The SYL Row has been going on inconclusively for over last about 50 years. The matter also has been languishing in SC for last 40 years without any resolution. The seemingly unending disputes have been raising questions in the mind of many as to why the issue remains undecided and for how long the controversy will go on. To have better understanding of the issue we have put together a chronology of the events around the SYL dispute.
On November 10, 2016, Honorable Supreme Court (SC) of India has pronounced its judgment on Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal (SYL). In the decision, the apex court has termed the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004 invalid and ruled that Punjab is bound to share Ravi-Beas river waters with Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi. The court has also ordered Punjab to comply with its two judgments for completion of the SYL canal.
A Five-Judge Constitution Bench headed by Justice Anil R. Dave made the ruling while answering the Presidential reference sent to the apex court seeking its opinion if the 2004 Act was in consonance with the legal and Constitutional provisions. Unlike in regular cases in which the SC delivers its judgments, the court only answers the issues raised in the Presidential reference made under Article 143(1) of the Constitution. The reference contained four questions on the issue.
Questions of reference:
The following questions were referred to the Supreme Court for its opinion.
i) Whether the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and the provisions thereof are in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of India;
ii) Whether the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and the provisions thereof are in accordance with the provisions of Section 14 of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966 and the 8 Notification dated 24th March, 1976 issued there under;
iii) Whether the State of Punjab had validly terminated the agreement dated 31.12.1981 and all other agreements relating to the Ravi-Beas waters and is discharged from its obligation under the said agreement(s);
iv) Whether in view of the provisions of the Act; the State of Punjab is discharged from its obligations from the judgment and decree dated 15.01.2002 and the judgment and order dated 4.6.2004 of the Supreme Court of India.”
The Bench, however, rejected Haryana’s plea for extending the status quo order passed on March 17, 2016, directing Punjab not to notify the law meant for returning about 4,000 acres of land acquired for the construction of the SYL canal. Haryana was free to take appropriate steps, including approaching the SC, it said.
Table: 1 showing significant dates about important developments in SYL row
|Date/ Year||Detail of Legal/ Political Development|
An agreement to share surplus water of Ravi and Beas Rivers was signed between then Undivided Punjab (PEPSU), Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Rajasthan. According this agreement Punjab State was allocated 7.20 Million Acre Feet (MAF) Rajasthan was allocated 8.0 MAF and J&K 0.65 MAF. The water agreement was based on flow series of 1921-45 which estimated the total flow of Ravi and Beas rivers as 15.85 MAF.
|1960||Indus Water Treaty was signed between India and Pakistan that allowed the India “free and unrestricted use” of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.|
|Nov 1, 1966
|Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were separated from Undivided Punjab through the Punjab Re-organisation Act of 1966.
And as per Section 78 of the Reorganization Act of 1966, the right to receive and to utilize the waters available for distribution, as a result of the Bhakra Nangal Project and BEAS Project, became the right of the Haryana state in such proportion as may be made by an agreement entered into by the all the concerned states after consultation with the central government.
Section 78 also provided that if no such agreement was entered into within two years of the appointed day, the Centre may by orders determine the shares of the States having regard to the purpose of the projects.
It was then that differences arose between the two states over their share of the surplus Ravi and Beas waters. While Haryana claimed 4.8 MAF of water of the total 7.2 MAF (share of the erstwhile Punjab) on the principle of equitable distribution.
But Punjab Government was opposed to sharing waters of the Ravi and Beas with Haryana, citing riparian principles, and arguing that it had no water to spare.
|March 24, 1976
A decade after the Punjab Reorganization Act was implemented and as Punjab continued to protest sharing of water, Haryana approached the Centre, which issued a notification allocating to Haryana 3.5 MAF out of undivided Punjab’s 7.2 MAF.
To implement this notification Haryana in October 1976 began its construction of SYL Canal.
