Sutlej-Yamuna Link and Inter-State Water Disputes in India – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

A meeting was help between the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana in the presence of the Union Jal Shakti Minister. The agenda of the meeting was to resolve the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal dispute. The dispute between Punjab and Haryana has been festering since the 1960s, and various efforts to resolve the issue have failed. This dispute is not an isolated case. A lot of Inter-State Water Disputes have been festering among various States for a very long time without a possible solution in sight. There are multiple Constitutional and Statutory arrangements to address such disputes. However, these mechanisms have failed due to various institutional and political factors. Prolonged Inter-State Water Disputes do not augur well for the national unity and security. Hence, all stakeholders should engage constructively with each other for the settlement of such disputes.

What is the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Dispute between Punjab and Haryana?

1955: The waters of the the Ravi and Beas rivers were calculated at 15.85 million acre feet (MAF), and divided among Rajasthan (8 MAF), Undivided Punjab (7.2 MAF) and Jammu and Kashmir (0.65 MAF).

1966: The water dispute started in 1966, when the Punjab Reorganisation Act divided erstwhile Punjab into the states of Punjab and Haryana. The Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, a 211-km-long proposed canal connecting Sutlej and Yamuna, was planned in 1966 after Haryana was carved out of Punjab. 121 km stretch of the canal was to be constructed in Punjab, and another 90 km in Haryana.

1980: Haryana completed the project in its territory by June 1980, the work in Punjab, though started in 1982, was shelved due to protests by the opposition led by Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD).

1982: The construction work for the SYL canal was launched by then Prime Minister in April 1982 near Kapoori village of Punjab’s Patiala district.

1985: In July 1985, amidst the insurgency in Punjab, the then Prime Minister signed an accord with SAD, agreeing to set up a new tribunal to assess the sharing of water. The Eradi Tribunal headed by Supreme Court Judge V Balakrishna Eradi was set up to reassess availability and sharing of water.

1987: The tribunal recommended an increase in the shares of Punjab and Haryana to 5 MAF and 3.83 MAF, respectively.

Militancy in Punjab: In August 1985, the chief of SAD was killed by militants, less than a month after signing the accord. In 1990, the Chief Engineer and a Superintending Engineer were killed by militants. The construction came to a halt.

1996: The Haryana government moved the Supreme Court over the issue.

2002-04: In 2002, the Supreme Court directed Punjab to continue work on the SYL and complete it within a year. The Punjab Government, however, moved a review against the SC order but the petition was rejected. In 2004, following orders by the SC, the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was appointed to take over the canal work from the Punjab Government. The Punjab Assembly passed the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act (PTAA), which abrogated all its river water agreements with neighbouring States. The then President (Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) referred this Act to the Supreme Court to decide on its legality in the same year.

2016: The Supreme Court says that as Punjab backed out of its promise to share river water and the PTAA is invalid.

2020: The SC asked the Chief Ministers of Punjab and Haryana to negotiate and the Union Government to mediate between the States.

What are the arguments of two States regarding the Sutlej-Yamuna Dispute?

Punjab: Punjab was against sharing waters of the two rivers with neighbouring Haryana, citing riparian principles, which state that the owner of land adjacent to a water body has the right to use the water, besides arguing that it had no water to share.

According to a study by the State Government, many areas in Punjab may run dry by 2029. The State has already over-utilized its groundwater for irrigation purposes, as it a major contributor of Wheat and Paddy to the food reserves (worth INR 70,000 crore each year). According to reports, 79% of the state’s water is over-exploited. There are 109 ‘over-exploited‘ blocks out of 138, 2 ‘critical‘ blocks, 5 ‘semi-critical’ blocks, and only 22 ‘safe’ blocks. The Government claims that sharing water with any other state is impossible in such a situation.

Haryana: Haryana has been staking claim to the Ravi-Beas waters through the SYL Canal on the plea that providing water for irrigation was a tough task for the State. In southern parts, where underground water had depleted up to 1700 feet, there is a problem of drinking water. Haryana has been citing its contribution to the central food pool and arguing that it is being denied its rightful share in the water as assessed by a tribunal.

What are the arrangements to settle Inter-State Water Disputes?
Constitutional Arrangements

Schedule 7 of the Constitution: It distinguishes between the use of water within a State and the purpose of regulating interstate waters. Union List: Entry 56, It gives the Union Parliament the power to formulate laws and mechanisms for regulating Interstate rivers. State List: Entry 17, States retain autonomy regarding water utilisation for purposes such as water supply, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power subject to provisions of Entry 56 of List 1 (Union List).

