise the share of water allocated to it, cannot be frustrated any more. If Punjab feels aggrieved, there may be scope for negotiation and conciliation even now, but it cannot take action unilaterally.

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 4:51:54 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Punjab-assembly-election-Punjab%E2%80%99s-legislative-adventurism/article59781698.ece