Muddying the waters: Controversy over Centre's interference in Chandigarh government employees

The Central government stirs up a controversy by changing the composition of the Bhakra Beas Management Board and issuing a notification to apply Central Civil Services Rules to the employees of Chandigarh. Some see it as an attempt to undermine the newfound solidarity between the people of Punjab and Haryana fostered by the farmers’ struggle against the farm laws.

Published : Apr 24, 2022 06:00 IST

Bhagwant Mann, Punjab Chief Minister, speaks during a one-day special sitting of the Assembly, in Chandigarh on April 1. He said the Centre, through various decisions, was trying to upset the balance in the administration of Chandigarh.

Bhagwant Mann, Punjab Chief Minister, speaks during a one-day special sitting of the Assembly, in Chandigarh on April 1. He said the Centre, through various decisions, was trying to upset the balance in the administration of Chandigarh.

On March 27, Union Home Minister Amit Shah announced at a public meeting in Chandigarh that the Central Civil Services (CCS) Rules would apply to the Union Territory of Chandigarh. In Punjab, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress called the move an “encroachment” on the State’s rights as government employees in Chandigarh were covered by the Punjab Civil Services Rules. Amit Shah went on to say that the retirement age for employees in the Union Territory would now be 60, according to the CCS, and not 58; for those in the Education Department it would be raised to 65. Women employees would get an extra year of childcare leave in addition to the one year they currently have. He saw no reason for Chandigarh government employees to reject such an offer.

On the face of it, everything seemed innocuous. But why would the Central government do this unless the motive was to irritate the newly elected AAP government in Punjab. The AAP also suspects the timing of the announcement, which comes soon after it was elected to power in the State. It is also felt that the BJP is resorting to competitive populism ahead of the 2024 Assembly election in neighbouring Haryana. The move is also viewed as an attack on federal principles, given the constant encroachment on the powers of the Delhi government, which is also ruled by the AAP.

However, Amit Shah’s announcement is just not what has piqued the political parties in Punjab. On February 23, the Central government changed the composition of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) by allowing members from States other than Punjab and Haryana to hold key positions on its management. The BBMB is the nodal agency for regulating power and water supply to Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. It was constituted under the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966.

The BBMB has a chairperson and two full-time members, Member (Power) and Member (Irrigation), from the main partner States of Punjab and Haryana and a representative each from the other member States. The full-time members were selected from a panel of engineers nominated by the respective State governments. The Central government’s notification has changed the norms for the selection of the two full-time members. The new rules allow anyone to apply for these posts. To maintain neutrality, the chairman of the board was also appointed from outside the constituent partner States. But in 2018, this practice was reversed and a person from Himachal Pradesh was appointed.

Political representatives of Punjab, including farmer leaders, believe that under the new norms, candidates from Punjab and Haryana have fewer chances of being selected and this will harm the interests of farmers in both the States. They feel the Centre will now control the distribution of water and power to the States by getting its own nominees appointed to the Board. Under the BBMB, Punjab has always been the larger beneficiary.

On April 1, the AAP government in Punjab convened a special session of the Assembly and unanimously passed a resolution seeking the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab. Since the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966, Chandigarh has served as the capital of Punjab and Haryana.

Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann observed that the Centre, through various decisions, was trying to upset the balance in the administration of Chandigarh. The resolution stated: “Punjab was reorganised through the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966, wherein the State of Punjab was reorganised into the State of Haryana, Union Territory of Chandigarh, and some parts of Punjab were given to the then Union Territory of Himachal Pradesh. Since then, a balance was based in the management of common assets in the Bhakra Beas Management Board, by way of giving management positions in some proportion to the nominees of the State of Punjab and the State of Haryana. Through many of its recent actions, the Centre has been trying to upset [this] balance. Most recently, the Central government has advertised the posts of members of BBMB to officers of all States and Central governments whereas these posts were traditionally filled by officers from Punjab and Haryana. Similarly, Chandigarh Administration has always been managed by the officers of Punjab and Haryana in the ratio of 60:40.”

The resolution further stated that the Central government had posted “outside officers” to Chandigarh and introduced the CCS Rules for Chandigarh administration employees “against the understanding in the past”. In all precedents until then involving the division of a State, the capital remained with the parent State. Punjab, therefore, had been making claims for a full transfer of Chandigarh to it for several years. The resolution also called upon the Centre to honour the “principles of federalism enshrined in the Constitution” and “not to take any steps which may disturb the balance in the administration of Chandigarh and that of other common assets like the BBMB”.

Attack on federalism

Inderjit Singh, vice president of the All India Kisan Sabha, Haryana, said the Centre’s move was an attempt to over-centralise everything. He said: “They don’t accept the spirit of federalism in the Constitution. In 2021, they passed a Dam Safety Act, wherein they took over the powers of all the dams in the country, overriding even the powers of States. In 1974, according to the BBMB’s rules, both Haryana and Punjab had permanent membership on the Board under a special status. Haryana was controlling the irrigation aspect and Punjab the power aspect. They have modified the rules in such a way that both States would be deprived of their privilege of appointing officers to the Board. The other aspect is that of Chandigarh. In 1966, the properties and employees of Chandigarh were divided in the 60:40 ratio between Punjab and Haryana. Even the Secretariat was divided on those lines. Now the employees of the Union Territory have been brought under the CCS Rules. The rights of the States stand affected.”

On April 5, Haryana, a BJP-ruled State, convened its own special session of the Assembly and passed a resolution condemning the resolution passed by the Punjab Assembly. It demanded the completion of the construction of the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal as mandated by the Supreme Court. Significantly, the Chandigarh unit of the BJP took a totally different stand stating that the Union Territory should stay as it was and that Chandigarh should have its own Assembly.