Article 262: In case of disputes relating to waters, Parliament may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or in, any inter-State rivers. Parliament may, by law also provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute or complaint as mentioned

Statutory Arrangements

River Board Act, 1956: The river Boards are supposed to advise on the Inter-state basin to prepare development scheme and to prevent the emergence of conflicts. Till date, no River Board has been created.

Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956: If a particular State or States approach the Union Government for the constitution of the tribunal: (a) Central Government should try to resolve the matter by consultation among the aggrieved States; (b) In case, consultation does not work, then the Union Government may constitute the tribunal.

Inter-State River Basins Map UPSC

Inter-State River Basins

Map Source: ORF

What are the reasons for persistence of Inter-State Water Disputes?

First, the legislative powers concerning water have been distributed between the Union and the State Governments. The idea has been to ensure optimum utilisation while balancing the interests of the States. However, this approach of imprecise distribution of power between the Union and the States, has created a Federal-Jurisdictional ambiguity.

Second, a big limiting factor is the lack of effective authority for enforcing the orders of tribunals. The Tribunal can only make an award and cannot make it binding. The Tribunals also lack the ability to punish for ‘contempt’.

Third, Article 262 provides that the Parliament may by law prevent the Supreme Court or any other Court from exercising jurisdiction in inter-State water disputes. However, under Article 136, the Supreme Court can hear appeals against the orders of Tribunals. Thus, the Supreme Court remains the adjudicatory body along with the tribunals, creating an institutional ambiguity regarding which body is the ultimate adjudicatory power on inter-State water disputes in India.

Fourth, critics of the system argue that the members of tribunals created for adjudicating the inter-State water disputes have been predominantly from the Judiciary. This has lead to lack of a multi-disciplinary approach to dispute settlement. They say there is not much difference between the tribunal and the bench of the Supreme Court.

Fifth, There have been excessive delays in establishing tribunals and making awards. The right to have a dispute referred to a tribunal under the IWSDA (Inter-State Water Dispute Act) is contingent on the Union Government’s determination that the matter cannot be resolved through negotiations. The provision of negotiations inevitably delays the constitution of a tribunal.

Sixth, Given that agriculture constitutes the primary economic activity in many parts of the country, water is a contentious issue. Inter-State disputes are exploited for political mobilization and electoral benefits. State Governments have rejected the awards of Tribunals.

Seventh, There is a lack of data regarding water flows, seasonal variations etc. which results in ambiguities regarding availability of water, surplus water for sharing etc. In addition, seasonal variations in monsoonal rainfall sometimes create shortage of water. State Governments than argue that there is no surplus water to be shared.

Inter-State Water Dispute Tribunals UPSC

Source: Adapted from ORF

What should be the approach towards settling Inter-State Water Disputes?

First, The Sarkaria Commission has suggested that the awards of the tribunals be given the same weight as a Supreme Court Judgment.

Second, The Government’s inability to properly handle water-related disputes is reflected in the high number of appeals to the Supreme Court. Some experts suggest that the appeal to the Supreme Court should only on procedural aspects. The awards based on expert opinions shouldn’t be questioned in the Court.

Third, there is a need to establish a time frame for constituting the Tribunal by the Union Government. Tribunals should also try to avoid unnecessary delays in giving the award.

Fourth, the Inter-State Council can be rejuvenated to enable it to play a more active role in settlement of such disputes.

Fifth, Some experts have suggested that mediation, (a third party acts as an intermediary between the parties in conflict), can also be explored as a possible option for successful resolution of disputes. Example of role of the World Bank as a mediator in the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan is quoted as a success of this model.

Sixth, infrastructure should be created for better collection of the data related to inter-State river basins. Better data will provide clear picture regarding availability of waters, seasonal variations and help in the equitable distribution of water among the States.

Conclusion

The Inter-State Water Disputes have been allowed to linger on for a long time. The politics of electoral mobilization has been one of the major factor, along with institutional infirmities in the arrangements. The Union and State Governments should put national interest above narrow parochial interests. As the pressures of climate change become evident through water stress in various regions, it becomes imperative that such disputes are settled in order to ensure optimal use of nation’s water resources.

Syllabus: GS II, Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, Issues and challenges pertaining to the Federal structure; GS II, Dispute redressal mechanisms and institutions.

Source: The Hindu, Indian Express, ORF

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