Brinkmanship over a limited dispute

The Centre should step forward and bring both Punjab and Haryana, ruled by the BJP and an ally, to the negotiating table to resolve the crisis over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:07 pm IST

Published - March 29, 2016 01:42 am IST

Yogendra Yadav. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Yogendra Yadav. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Contemporary India illustrates the tragic paradox of farmers’ politics: they get divided just when they need to unite the most. The last few years have witnessed a deepening of the agrarian crisis in India. This is the moment when all agrarian classes need to come together. Instead, we have witnessed in recent times several attempts to pit one section of the peasantry against the other: communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, the Gujjar-Meena caste clashes in Rajasthan and the recent Jat and non-Jat divide in Haryana. It may not be a simple case of “divide and rule”, but someone does stand to gain by keeping farmers divided.

The latest episode in this unfolding tragedy is the Punjab-Haryana dispute over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal. The unpopular governments of Punjab and Haryana and discredited politicians on both sides are suddenly back in the reckoning. This must be seen as the new business model of politics: how to turn a small and resolvable dispute into an impossibly large tangle, and then use brinkmanship to milk the situation for maximum political gains.

Playing the water card The “SYL dispute” has exposed the weakness of the entire edifice of constitutional governance in our country — elected governments, constitutional authorities, political parties, autonomous bodies and even the judiciary.

The Parkash Singh Badal-led government in Punjab is arguably the State government most despised by its own people across the country. Facing an electoral rout, the ruling Akali Dal has played the water card again to distract voters from growing anger against its mis-governance. And it seems to have succeeded, at least for the time being. It managed to get the entire political establishment to first back a law — the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016 — de-notifying the land taken for purposes of building the canal. The Supreme Court frowned at attempts to fill the half-built canal with earth even before the law could be signed. The Punjab Assembly retaliated on March 18 by passing a most unusual resolution that in effect declared that it would not let the canal be built, no matter what the Supreme Court orders in this regard.

The Haryana government, that faced a crisis of legitimacy on account of its failure to protect life and property during the recent agitation over reservation, has suddenly found an opportunity to present itself as the guardian of farmers in distress. Successive State governments that did little to take the available water to the arid region in south Haryana can now present Punjab as the main culprit.

A web of deceit The Central government has been neither fair nor firm in its role as arbiter and facilitator in this dispute. Initially, Indira Gandhi’s government was partisan. Ever since the advent of militancy in the 1980s, successive Central governments have ducked the issue and shirked their constitutional responsibility. Delaying tactics were used to put the Eradi Tribunal into cold storage. When the Congress government in Punjab passed a law — the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 — that unilaterally terminated earlier agreements, the United Progressive Alliance government meekly referred it to the Supreme Court and left it at that. Both instances do not make the judiciary look too good either. It is intriguing that the Supreme Court did not take up a Presidential Reference for well over a decade and has now started hearing the case in an election year in Punjab.

The worst example of hypocrisy was practised by political parties. No party in Punjab had the guts to call the Akali Dal’s bluff. The national parties just gave up the pretence of being national. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader in Punjab proposed the provocative resolution to the Assembly; the BJP government in Haryana called it unconstitutional. The Congress in Punjab backed the Akali Dal in its antics, while its leaders in Haryana staged a protest outside the Punjab Assembly. The Aam Aadmi Party was of course different. Here, the same leader spoke in different voices. Arvind Kejriwal declared in Punjab that he was against SYL since the State had no water to spare. Back in Delhi, he was for fair share to every State and warned against playing politics with water! Is there a way out of this web of propaganda, deceit and hypocrisy? I believe this is a limited and resolvable dispute provided we agree on some basics.

Water use and requirement First, we must acknowledge that water is a real issue for all the States. The farmers of Punjab have a genuine concern. Their agriculture has come to be largely dependent on canal irrigation. The prospect of a reduction in water for irrigation is cause for concern, especially in the Malwa region. Similarly, we must acknowledge that farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan have legitimate needs. The Green Revolution patch in north Rajasthan is entirely dependent on water from the Ravi-Beas. Agriculture in south Haryana continues to be rainfed; parts of this region face a drinking water crisis.

