SYL row to escalate as SC asks Centre to survey canal land

Bhagwant Mann, CM Punjab

With the Apex Court recently asking the Centre to conduct a survey of the land meant for the construction of the SYL canal in Punjab and also asking the state government to co-operate in the survey, a fresh bout of political slugfest is set to unfold this poll season, writes Rajesh Moudgil

The Supreme Court on October 4 asked the BJP-led Centre to survey the portion of land in Punjab that was allocated to the state for the construction of a part of the Sutlej-Yamuna-Link (SYL) canal decades ago, so as to know how much work has been done, and also asked the Punjab government to extend cooperation in the said exercise.

The Apex Court bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul also asked additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati to furnish, in two months’ time, “certain information’’ with regard to the availability of water for the SYL canal.

While listing the further hearing of the case in January, 2024, the top court has further asked the Centre to look into the process of mediation to find an amicable solution to the vexed problem that has defied any solution for decades. While noting that the issue had political ramifications, it made it clear that “the decree (in favour of Haryana) stands’’ and “something will have to be done’’, as Haryana had already constructed its part of the SYL canal.

For the record, the SYL canal was conceptualised for effective allocation of water from the Ravi and Beas rivers from Punjab in 1981. The project envisaged a 214-km SYL canal, of which a 122-km stretch was to be constructed in Punjab and the remaining 92 km in Haryana. Haryana has completed the project in its territory but Punjab, which launched the construction work in 1982, shelved it subsequently.

Punjab CM reacts sharply

The latest top court’s directions evoked sharp reaction from Punjab. On October 5 morning itself, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann called an emergency cabinet meeting and stated that Punjab did not have a single drop of water to share with anyone.

The Cabinet held that the state had no spare water to share with any other state so there was no question of construction of the SYL canal and hence no need for any survey. It further said that Sutlej river had already dried up and Punjab had no surplus water to share with Haryana and reassessment of availability of water was required as per international norms. It held that Punjab’s 76.5% blocks (117 out of 153) are over-exploited where the stage of ground water extraction was more than 100%, whereas in Haryana only 61.5% (88 out of 143) are over-exploited.

Mann’s assertions were also seen as Punjab’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s counter attack to the Opposition parties, namely Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and BJP, which had launched an offensive against the Mann-government for, what they held, was not defending Punjab’s case properly in the Supreme Court.

Oppn takes on CM Mann

With Mann’s assertions, thus began a barrage of protests by the state’s trio opposition parties. A bitter war of words launched by the opposition parties notwithstanding, they also held back-to-back protests. However, the opposition parties were thwarted by the Chandigarh police by erecting barricades, using water cannons to disperse them and also finally detaining them from marching forward. They were, however, let off a few hours later.

The Congress leaders including the Leader of Opposition, Partap Singh Bajwa and state party president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring held that they would neither allow the construction of the said canal nor allow a single drop of water from Punjab to go to any other state as Punjab had no surplus water to share with any other state. They also took on the chief minister Mann-led AAP government accusing it of having failed to safeguard the interest of the state over the SYL issue in the apex court.

The SAD also took out a protest march to the chief minister’s official residence on October 10. Led by the SAD chief Sukhbir Badal, several other senior leaders who took part in the protest included former MP Prem Singh Chandumajra, former ministers Bikram Singh Majithia, Daljit Singh Cheema and senior SAD leader Balwinder Singh Bhundar. Sukhbir Badal said they wanted to go to the residence of Mann for a debate on Punjab issues with the chief minister for which he had challenged all opposition leaders a few days back, but were stopped by the police.

On the issue of SYL canal, he attacked the Mann government, claiming that the state government had recently told the Supreme Court that it wanted to build the canal but the opposition parties were not allowing it. Lashing out at the ruling Mann-government over several issues including over the alleged deteriorating law and order and rising state’s debt, Sukhbir Badal held that instead of receiving the opposition leaders, the chief minister chose to go to poll-bound Madhya Pradesh with AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal for campaigns.

Haryana stake

Manohar Lal Khattar, CM Haryana

Meanwhile, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar also held that the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the SYL canal was clear while the water dispute was a separate matter. Stating that it was the responsibility of the Punjab government to respect the apex court’s directions and complete the SYL canal construction, he said the AAP was doing politics over the issue. Khattar held that when AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal visited Haryana he should clarify his stand on the SYL canal issue amid the AAP’s opposition to SYL canal by AAP-ruled Punjab. However, when asked for his reaction to Punjab BJP’s opposition to SYL canal, Khattar held that sometimes state units made such comments, but it was not a political issue.

Two-day Assembly session from Oct 20

Amid the ongoing row over SYL canal, the Punjab government has called a two-day assembly session on the issue from October 20. The decision comes days after the state Cabinet said that there was no question of constructing the SYL canal as Punjab had no water to spare for any state.

The Punjab officials said the October 20-21 session would be an extension of the fourth session – the budget session in March – of the current legislative assembly. However, since the fourth session has not been prorogued yet, an approval of the governor to call a sitting of the assembly is not required and the assembly speaker is competent to convene it, sources in the Punjab government held.

However, it remains to be seen if the Raj Bhavan reacts to the calling of the session by the state government as the governor had called the June session which was also an extension of the budget session as “patently illegal’’.