As Haryana could not utilize its share without a carrier channel in the Punjab territory, the State took up the matter with Punjab and deposited Rs 1 Crore in November 1976 of the Rs 192 crore it would give the neighbour over the years for building the canal.
|1976 Supreme Court Intervention||
The first litigation in the water sharing dispute came in 1976 when Punjab filed a suit in the SC challenging the validity of the Section 78 of the Reorganization Act. Haryana also filed a suit for implementing the Centre’s notification of March 24, 1976.
Hearing the pleas, SC ordered Punjab to abide by April 1976 notification issued by Central Government.
|Feb 20, 1978||
Punjab Govt, issued notification for the acquisition of land for SYL construction. In the wake of a letter written by the Punjab govt on July 4, 1978, demanding Rs 3 crore for its construction, the Haryana government issued a second cheque of Rs 1 crore, which was accepted by the Punjab government on March 31, 1979. However Punjab did not start the work.
Litigation in Supreme Court
Haryana approached SC against Punjab for its failure to take up construction of SYL Canal in its territory.
On July, 11, 1979, Punjab filed a suit in the apex court challenging the Notification of Centre of April 1976. Till this time, Punjab had not started work on SYL canal.
About SYL Canal
To enable Haryana to use its share of the waters of the Sutlej and its tributary Beas, a canal linking the Sutlej with the Western Yamuna Canal, cutting across the state, was planned.
The 212 kilometers (km) long SYL canal was to carry Haryana’s share of water to its southern part. The 122 km of the canal was to run through Punjab, the remaining 90 km through Haryana.
Haryana completed its stretch of SYL Canal in June 1980 at an expenditure of Rs 56 Crore. But Punjab kept delaying the construction till the early 1980s.
Delhi’s Share was inserted in SYL canal
During pendency of the petitions in SC, Indira Gandhi the then Prime Minister (PM), on December 31, 1981 negotiated a tripartite agreement between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
According agreement it was decided that Punjab would construct the canal in its state within two years i.e. up to December 31,1983. Following this Haryana and Punjab withdrew their pending suits from SC.
The agreement also said that the waters would be shared with Delhi and J&K.
Under the 1981 pact, available supplies of the Beas and Ravi were recalculated to be 17.17 MAF, up from 15.85 MAF earlier and the states were entitled to a share of:
Punjab: 4.22 MAF
Haryana: 3.50 MAF
Rajasthan: 8.60 MAF
Delhi: 0.20 MAF
J&K: 0.65 MAF
|Apr 8, 1982
PM Indira Gandhi ceremonially dug the ground at Kapoori village in Patiala district for the construction of the SYL canal.
Within weeks of the ground-breaking ceremony, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) launched an agitation against the canal under the leadership of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. The Akali Dal, which was opposed to the agreement, started an agitation known as Kapoori Morcha to oppose the construction of the SYL canal. They followed it up with protests.
In August 1982, the agitation was converted into a “Dharam Yudh (holy war)”. The agitation took a violent turn, plunging the state into chaos.
|1983 Punjab refused to implement
Leaders of Punjab expressed fears that the actual usage would be more than the allocated amount and that the water flows in the rivers had changed substantially over the years and has stubbornly refused to implement the agreement.
They also demanded that the water-sharing issue be referred to a tribunal again to be decided afresh after taking into account the current flow of water.
Mrs Gandhi & Rise of Protests
On October 31, 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated thus the 1981 agreement never could see the light of the day.
Simultaneously protests surrounding the construction of the SYL canal also turned violent and Punjab Government halted the construction.
|July 24, 1985
After Punjab emerged from nearly two years of President’s Rule, and Surjit Singh Barnala became CM, the then PM Rajiv Gandhi initiated steps to resolve the SYL issue. Subsequently on July 24, 1985 agreement popularly known as the ‘Rajiv Longowal Accord’ was signed at Delhi. In this agreement a new deadline of August 15, 1986, was set for the completion of the SYL canal.
