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Treading water: how river-sharing feud has fired up Punjab's parties

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:54 IST

The feud over water sharing between Punjab and Haryana is degenerating into an political free-for-all.

The hard posturing on all sides is set to affect the construction of the Satluj Yamuna Link canal, which is already mired in legal and administrative tangles.

The feud could also become a headache for the Narendra Modi government as his BJP rules both states, although Punjab in alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Also read - Marathwada water crisis news: how water wars can consume India

The latest slugfest was triggered when the Supreme Court resumed hearing on the Presidential Reference on the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 early this month. The law, enacted by the Congress government on Amarinder Singh, seeks to cancel Punjab's water-sharing pacts with the neighbouring states, thus jeopardising the SYL canal.

At the hearing, the Modi government reportedly emphasised that it stood by earlier SC verdicts that the work on the canal should continue.

Boiling over

With the assembly election less than a year away, all three of Punjab's main political players - the Congress, SAD, AAP - pounced on the issue to derive as much mileage as they could. Each accused the others of "compromising the water interests" of the state.

The first salvo was fired by Amarinder, who asked Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal to "clear his stand on the issue". Then AAP jumped in, urging Badal to ask Harsimrat Kaur, his daughter-in-law, to resign from the Modi cabinet.

AAP also took aim at Amarinder, accusing him of supporting the SYL canal. The party's leaders alleged that most of the work on the canal in Punjab was done under the Akali Dal regime of Surjit Singh Barnala in which Amarinder was the agriculture minister.

SAD is part of the NDA govt. You can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds: @capt_amarinder

The project hasn't been worked on since 1991, when its two top engineers were shot dead by Khalistani militants.

Badal, in a bid to pull the rug from under the Congress' feet, has announced that his government would denotify the land - some 5,276 acres -- acquired for the canal, and return it to its original owners.

Such a move would invite legal trouble, of course, but Punjab's leaders seem to be driven by political calculations alone.

Pushing back

Badal said he won't allow "a single drop of water to flow out of Punjab". "In fact, an extremely critical and dangerous water crisis stares our population in the face. I would rather shed every drop of my blood than allow a drop of Punjab's river waters to flow out in violation of its rights."

He alleged that "successive central and state governments of the Congress have systematically robbed Punjab of all its vital interests, especially water". "Any compromise on river water would amount to signing the death warrant for every Punjabi. This must be confronted, fought and defeated. Anything is precisely what we are totally committed to achieving."

As for the Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which the Congressmen claim as their great contribution to "safeguarding" Punjab's water resources, Badal said all the pacts canceled by this law were made by Congress regimes, so it was "a mere admission" of guilt by the party.

Badal's son and deputy CM Sukhbir said the chief minister's decision would "go a long way in removing grave threats to the very survival of the people of Punjab. Every Punjabi will walk taller from this afternoon as Badal's decision will safeguard his dignity and his self-esteem."

The chief minister moved a resolution in the assembly committing the state "not to accept any decision against injustice to river waters of Punjab". Any attempt to divert the waters of Ravi and Beas and force the SYL on Punjab "in defiance of nationally and internationally accepted riparian principles" won't be tolerated at any cost, the resolution stated.

SYL is Haryana's lifeline. We'll do everything possible to make it carry water to Haryana: @mlkhattar

Amarinder hit back by questioning Badal's intentions and wisdom, saying he only moved the resolution after learning that the Congress was bringing one.

"You cannot be a party to the stand taken by the Centre and then pass a resolution in the legislature condemning the same stand," he said. "You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds."

"Whatever decisions the NDA takes at the Centre, the SAD is naturally part of it under the principle of collective responsibility. When the Centre through its Solicitor General makes a statement in the Supreme Court that it favoured construction of the SYL, Akali Dal becomes equally responsible," he added.

If Badal was sincere, Amarinder said, he would already have severed ties with the BJP.

Across the divide

Taking exception to Badal's announcement to denotify the SYL canal land, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar described it as "disappointing and driven by purely political considerations".

He also cautioned Badal against commenting on a sub-judice matter. "I have great respect for Badal who is an experienced leader. Being the elder brother of Haryana, Punjab should protect the interests of the younger brother."

Khattar said he was confident that Haryana would get "every drop of its legitimate share of the river waters". "The SYL is the lifeline of Haryana's farmers and the state government is committed to doing everything possible to make it carry Haryana's share of water at the earliest."

His minister Anil Vij has said Punjab's stand on a sub-judice matter "will vitiate the atmosphere" in the region. "They must respect Supreme Court's verdicts. Such statements challenge the authority of the Supreme Court. Whatever they want to say must be said in the court."

More in Catch - There's a Cong-SAD-AAP war in Punjab over sharing water with Haryana

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First published: 12 March 2016, 7:41 IST