Chandigarh, July 12: The Punjab Assembly today rushed through a bill that unilaterally annuls a water-sharing agreement with Haryana and Rajasthan and threatens to torpedo a half-finished canal where blood flowed during the separatist movement of the eighties.
The bill, which is expected to have far-reaching implications for relations among states and between the legislature and the judiciary, has been passed at a special one-day session to get around a Supreme Court directive to complete the remaining portion of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal.
Only two days remain for the expiry of a deadline set by the court, which directed the Centre to take over the construction of Punjab’s portion of the canal. In January 2002, the court had ordered Punjab to complete the canal in a year and allow the flow of 3.5 million acre-feet (MAF) of water to Haryana.
Politicians and farmers in Punjab opposed the order and threatened to block efforts to build the canal in the state. Moved by the Congress government, the bill was passed unanimously with the support of the Opposition Akali Dal-BJP combine.
Rajasthan and Haryana reacted with dismay to the bill, saying it went against the very federal structure of the Constitution. Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala said there could be a constitutional crisis. “We will go to the Supreme Court again,” he said.
The Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill, 2004, annuls the river water sharing agreement signed on December 31, 1981 by Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in the presence of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
The three states agreed to allocate 3.5 MAF of Ravi-Beas water to Haryana, 8.6 MAF to Rajasthan and 4.22 MAF to Punjab, the riparian state, out of the surplus flow, then estimated at 17.17 MAF. But recent estimates have said the water availability has dwindled to 14.37 MAF.
The new bill protects the “existing use” of water by Haryana and Rajasthan -- a gesture Punjab could cite to seek legal clemency if the going gets tough.
But chief minister Amarinder Singh kept his options open, saying the clause could be amended to suit Punjab’s interests if the need arises. “Punjab has no extra water to spare. If the canal is constructed, 15 lakh families would lose their livelihood,” he said.
Ever since the canal’s foundation stone was laid in 1982 by Indira Gandhi, it had been caught in choppy waters.
First, the Shiromani Akali Dal launched a movement against the canal. Soon after, extremists hijacked the issue, holding it up as further evidence of discrimination against Punjab. The emotive issue was one of the factors that helped the extremists keep afloat the separatist movement.
The canal construction was revived by the Rajiv Gandhi-H.S. Longowal accord. But it had to be halted after 30 labourers were mowed down by militants. They also hunted down the chief engineer later in Chandigarh.
After the militant strikes, the Punjab portion of the canal remained in limbo, while Haryana, a non-riparian state, completed its project.