According to the accord, the claim of Punjab and Haryana regarding the shares in their remaining water was to be referred for adjudication to a Tribunal to be presided over by a retired SC Judge. The decision of this tribunal was to be rendered within six months and was to be binding on both parties. All legal and constitutional steps in this respect were to be taken expeditiously.
Following which the Akali Dal agreed to withdraw the agitation and work on SYL canal resumed.
However Longowal was also assassinated in less than a month of signing the accord.
|Apr 2, 1986
Setting up of Eradi Commission
In pursuance of the Rajiv Longowal Accord the Centre- constituted a Tribunal namely Ravi Beas Waters Tribunal (Eradi Tribunal) headed by retired SC Justice V Balakrishna Eradi.
The construction of the SYL Canal was to continue and the canal was to be completed by August 15, 1986.
Under Surjit Singh Barnala regime as CM, Punjab completed about 90% of SYL work at the cost of around Rs 700 crore. But the opposition to SYL canal never died in the State and in subsequent years kept emerging time to time in form of violent incidents hampering the pace of the work.
Realizing that the canal building progress was not going as per the schedule, Haryana took up the matter with PM and at a meeting on December 16, 1986, it was decided that entire cost of SYL Canal will be borne by the Centre.
The Eradi tribunal gave its report on January 30, 1987 increasing the surplus Ravi Beas waters by another 1.11 MAF thus fixing the total availability at 18.28 MAF. It provided Punjab 5.00 MAF, Haryana 3.83 MAF, Rajasthan 8.60 MAF, J-K 0.65 MAF and Delhi 0.20 MAF. The Tribunal stressed the need for the completion of the SYL canal “at an early date” stating that it was a lifeline for the farmers of Haryana.
But both Punjab and Haryana Governments filed the applications under Section 5(3) of the Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956 for some clarifications/guidance on the report of the Tribunal.
Haryana prayed to clarify and confirm that the usages of the three states, to allocate the remaining 4.831 MAF of un-allocated Ravi Beas waters below the run stations to the state of Haryana, while Punjab sought modification of Tribunal’s findings regarding verification of waters used by the various states because it is contrary to the provisions of the “Punjab Settlement”.
Punjab also challenged the decision of Tribunal that Haryana and Rajasthan are Indus Basin States as being erroneous and also the Decision of the tribunal rejecting the contention of Punjab having sole proprietary/Ownership rights of Ravi-Beas rivers as being against the legal provisions. It further challenged the finding of the Tribunal regarding holding valid the two agreements of 1955 and 1981 and the order of 1976 being erroneous.
Many Akali leaders objected to the tribunal findings decisions. In following months the State again fell in the grip of militancy as a result the tribunal’s decision could not be notified.
Further due to disturbed conditions in Punjab, the tribunal could not assemble for conclusive hearing on these applications. The Tribunal was then adjourned sine die in April, 1989.
In July 23, 1990, a chief engineer and his assistant working on SYL canal were killed by militants apparently to protest the construction; 30 labourers working at a project site near Chandigarh were also gunned down. As the turmoil escalated, Punjab Government had to stop the work.
Thereafter the issue was highlighted by Haryana at various levels and fora but the construction activities could not be resumed even though 95 per cent of the work in Punjab portion was completed up to June, 1990.
Finally, Haryana on November 23, 1990 wrote to PM to entrust the balance work to some Central Agency like National Hydel Power Corp, Border Roads Organization (BRO) or any other suitable agency.
Responding to Haryana plea and seeing the deteriorating situation in Punjab, the Central Government decided to hand over the construction work to BRO on February 20, 1991 but the agency was not able to lay even a single brick to the canal.
After all the efforts of Haryana to persuade Punjab directly and through the Union Government to get the SYL Canal completed did not materialize, it approached the Apex Court through suit No-1 of 1995 filed in November 95. The suit was refiled as suit No-6 of 1996 after issuance of notices under section 80 C P C.