The Manohar Lal Khattar government in Haryana also demanded the transfer of all Hindi-speaking areas in Punjab to Haryana, reviving an age-old issue. The Rajiv-Longowal accord in 1985 had mandated that the SYL canal be completed, that Haryana be given funds to build its own capital and that Hindi-speaking areas in Punjab be transferred to Haryana if there was contiguity. But the accord fell through after Harchand Singh Longowal’s assassination later the same year.

Inderjit Singh believes that the Centre’s ploy is basically to undermine the current solidarity between the two States, which used to be constantly at loggerheads. The unity, he said, was forged following the farmers’ successful agitation against the three controversial farm laws, which the Centre repealed later. The Centre, he said, saw this solidarity as a potential threat. This inter-State solidarity was exemplified by a protest in Mohali, Punjab, on March 21 by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, which led the successful farmers’ struggle against the Centre’s three farm laws recently, against the changes made to the BBMB rules and the Centre’s interference in the affairs of the Union Territory.

Yet no one could quite explain what the AAP could possibly gain by raking up this issue, especially when it had come to power with a massive mandate and had its eyes set on Haryana where the Assembly election is due next. Said Inderjit Singh: “By demanding the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab, the AAP will only end up alienating the people of Haryana.” Considering how inter-State disputes have been exploited politically, the AAP, he said, should not have treated the issue trivially.

According to him, some of the issues in the Rajiv-Longowal accord can be revived, but without creating tensions between people of the two States. Haryana is deficit in river water, and the allotted water cannot reach the fields as canals do not have the capacity. Punjab, on the other hand, has maintained that it does not have surplus water anymore and that it would be illogical to complete the construction of the SYL canal, he said.

Political posturing

According to Mahabir Jaglan, retired professor of Geography at Kurukshetra University, Haryana, although Punjab Civil Service Rules and grades were better than the CCS Rules, employees of Chandigarh were happy to be covered under the latter as Punjab was unable to pay even the 7th Pay Commission scales to its employees because of its precarious financial situation. This has also been a long-standing demand of theirs, he said.

The Panjab University in Chandigarh is funded by Punjab, but the Chancellor is the Vice President of India. One of the demands of the faculty there has been that the retirement age be raised to 65. Amit Shah’s announcement is therefore welcome here.

But the changing of the BBMB rules, Jaglan said, was a clear attack on federalism. The Centre, he said, would have a direct control over the distribution of water and power. When the farmers’ agitation was on, J.P. Dalal, Haryana Agriculture Minister who hails from Bhiwani, a “dry district”, raised the issue of the SYL canal construction. This was done in a bid to divide the farmer unity across the two States, said Jaglan. The farmers paid no attention to him.

Said Mahabir Jaglan: “We never felt that Punjab and Haryana farmers would come together, but they did in the course of the farm law agitation. On the SYL issue, everyone knows no political party is serious about it. Water is an issue in the south-western part of Haryana, but they know all this is posturing. For instance, I was travelling by bus a few weeks ago and some discussion started among the commuters that Punjab should give water to Haryana. One of them objected saying that his own relatives were beneficiaries of the SYL canal but were reluctant to release water to his fields at the tail end of the canal. He said, ‘First resolve my issue, then we can ask Punjab to release water to Haryana.’”

Raking up dead issues

Jaglan also said that the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab and that of the Hindi-speaking areas to Haryana are “dead issues” for the people. The reason why the BJP government passed a resolution was to contain the AAP’s spread in the State and to convey to the electorate that the AAP was not acting in the interest of the people of Haryana.

Significantly, both States had moved most of their offices from Chandigarh to Panchkula (Haryana) and Mohali (Punjab), where they have constructed their own buildings. As far as the applicability of the CCS Rules are concerned, employees of Chandigarh are keen to be part of it as they believe they will get better benefits under it.

Balwinder Tiwana, former professor of Economics at Punjabi University, Patiala, said the issue of transfer of Hindi-speaking areas of Punjab to Haryana was a non-issue. In the early 1980s, following the Akalis’ agitation for the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab and the subsequent Rajiv-Longowal accord, many felt that the principle of contiguity should be applied in delineating Hindi-speaking versus Punjabi-speaking areas. And a linguistic survey was conducted in Kanduhera village on the Haryana-Punjab border. This survey revealed that the majority here were Punjabi-speaking people.

Said Balwinder Tiwana: “If Kanduhera was not a Hindi-speaking village, other villages beyond Kanduhera could not be part of Haryana. ManoharLal Khattar knows this for a fact. Therefore the Haryana government’s resolution demanding the transfer of Hindi-speaking areas is just an eyewash to counter the resolution passed by the Punjab Assembly.”

Successive governments at the Centre had left the issue of “capital” city hanging and unresolved, he said. “Why doesn’t the Centre give enough funds to both States to set up their own capitals? But it wants to play games. The application of CCS Rules in Chandigarh is basically a way of controlling the people. The Central government may implement CCS Rules in Chandigarh, but the funds have to come from Punjab because with the exception of a few posts such as that of Deputy Commissioners who draw their salaries from the Central government, the rest are employees of the Punjab government. Haryana, too, will have to shell out its share,” explained Tiwana.

There is no doubt that the Central government has stirred up a controversy by tinkering with the BBMB norms and issuing a notification to apply CCS Rules to the employees of Chandigarh. Many see such developments as characteristic of over-centralisation and an attack on federal principles and the rights of States. The Dam Safety Bill, now an Act, was met with strong resistance from the opposition on the grounds that it violated federal principles.

There are legitimate concerns that the farmer movement’s hard-won gains, which included forging a secular unity between the people of two neighbouring States, could receive a setback in this game of one-upmanship. This, in turn, could trigger regional and chauvinistic movements, thereby benefiting vested, sectarian interests.

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