Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal Issue

The Indus river system comprises of three western rivers viz. Jhelum, Chenab and Indus; and three eastern rivers viz. Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. In 1960, the Indus Water Treaty was signed between India and Pakistan. This treaty provided that three eastern rivers are allocated to India for exclusive use before they enter Pakistan; while the three western rivers are allocated for exclusive use by Pakistan.

After signing of the Indus Water Treaty, the water of these three rivers viz. Ravi, Beas and Sutlej was shared between Punjab, Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir. However in 1966, Haryana was carved out from Punjab on linguistic basis. As a successor state, Haryana was eligible to receive a share of Punjab’s river waters. But at the same time, Yamuna River, which used to flow in undivided Punjab before 1966, flowed ONLY in Haryana. The water of Yamuna River was never considered a part of the arrangements made at the time of bifurcation of Punjab. Thus, sharing of river waters became a bone of contention between the two states. In 1976, the Indira Gandhi government allocated 3.5 million acre feet (MAF) water to each of Punjab and Haryana from the 15.2 MAF water from the three rivers.

In both the states, the sharing of water became an emotive and political issue. Punjab maintained that it had already shared water with Rajasthan {via Indira Gandhi Canal}, it does not have additional water to share with Haryana.

The Haryana government suggested and started work on the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal and completed the work on its side in 1980. Meanwhile, keeping larger political interests in mind, Indira Gandhi Government laid the foundation of Satluj-Yamuna Link canal in 1982 at Kapoori village in Punjab.

However, in 1990, Punjab stopped work when the canal was 90% complete. In 1995, Punjab issued a white paper which said that it would not proceed with the construction of canal and suggested that Haryana be given water from Bhakhra Canal system. When the matter reached to Supreme Court, the court directed Punjab in 2002 to complete construction work by January 2002; and also rejected the review petition. In 2003, another review petition was filed by Punjab in Supreme Court to relieve it from canal project. In 2004, Supreme Court asked the central government to constitute a high powered committee to supervise the canal construction process. However, in the same year, the Punjab Government passed “Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004” to revert the land of the people acquired for the purpose of construction of Canal. A presidential reference regarding the act was made in the Supreme Court. In 2016, Punjab Assembly unanimously passed Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016 to return 3,928 acres of land acquired for Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal project to the owners or their successors. However, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court has directed Punjab to maintain status quo.

Stand of Punjab

Punjab has categorically rejected to execute the project saying that it does not have even a drop of water to share with Haryana. So it has passed Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016 to return all of the land acquired for Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal project. Without waiting for the bill to get governor’s assent, the local politicians have encouraged farmers to begin filling up the canal with mud. Subsequently, the canal was filled up in many areas before the Supreme Court directed to maintain status quo.

Earlier in 2004, the Punjab government enacted Punjab Termination of Agreements act (2004) to scrap all water sharing agreements with neighbouring states. Presidential reference was made in the Supreme Court regarding this act.

Stand of farmers

With escalating land prices, the farmers in the three districts (Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib and Patiala) through which the 214 km long canal passes through in Punjab have began to claim back their lands by filling it up with mud and by clearing structures such as canal walls, pillars etc. The support of the local politicians has encouraged the farmers to initiate such actions.

Similarly, the farmers of Haryana who had lost their lands for the project have started demanding that their government should also return back their lands.

Stand of Haryana

In 2004, the Supreme Court directed the central government to undertake the construction of canal under the supervision of a high powered committee. So, the Haryana government claims Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill, 2016 of Punjab is in violation to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Haryana claims to have suffered a loss of Rs 35,020 crore. Haryana finished constructing the canal on its side in 1980. 3.5 MAF of water from Ravi and Beas was allotted to Haryana. Haryana claims it would have grown an additional 8 lakh tone of foodgrains earning 1000 crore per year had the Punjab government completed the canal. Also it claims it has spent nearly 20 crore to fight the cases related to the canal project in court.

Contentious Issues

Denying water to Haryana by Punjab goes against the spirit of nation building. It is interesting to note that while India can share its water with Pakistan, a state within the country is refusing to share its water with its neighbouring state.

Punjab’s stand on this issue has become a severe test for inter-state relations and is bound to set a very bad precedent to other states that have similar disputes with their neighbours. By acting on its own way without any regard to the rights of other states, the actions of states like Punjab may have evil consequences to the federal structure and to the unity and integrity of the nation.

Rulings of Supreme Court on this issue

Since Rs 700 crore (most of it paid by the central government) has been spent on the project, the Supreme Court in 2002 had observed that such a huge sum from the national exchequer should not be allowed to go waste. Also in 2002, it had ruled that if Punjab does not construct the canal in a year’s time, then the Central government has to take the responsibility of constructing the canal with its own agencies.

In 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the Punjab government to continue canal construction project without any hindrance.

On March 16, 2016 while hearing a 2004 presidential reference to examine the legality of the Punjab Termination of Agreements act (2004), the Supreme Court has asked the Punjab government to maintain status quo on the canal project.