The case, however, lingered on as SC did not constitute a Bench to hear the case for next five years from 1996 to 2001.
Supreme Court Order
The SC passed an order on January 15, 2002 directing Punjab government to complete the canal within a period of one year. The court also stated that in case state of Punjab fails to accomplish the task within the stipulated period, then the Union Government should get the work done through its own agencies as expeditiously as possible.
On January 18, 2002 Punjab filed a review petition in the SC which was dismissed in March 2002. But the canal work remained standstill. So, Haryana Government on December 18, 2002 approached SC seeking completion of the canal.
|Jan 3, 2003||
Punjab filed a suit seeking a discharge of the obligation to construct the SYL Canal as directed.
|2004 Supreme Court Order||
This suit was dismissed by the SC in June 12, 2004. The SC in its final judgment of June 4, 2004, directed the Union government to mobilize a central agency to take up construction of the canal in Punjab under the supervision of a high-powered committee and directed Punjab to hand over land to the central agency.
Punjab Termination of Agreements Act
In July 12, 2004, just two days before the July 15, 2004 deadline when the Centre was to take over physical possession of the Canal from Punjab Irrigation Department and hand over the construction to the CPWD, Punjab Government led by Capt Amarinder Singh proceeded to enact the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 terminating and discharging the Government of Punjab from its obligations under the 1981 agreement. The move jeopardized the construction of SYL in Punjab. Interestingly the act was not approved by the Governor.
Haryana objected to the move and sought Center’s intervention which in turn on July 22, 2004 sought the opinion of the apex court on the validity of the Punjab law through a presidential reference. The court heard the matter the next month without any outcome.
Punjab had all along maintained that “justice” should be done as per the recognized international riparian laws.
In 2007, SAD-BJP collision came to power in Punjab. Congress led UPA front was in center and Congress Party was also ruling Haryana state under Bhupindar Singh Hooda as the CM. But neither the Centre and nor the Haryana State Government approached SC to start hearing in the Presidential Reference.
Punjab in 2010 filed a suit, seeking a new tribunal to decide the water share.
In February 2010 the Eradi Commission was wound up 24 years after it was set up but the dispute remains unresolved.
Haryana filed an application in February 2011 for the implementation of SC’s 2002 and 2004 orders.
In July 2014 just months before the Congress Government was voted out, the Haryana Assembly passed an unananimous resolution seeking the Centre’s intervention in the matter.
Supreme Court Starts Hearings on Presidential Reference
In January 2016, on a plea by the newly elected Haryana Government for an early ruling on the issue, Chief Justice of India constituted a 5-member Bench to hear the President Reference.
In February 29, 2016, after 12 years, SC started hearings into a presidential reference to decide on the legality of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004.
Under the reference, the SC would also adjudicate if the 2004 Act was in accordance with Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966 that deals with the rights and liabilities of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.
As the hearings resumed, the Solicitor General, appearing on behalf of the Centre, took a pro-Haryana stance, saying the Centre stood by the SC’s orders asking Punjab to complete the work on SYL in its territory.
Punjab Assembly passed a bill Punjab Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill in 2016 for returning to the farmers the land acquired from them for the SYL.
By introducing the Act, the State defied two back-to-back apex court verdicts, pronounced in 2002 and 2004.
A day after Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal sent a Rs 191.75-crore cheque to his Haryana counterpart Manohar Lal Khattar to pay for expenses incurred in the construction of the SYL canal, the latter returned the cheque the next day.
Within hours, Haryana moved the SC protesting against the law as part of the hearing on the Presidential reference. Haryana said the bill also provided for the transfer of proprietary rights back to the landowners free of cost.
Reacting to Delhi CM’s stand on SYL, Haryana Government also threatened to stop water supply to the national Capital and asked Delhi to construct a separate canal
|17 March 2016||
On March 17, 2016 the apex court passed an interim order directing that status quo be maintained with respect to lands, works, property and portions of the SYL canal and all lands within the alignment of the SYL canal within the State of Punjab.
