A crucial intervention

Print edition : July 02, 2004

A two-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court orders the completion of construction of the portion of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal in Punjab and directs the Union government to hand over the task to a Central agency.

in New Delhi

THE two-and-a-half-decades-old controversy about the completion of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and the sharing of its waters between Punjab and Haryana is threatening to snowball into a major crisis following a Supreme Court order laying down a strict deadline for the completion of the canal. However, if executed, the court's decision might help settle the welter of cases filed on the matter since 1979.

The unfinished portion of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal near Dharak Kalan village in Ropar district of Punjab.-

On June 4, a two-Judge Bench comprising Justices S. Ruma Pal and P. Venkatrama Reddi directed the Union government to mobilise a Central agency to take control of the canal works from Punjab within a month from the date of the order; ordered Punjab to hand over the works to the Central agency constituted by the Union government within two weeks; ordered the setting up of an empowered committee to coordinate and facilitate the implementation of the decree within four weeks from the date of the order; called for the construction of the remaining portion of the canal; and ordered the Central and Punjab governments to provide adequate security for the staff of the Central agency.

The 78-page order makes some serious observations on the conduct of the Punjab government in the construction of the canal. The court places the onus for the delay in the completion of the canal on Punjab. Since 1983, as many as seven deadlines have gone unheeded. The first suit in the matter, filed by Haryana in the Supreme Court in 1979, submitted that the court issue directions to the Punjab government to complete the construction of the canal. Another suit, filed in September 1996, sought the issuance of directions to the Punjab/Union government to ensure the completion of the canal at an early date. On January 15, 2002, the apex court directed the Punjab government to construct and complete the canal within a year. The order was not complied with. A day before the deadline lapsed Punjab moved the court asking the State to be absolved of the responsibility on the grounds of changed circumstances.

The SYL canal project owes its genesis to a Union government notification of March 24, 1976, under Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966, which provided for the division of waters between Punjab and Haryana. The 214-kilometre-long SYL canal, it was envisaged, would be constructed with 122 km of it running through Punjab and the remaining 92 km through Haryana. The cost of the construction was to be met by the Central government. The Haryana government completed its portion by 1980 but the Punjab government failed to complete the portion falling in its territory. As early as 1979, Punjab filed a suit challenging the Union government's notification.

Even as the suits were pending before the court, the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan entered into an agreement with the Union government on December 13, 1981, that the canal would be implemented in a time-bound manner and that all canal-related work in Punjab would be completed within two years from the date of signing of the agreement. However, Punjab failed to honour the agreement. In 1985, the "Punjab Settlement" or the Rajiv-Longowal Accord was arrived at. It took note of the disputes between Haryana and Punjab, including that on the sharing of water, on which it was agreed that the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan would continue to get the same amount of water they used to get from the Ravi-Beas system as of July 1, 1985.

The claims of Punjab and Haryana regarding the sharing of excess water was referred for adjudication to a Tribunal presided over by a Supreme Court Judge. It was agreed that the construction of the canal would be completed by August 15, 1986. However, the deadline for the completion of construction expired.

The construction of the canal has always been kept distinct from the issue of sharing of waters. The issue of the sharing of waters was referred to the Waters Tribunal through a Central government notification of April 2, 1986. The Tribunal, allocating the Ravi-Beas waters between Punjab and Haryana, submitted its report on January 30, 1987. However, Punjab filed an application before the Tribunal asking for a review of its decision, which remains pending.

Haryana filed a second suit in 1996 pleading for a decree that would make the various settlements and agreements brokered since 1976 on the issues of construction of the canal and the sharing of the Ravi-Beas waters binding on Punjab. Punjab's response was that the canal was unnecessary because Haryana was to get additional water from other rivers and hence the State had no right to water from the Ravi. However, the Union government averred that the Punjab portion of the canal had to be completed at the earliest.

On January 15, 2002, the apex court decreed the suit in favour of Haryana and issued a mandatory injunction to Punjab to complete the construction of the canal and to make it functional within a year. In the event that Punjab failed to meet the deadline, the Union government would have to get it done through its own agency as soon as possible. Notwithstanding the urgency of the court's order and the long-standing nature of the problem, there was little progress on the matter. On January 13, 2003, two days before the deadline was to expire, Punjab filed a suit seeking to dissolve the obligation on its part to construct the canal. It cited several reasons, including "changed circumstances" and the unconstitutionality of the Supreme Court decree. Haryana filed an application under Order XXIII Rule 6 of the Supreme Court Rules, for the rejection of the pliant and the summary dismissal of the suit. On August 13, Haryana filed a second application seeking a direction to the Union government to carry out its obligations under the apex court decree.

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, with Deputy Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, addresses the media after chairing a special Cabinet meeting on the SYL canal issue in Chandigarh.-

Dismissing the suit filed by Punjab and allowing Haryana's application for the implementation of the apex court's January 2002 order for the construction of the canal, the two-Judge Bench observed: "It is manifest that the suit has been filed only with a view to subvert the decision of this court with all the disingenuousness of a private litigant to resist its execution." The Bench further observed: "Punjab was required to complete the canal by January 15, 2003 by the decree. Instead of accepting the decree in good grace, every possible step has been taken to thwart the decree." Article 131 of the Constitution, the Judges held, had given the court the exclusive jurisdiction to decide such a dispute strictly on legal considerations and in keeping with the provisions of the Constitution. "To resist the execution of the decree on the ground that it would have a political fallout would result in subversion of the Constitution, an endorsement of anarchy and the disintegration of the country," the Bench noted.

Punjab raised the plea of militancy in the past and has done the same thing in recent times. In fact, in 1990, work on the canal in Punjab came to a halt after a chief project engineer and an officer were shot dead by militants. Several former Chief Ministers of Punjab have often urged the Centre not to decide the issue of water sharing in a hurry as it could lead to violence. However, taking cognisance of all these factors, the Supreme Court stated: "The vague plea relating to the possible rise of militancy by the construction of the canal is not an acceptable defence at all." The court also ruled that the construction of the canal was not a water dispute.

The court's order has unnerved the Congress-led government in Punjab, coming as it does in the wake of the severe reverses suffered by the party in the recent Lok Sabha elections. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh immediately constituted a core group and has demanded the setting up of a fresh Tribunal to adjudicate the issue of water-sharing.

Legal and political observers aver that eventually the main issue will be the sharing of water. While the underground water in southern Haryana is brackish and drinking water from the Yamuna is supplied once in 45 days, in areas like Sirsa there is an excess of water supply for irrigation. Hence even if the construction of the canal is completed, several problems will remain to be resolved.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor