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Water wars: Can Narendra Modi do an Indira Gandhi on the SYL issue?

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:38 IST

As the issue of sharing of Punjab's river waters t the takes centre stage in the state's politics, there is a question doing the rounds that pits present Prime Minister Narendra Modi against former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

With a section of the population seeing both as people with 'authoritarian' tendencies, what is being debated is - can Modi do what Indira managed to do almost four decades ago when she got the warring chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to sign on the dotted line on an agreement, particularly for construction of the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal.

Similar points

Observers point out that the political scenario for Indira was pretty similar to that where Modi stands today. In 1976, the time of the first agreement, it was the Congress ruling these states. Banarsi Das Gupta was the chief minister of Haryana, Haridev Joshi of Rajasthan and Giani Zail Singh of Punjab.

When the second accord was signed in 1981 in which Punjab's water share was slightly enhanced, Darbara Singh was the chief minister of Punjab, Bhajan Lal of Haryana and Jagan Nath Pahadia of Rajasthan.

Indira had gotten the chief ministers to withdraw their cases filed in the Supreme Court before the first agreement was signed

At present, the BJP is ruling both Haryana and Rajasthan while it is also in power in Punjab in an alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). There are BJP chief ministers Vasundhara Raje and Manohar Lal Khattar in Rajasthan and Haryana respectively while Parkash Singh Badal holds the chair in Punjab with BJP being represented in his cabinet.

With the main political parties in Punjab - the Congress, SAD and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - and Haryana - the Congress, the BJP along with the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) - adopting a very hard stance over the issue, the relations between the two states are under tremendous strain.

After the recent Supreme Court decision on a presidential reference on SYL that went in favour of Haryana, all the political parties in poll-bound Punjab are taking the line that Punjab's waters will not be shared since the state has no water to spare. The parties in Haryana want the SYL canal to be built at the earliest and want the work to be done under the supervision of the Centre.

It is at this juncture that the people are discussing that if Indira Gandhi could get the three states to resolve the matter out of court just on the basis of the hold she had over her party, no matter that signatories later complained of being forced to sign the dotted line, why can Modi not take such an initiative given the fact that he is seen as an unchallenged leader within the BJP.

Observers are of the opinion that in any case the Supreme Court, through its recent judgement, has put the ball in the Centre's court even as fresh applications have been made on behalf of the states involved.

Playing it safe

Professor Gian Singh, a renowned agriculture expert at Punjabi University Patiala feels that Modi's intervention at this level does not suit him politically.

"No matter in whose favour he decides in, his party will witness major political reversals in the other states. The best option for him is to let matters get resolved through the courts and he can say that he is just following legal orders," said Singh.

On the issue of Punjab's river water sharing, he says that the most practical approach to resolve the matter is to constitute a new tribunal that can re-assess the water availability in Punjab and see whether it can spare any more water for its neighbours.

"Things have changed drastically over the last three and a half decades. I do not agree with the concept of Punjab getting a royalty for its waters because the question of royalty comes only if Punjab has water to spare," he said.

A political activist who was earlier the state convener of AAP, Dr Sumail Sidhu, feels, "Modi will not touch the issue before Punjab polls in any case. If he gets the states to sign an agreement that is not in favour of Punjab, the Akalis will be ruined."

It needs to be pointed here that the BJP does not have very high stakes in Punjab and is a very small partner in the alliance. In case the agreement is against the interests of Haryana and Rajasthan, the BJP will have to pay a very high price.

"He doesn't need to do anything. This way he can always take the moral high ground of just following court orders. What needs to be probed is the possibility of there being any arm twisting of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal by the BJP which manifested itself in Punjab being represented very poorly in the Supreme Court on the presidential reference for which the decision came recently," he told Catch News.

Reports suggested that while there was a massive mismatch over the number of lawyers employed by both the states to contest the case, Haryana outscored Punjab by dozens.

Land and agriculture

Sidhu further pointed, "The case for constituting a new tribunal makes a lot of sense. Over the last three and a half decades of Punjab's agriculture, particularly in the Malwa region, has seen a massive shift from cotton cultivation to paddy cultivation and it is well known the latter is a water guzzler. River waters are the only natural resource that Punjab has."

He also pointed out that geographical studies carried out in the past, particularly by experts like Gurdev Singh Heera, showed that Punjab's rivers have an open-ended flow with no water remaining in the state. Haryana, on the other hand, has the distinct topography of being bowl-shaped to store water and this must be taken into account.

A large number of political observers and some of the politicians in Punjab are playing up the demand for a new tribunal saying that findings of the Eradi Tribunal under V Balakrishna Eradi, that gave its report in 1986, are not relevant today.

Time for tests

Even senior political commentator Jagtar Singh has pointed out that the SYL canal issue is a test case for Modi as well as Badal.

"Indira Gandhi intervened in the issue of apportionment of Punjab river waters in favour of Haryana by making the chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan sign an 'agreement' on December 1981. Now Badal should seek the intervention of the prime minister. He can't take refuge in the argument of being a hostile party in power at the Centre as he used to attack the Congress earlier. Akali Dal has a representation in the Modi cabinet in Badal's daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur Badal," he underlines.

Amid the ongoing campaign for the forthcoming Punjab polls, it is the Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh who has tried to put Modi in a fix over the issue. Questioning Modi on his 'deliberate' silence during his recent Bathinda visit, he raised the issue of Modi's clarion call on water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan.

Amarinder said that this was clearly designed to provoke the people, who have been adversely hit by the SYL verdict, for which the Badal government is squarely to blame.

He said that ironically while talking of the water crisis in Punjab, the prime minister conveniently chose to ignore the SYL issue which threatens to plunge the state into a bigger water crisis than ever before.

With the Supreme Court now reportedly having ordered a status quo on the land and properties of SYL canal and has sought a ground report from the court appointed receivers, it remains to be seen how the politicians now make their next move on the issue.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 1 December 2016, 4:20 IST