We must also acknowledge that the water requirement is overstated by all parties to the dispute. What is stated as “need” is not the minimum requirement for growing crops suited for this agro-climatic zone, but for water-intensive crops unknown to this region. Ecologists have long been warning us about unsustainable water-use practices in this region.

Second, we must recognise that both Punjab and Haryana have a legitimate grievance. Punjab feels, rightly so, that the Indira Gandhi government’s Ravi-Beas settlement of 1976 was unjust. The people also feel that the shares agreed to by the Chief Ministers of Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan in 1981 did not fully reverse this injustice. The farmers in Haryana feel that whatever was agreed to on paper has been denied to them in practice. Protracted cases, interminable tribunals and, finally, a blunt refusal to implement any settlement have denied them of their due share.

Third, we must note that this sense of grievance and mistrust has led leaders on both sides to inflate the quantum of difference. In the heat of the dispute we forget that there is no dispute about the use of Sutlej waters. There is a real but fairly delimited dispute about water from the Ravi-Beas. It was agreed upon right from the beginning that the pre-existing usage of water by Punjab and Rajasthan (2.3 and 1.1 MAF [million acre-feet], respectively) would not be touched. The dispute is about the quantum of extra water available for distribution and about the share of the respective States. The most conservative estimate of available water was 15.9 MAF in the 1955 agreement. The most generous, and latest, estimate is 18.3 MAF in the Eradi Tribunal report of 1987. The difference in the share allotted to Punjab is fairly limited: the most unfavourable award of 1976 gave Punjab 22 per cent, which was revised to 25 per cent in the Chief Ministers’ agreement of 1981 and further revised to 28 per cent in the first report of the Eradi Tribunal. There are differences here, but we are not looking at impossible differences.

Finally, there are settled legal principles and institutions to resolve a dispute like this one. As a riparian State, Punjab has first right to use river water, but Punjab, or for that matter any other State, does not own the water that flows through its territory. It was the India-Pakistan Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960 that gave India the exclusive right to use the entire waters of the Sutlej, the Ravi and the Beas. Haryana was a part of Punjab and was thus a riparian State when the IWT took place. The division of the State in 1966 does not take away that status. India got the share of river water that it did in the IWT because it successfully claimed water for canal irrigation projects in the desert area of Rajasthan. So, Haryana and Rajasthan have justified claims accepted by the Supreme Court and the Eradi Tribunal.

Let us also agree that no State government can unilaterally abrogate all the agreements, good or bad, which its lawful predecessors had entered into. And no one can refuse to obey the orders of the highest court of this land. Such actions are plainly unconstitutional.

For a political resolution How do we go ahead? The resolution should ideally take a political route. Leaders and parties from Punjab must step back from the extra-constitutional path of unilateral action and instead negotiate on the share of Ravi-Beas water. Leaders from Haryana must step back from their demands of a share of water; instead, they should focus on swift and assured implementation of whatever is agreed upon. The Centre should step forward and bring both States, ruled by the BJP and an ally, to the negotiating table. The Prime Minister must work towards a a fair settlement.

Alternatively, the resolution could take a legal route. Let the Supreme Court quickly dispose of the Presidential Reference. If the court finds the 2004 Act unconstitutional, it must take up the contempt petition against Punjab for violating its orders on completing the SYL canal by 2003. Let the court also take a view on the latest Bill of the Punjab Assembly and the filling up of the SYL canal. Finally, let the vacancy in the Ravi-Beas Tribunal be filled and let it submit its final report, which shall be binding on all parties. There is no reason why all of this cannot be completed within a year from now.

Of late, there has been loud talk about nationalism. A true measure of nationalism may not be the height of a flag mast. The real test of nationalism or otherwise of our leadership is in the will and wisdom that it demonstrates in resolving a dispute like this one.

Yogendra Yadav is with the Swaraj Abhiyan and the Jai Kisan Andolan.

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