The court also appointed Union home secretary and Punjab’s chief secretary and director general of police (DGP) as the ‘joint receiver’ of land and other property meant for the SYL canal until the next date of hearing on March 31.
|May 12, 2016||
SC concluded arguments on the issue of President Reference. Unlike in regular cases in which the SC delivers its judgment, the court only answers the issues raised in the Presidential reference made under Article 143(1) of the Constitution.
|November 10, 2016
Supreme Court Judgement
“… in our opinion, Punjab exceeded its legislative power in proceeding to nullify the decree of this court and therefore, the Punjab Act cannot be said to be a validly enacted legislation,” the bench comprising Justices Anil R Dave, Pinaki Chandra Ghose, Shiav Kirti Singh, Adharsh Kumar Goel and Amitava Roy said on Novermber 10, 2016.
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”.
|November 16, 2016||
The SC ruling has resulted in a flurry of political activity in the poll-bound state with each major political party doing its utmost to project itself as the protector of the state’s waters.
An emergency session of the Vidhan Sabha was called on Nov 16 where a new resolution terminating water sharing agreements with all States was proposed.
A look on the stand of States in the Supreme Court
Image Source: The Economic Times, November 2016
Punjab: In its arguments, Punjab pleaded with the Bench to return the reference without giving its opinion as the apex court was not bound to answer all references. Even if the apex court gave its opinion on the validity of the law, it would not be binding on the parties involved, it contended.
Punjab, however, pleaded that since the SC verdicts on the SYL were no longer valid in view of the 2004 Act, the 2016 legislation for return of SYL land did not violate any SC order.
Punjab also clarified that despite the 2004 Act it was honouring and would continue to honour its commitments to upper riparian states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, besides Chandigarh.
Punjab wants constitution of a fresh tribunal to ascertain the present flow of water and decide the entitlement of each state on the basis of the rights of riparian and non-riparian states.
Haryana: Haryana pleaded that the 2004 law was aimed at nullifying apex court judgments directing Punjab to complete the SYL canal. Haryana had completed the canal within its territory to draw its share of the Ravi-Beas waters, while Punjab acquired land for the construction of the canal but backed out subsequently by passing the termination law.
Haryana also submitted that Punjab had enacted the 2004 Act to nullify the SC verdicts for the completion of the SYL canal and deny it its share of the Ravi-Beas waters, while the 2016 Act was meant to render the Presidential reference irrelevant.
Haryana had requested the Bench to keep alive its status quo order on SYL land even after giving its opinion on the Presidential reference. The state has filed another application for this purpose with a plea that this should be taken up immediately after the reference was answered.
Centre: During the hearing, the Centre had told the Constitution Bench that it was taking a neutral stand. It, however, maintained that Punjab could not defend its 2004 Act as well as seek a fresh tribunal. Declaring the Act valid would render meaningless the two SC judgments for completion of the SYL canal as well as Punjab’s plea for a fresh tribunal.
Delhi: Delhi maintained that it had nothing to do with the dispute and only wanted an assurance that the city would continue to get its share of river water.
SYL Canal Leveling Work being done in Punjab (Image: The Hindustan Times, March 2016)
Some important facts
- The dispute started right with the separation of Haryana from Punjab on November 01, 1966 and almost has completed 50 years without any resolution in sight.
- None of the states that have been a party to the unsolved issue is a riparian state in strict hydrology sense, except Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and J&K. The other non-riparian states are Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi.
- The total length of proposed SYL canal is 212 km long and 122 km of it runs through Punjab while 90 km of its length lies in Haryana.
- The Haryana stretch of the SYL canal is already completed in 1980. Punjab had also completed 95 per cent of the canal in its territory but report claims that 40 per cent of the dug channel has been refilled in past six months.
