The Sutlej-Yamuna Link: State Skirmish or National Security Issue?

Haryana and Punjab are again trying to settle the controversial issue at the behest of the Supreme Court.

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What exactly is the Sutlej-Yamuna Link dispute about and why did Captain Amarinder Singh say that “Punjab will burn”?
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On 18 August, a meeting was convened at the directions of the Supreme Court, which in July had asked the Centre to mediate between Punjab and Haryana to settle the controversial issue of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.

At the virtual meeting, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, while addressing his Haryana counterpart, Manohar Lal Khattar, and Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, warned the Centre that “Punjab will burn” if they completed the canal – and that Haryana and Rajasthan would also suffer the impact.

“You have to look at the issue from the national security perspective.”
Captain Amarinder Singh, Punjab Chief Minister

What exactly is the SYL dispute about and why will “Punjab burn”?

Origins of the Dispute

The SYL dispute is back in the limelight after the Supreme Court on 28 July asked for the dispute to be settled. According to The Indian Express, meetings had been taking place on the issue between the chief secretaries of the states, but the apex court directed that the chief ministers of the states should hold a meeting which would be mediated by the Centre.

The issue itself dates back to 1955, over a decade before the formation of Haryana, when the waters of the the Ravi and Beas rivers were calculated at 15.85 million acre feet (MAF), and divided among Rajasthan (8 MAF), Undivided Punjab (7.2 MAF) and Jammu and Kashmir (0.65 MAF), according to The Indian Express.

The water dispute started in 1966, when the Punjab Reorganisation Act divided erstwhile Punjab into the states of Punjab and Haryana. There emerged a need to share river water between the two newly separated states.

However, Punjab opposed sharing water of Ravi and Beas rivers with Haryana, citing the Riparian Principle, which states that the owner of land adjacent to a waterbody has the right to use the water, besides arguing that it had no water to spare.

Protests, Construction and an Accord

In March 1976, even as Punjab continued to protest, the Centre issued a notification allocating 3.5 MAF out of Undivided Punjab’s 7.2 MAF to Haryana, according to News18.

On 31 December 1981, an agreement was made among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to reallocate the waters of Ravi and Beas in “overall national interest and for optimum utilisation of the waters”. The SYL Canal was a direct result of this agreement, according to The Hindu. The water was reassessed to be 17.17 MAF, out of which 4.22 MAF was allocated to Punjab, 3.5 MAF to Haryana, and 8.6 MAF to Rajasthan, by agreement of all three states.

On 8 April 1982, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched the construction of SYL, in Kapoori village, Patiala district.

A stretch of 214 km SYL was set to be constructed, out of which 122 km would be in Punjab while the remaining 92 km would be in Haryana.

In response, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) launched a massive agitation, in the form of “Kapoori Morcha”.

In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi met SAD chief, Harchand Singh Longowal, and signed an accord making way for a new tribunal to assess the water. Thus, the Eradi Tribunal was set up, headed by Supreme Court Judge V Balakrishna Eradi. In 1987, it recommended an increase in the shares of Punjab and Haryana to 5 MAF and 3.83 MAF, respectively, according to reports.

A Violent History

Major portions of the canal were built in the nineties, at a cost of over Rs 750 crore, according to News18.

However, with the rise of terrorism in Punjab, it became an increasingly sensitive issue, and was never completed. In 1985, SAD chief Longowal was killed by militants less than a month after he signed the accord with Rajiv Gandhi. In 1990, a chief engineer, M L Sekhri, and a superintending engineer, Avtar Singh Aulakh, both linked to the canal, were killed by militants. In addition, there have been incidents in which labourers were shot dead. As violence seemed to escalate, Punjab stopped work on the canal.

Given this backdrop, Captain Amarinder Singh has been warning against bringing up the issue again.

Developments in the 2000s

In 2002, the Supreme Court directed Punjab to continue work on SYL and complete it within a year. The Punjab government refused, and petitioned for a review of the court order, which was rejected.

In 2004, by order of the apex court, the Central Public Works Department was appointed to take over the canal work from the Punjab government.

But the Punjab Legislative Assembly passed the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act of 2004, which abrogated all its river water agreements with neighbouring states. The then President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam referred this Bill to the Supreme Court in the same year to decide on its legality.

On 15 March 2016, the Punjab Legislative Assembly unanimously passed the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill, proposing to return the land that had been taken from owners for building the canal, following which, the court ordered the Punjab government to maintain status quo on the land meant for construction of the canal.

In November 2016, the Supreme Court, which had begun hearings in March 2016 on the presidential reference made to it to decide on the legality of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004, gave its opinion that the Act was illegal, reported The Hindu. In doing so, the court sounded the death knell on the hopes of Punjab farmers looking to re-claim their lands.

However, days after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Punjab Cabinet decided to de-notify 5,376 acres of land that was acquired for canal and return it to its original owners free of cost, reported Hindustan Times.

On 22 February 2017, the Supreme Court made it clear that its verdict allowing construction of the SYL Canal has to be executed and asked Haryana and Punjab to maintain law and order “at any cost”. The canal has to be built, the bench said.

Punjab’s Argument vs Haryana's Rebuttal

Punjab has maintained that the quantum of water flowing through the Ravi and Beas rivers has decreased over time. It has been seeking a fresh tribunal to conduct another reassessment of the volume of the water.

According to The Indian Express, the state is facing a severe water crisis and government reports say that many areas of the state may go dry after 2029. Reports also say that water in about 79 percent of the state is over-exploited and that out of 138 blocks, 109 blocks are “over-exploited”, two blocks are “critical”, five blocks are “semi-critical”, and only 22 blocks are in “safe” category.

On the other hand, Haryana argues that it has difficulties providing water for the irrigation purposes of the state, and has maintained that Punjab should comply with the 2002 and 2004 Supreme Court orders. In January 2020, Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee President and Rajya Sabha MP, Kumari Selja, said that the Supreme Court had validated the Haryana’s right on the water of SYL. She added that Punjab’s decision regarding not providing water to Haryana is a clear violation of its order.

Haryana reportedly also faces a problem with drinking water in places where the underground water had depleted up to 1,700 feet. It has also emphasised its contribution to crop production, arguing that justice had been denied by not providing it with its rightful share in the water, as had been assessed by the Eradi Tribunal.

What Happened at the Meet & What's Next?

The meeting on 18 August, described by Amarinder Singh as ‘positive and cordial’, saw the two states sticking to their demands. The meeting did not reach a conclusion and the chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana will meet again in Chandigarh to discuss the issue, the date for the which is yet to be decided.

Singh also reportedly stuck to his demand for a tribunal to make a fresh time-bound assessment of the water availability. “Why would I not agree to give water if we had it,” he said, reported NDTV. He also warned that Pakistan was trying to foment trouble by reviving the separatist movement through the banned organisation, Sikhs for Justice, and that the water issue could further destabilise the state, according to PTI.

On the other hand, Khattar argued that the construction of the SYL and the availability of water are two different issues and must not be confused. Adding that Haryana was open for dialogue, Khattar emphasised that the canal should be built and that it should be of adequate capacity to allow Haryana to draw its legitimate share of water.

Shekhawat suggested that the SYL could be completed while discussions on water sharing continue.

“Punjab and Haryana chief ministers placed their viewpoints on the issue and we have decided to have another meeting soon. At the next meeting, talks will be held from the point where we ended them today and whatever the outcome, we will apprise the Supreme Court about it.”
Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Jal Shakti Minister

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