Chandigarh: It is not very difficult to understand why Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is stirring the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal row.
Akali Dal in collaboration with the BJP has been in power for two consecutive terms and the anti-incumbency factor has been growing against it. Next Assembly elections in Punjab are due early in 2017. With less than a year left for the Akalis for the poll, the alliance was in search of an emotive issue through which they can manage to win the support of the people to retain power for the third time.
Panthic and farmers’ issues are the two most important emotive aspects from the point of view of elections in the state. For the last one year the Akalis have been trying to address the two issues aggressively by amendment to the Sikh Gurdwaras Act 1925 in Rajya Sabha and now by the SYL canal dispute. In Akali's view, the heady mix of religion, economics and emotions should win the people’s support in its favour. The Punjab government also presented a very populist budget recently with several doles worth Rs 1,200 crore to many sectors as yet another attempt to please the electorate. The SYL row may have created bad blood among the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana but has won Akalis the support of the farmers.
Till recently poll pundits had been writing Akalis off in the next year’s elections on the basis of the rising discontent and anger against the government on Panthic and farmers issues. There was a wave of anger against the government over grant of pardon to Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and sacrilege incidents. This led to holding of 'Sarbat Khalsa’ against the wishes of the SGPC.
At the moment the Akalis seem to have bounced back by playing the SYL card. The Akalis used the festering row over sharing of Ravi-Beas waters to its advantage by passing in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha a bill against construction of contentious SYL canal. The government also announced to return around 4,000 acres of land acquired from the farmers free of cost to the original land owners. This pleased the farmers no end as they got the land back for which they had earlier been paid money.
Wasting no time the government sent hundreds of JCB machines to the SYL canal site at different places to filling up the canal built 40 years ago. Akali leaders rushed to the site to ensure a symbolic end to the SYL issue. It is another matter that the river water meant for Haryana was never made available. Badals have been shouting from rooftops that not an inch of SYL canal water would be given to Haryana or anyone else.
The water issue has been used very cleverly by the Akalis to win over the support of the masses in the state. The Punjab government also returned an amount of Rs 191.75 crore to Haryana towards the cost incurred by it on the construction of the SYL canal. Off course Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal did not accept the cheque and returned it to Punjab but the government managed to score the point how serious it was on the emotive issue. By the time the Supreme Court gave its order of maintaining 'status quo’ on the SYL canal it had already been filled at most of the places
An enraged Haryana protested immediately and even passed a resolution in the Vidhan Sabha condemning Punjab’s 'unconstitutional' move. At the moment the Akalis are having their cakes and eating them two. Such is the irony of the situation that the opposition parties Congress and the AAP have been forced to toe the government line and support the SYL bill. It would be political hara-kiri for any party in Punjab now to oppose the SYL issue.
Earlier moving the SYL bill in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal said, "The bill has been taken on a priority basis as Punjab has no surplus waters to share it with other states." He said that a water crisis existed in Punjab and if a drop of water flows to other states from rivers of Punjab, it will be very dangerous for the state.
Sharing of the Ravi-Beas waters has been a matter of contention between Punjab and Haryana for years altogether. In the past Punjab governments, be it of Akalis or the Congress have refused to 'share even a drop of water'. It was in 2004 when the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government in the state passed the highly controversial Termination of Agreements Act 2004 to annul all inter-state agreements relating to Ravi and Beas waters. The Akali government now decided to also de-notify the acquisition of land that was acquired for the SYL canal which was to carry Haryana’s share of river water.
The dispute over Ravi-Beas water between Punjab and Haryana has been ever since the reorganisation of the Punjab state in 1966 into Punjab and Haryana. Haryana has been demanding an equitable share of the water. Haryana had claimed a share of 4.8 MAF of water out of the total 7.2 MAF. But the Punjab government had not agree to this. In 1976 Centre intervened and passed an order allocating 3.5 MAF of surplus Ravi-Beas water to Haryana. It was then that the decision to construct the SYL canal to carry Haryana’s share of water was made.
The 212 km SYL canal-121 Km in Punjab and 91 km in Haryana was planned. Haryana completed construction of the canal way back in 1980 and spent Rs 250 crore, including its part of the canal on which it spent Rs 55.81 crore. Punjab delayed construction of the canal in its part. Both Haryana and Punjab filed separate petitions in the Supreme Court in 1979.
In 1981 Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan signed a tripartite agreement. On paper the total available water in the Ravi-Beas river increased from the existing 15.85 MAF to 17.7 MAF. The agreement allowed Punjab to use the surplus water out of Rajasthan share till that state was able to fully utilise its share of water. But the Akalis started protesting this agreement which became violent soon to be termed as 'Dharam Yudh'. Punjab plunged into chaos. Then in 1985 prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and SAD chief Sant Harchand Ssingh Longowal signed a treaty called Rajiv-Longowal accord’ in New Delhi.
It was agreed to complete the SYL canal by August 1986. It was also decided to set up a tribunal headed by a Supreme Court judge to decide the claims of Punjab and Haryana regarding their share in the remaining water. So a tribunal under Justice Balakrishna Eradi was constituted by the Centre for the purpose of deciding water share. The tribunmal submitted its report in January 1987 and increased the share of both Punjab and Haryana, but the Eradi award could never be notified.
Later SAD government, headed by Surjit Singh Barnala, started the construction work of the canal and was nearing completion (90 percent work was over) when it was halted by the Punjab government as terrorists shot dead two top engineers and more than 30 labourers at the site. The construction work of the canal was given to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) but since then no construction took place. Later in its June 2004 order the Supreme Court directed the Punjab government to complete the remaining portion of the SYL canal, but the same year in July the Punjab assembly enacted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act. The Centre sought the opinion of the Supreme Court on the validity of the Act through a Presidential Reference but the matter is still pending in the court.
Talking to Firstpost in the press gallery of the Punjab/Haryana Vidhan Sabha, Sukhbir Singh Badal said if a reality check is made of the existing waters in Punjab, it will show that there is no surplus water it has that it can share with other states. "How can we give water to others when we don’t have enough for our own farmers,"
By projecting itself as the 'saviours of Punjab waters', Akalis are trying to win voters’ support. "Anyone can easily understand Akali game plan. Badal has now raised the contentious issue to divert people’s attention from the festering drugs problem, unemployment and other important issues in the state. Badal’s next step will be to resign and call for a mid-term poll in the hope of garnering popular support of the electorate. But the voters have understood this game plan and will not fall in the Akali trap," said senior Congress leader and MP Captain Amarinder Singh while talking to Firstpost.
At the moment it may look like a win-win situation for the Akalis. The present political situation in Punjab is a bit awkward for the BJP, the coalition partner. The BJP in Punjab can neither openly support the SYL canal issue nor oppose it. BJP is in power in both Punjab, Haryana and the Centre. Supporting the canal issue in Punjab will mean opposing the rights of the people of Haryana. BJP therefore is finding it a bit difficult to keep in good humour people of both the states as well as the Centre.