- Central Government is funding the construction of the canal since 1986. The construction cost had escalated from Rs 176 Crore in 1983 to an estimated cost of Rs 601 Crore till 1994. So far, some Rs 750 crore has already been spent on the project.
- According to Punjab the SYL water sharing pact is based on 1920 data and now the situation has radically changed. Thus the state is demanding constitution of new tribunal. Punjab also wants any water sharing agreement to be done keeping in mind the principal of Riparian Rights.
- Supreme Court also remained silent on the row for over 12 years from 2004-2016. The presidential reference reached SC in 2004 itself and by not resolving the dispute for 12 years, SC allowed the status quo to remain, providing indirect encouragement to Punjab. In fact, this way, Punjab ensured that the SC orders of 2002 and 2004 remained unimplemented for 12 years, without any consequences for Punjab.
- One Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and one Regional leader Harcharan Singh Longowal, Punjab has been murdered and both assassinations are somewhat linked to SYL row.
- After every new pact, the total volume of Ravi-Beas water was increased like from 15.85 MAF in 1955 to 17.17 MAF in Indira Accord 1982 to 18.28 MAF in Eradi Commission in 1986. But there is no clarity on how much water flows in the said rivers in present time.
- The SYL row is exhausting the Punjab state financially as senior advocates presenting the state in apex court are reportedly charging about Rs 15- 25 lakhs per hearing. The Tribune writes that the State has spent upto Rs 7 crore alone this fiscal year paying fees to senior advocates.
- The Central Ground Water Board has declared three-fourths of Punjab as ‘dark zone’, or ‘no-extraction zone’, to restrict the indiscriminate extraction of ground water in the state. Among many reasons, the damming of the rivers and drying up of the river beds, destruction of local water systems and wetlands is also a reason for this situation.
- The core issue is availability of water in Ravi and Beas rivers which has never been brought up by any of the States including Centre before the court all through the pendency of the case. According some claims there have been decline of over 20 per cent water to the level measured around six decades back.
Expert opinions: Experts are divided on the SC verdict. Those who favor the judgment say that there is no option left for Punjab but to construct the remaining part of canal. While others feel that change in ground realities over past six decades poses genuine hurdles in the enforcement of the verdict.
According to legal experts the verdict of SC is not binding on the centre, as it was delivers under advisory jurisdiction. On the other hand, there are lawyers who say that the advisory opinion is also a declaration of law and the President acceptance or decline the advisory opinion would hardly make any difference thus Punjab Termination of Agreement Act stands invalid.
Gravity of situation: The SC had no choice other than invalidating the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 as no State can be allowed legally to scrap unilaterally signed inter-state water sharing agreements leading to a total federal chaos.
But the decision has opened the flood gates of political one-upmanship in Punjab with both the ruling parties and opposition hitting the protest button. Leaders in Punjab and Haryana while pretending to be savior of water resources could end up pitting the farming communities of the both states against each other.
Punjab state assembly has proposed a new water bill aiming to cancel water sharing agreement with all the states. Such acts can lead to the breakdown of the constitutional mechanism.
Punjab state governments’ handling of river issues has been getting worse and if this continues, they would give enough justification to the Centre to take control of the rivers, which would be a big loss for the states as the need is to decentralize management of rivers, not centralize.
The North-western plains of Punjab, Haryana has become water stressed and continue to be so as long as they continue with the existing cropping pattern and irrigation technology. Experts have been warning both States about depleting ground water resources. Suggestions have been made to move away from unsustainable and water-intensive cropping pattern.
Both States have serious water issues such as sinking water table due to over exploitation, pollution of water resources and desilting of rivers and canals and repair of embankments which require multiple initiatives but the distrust and short-sightedness behind the competitive politics over the SYL canal has not allowed any of these issues to be tackled.
Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org) SANDRP
The above text has been compiled from following links: