Will July 12 go down in history as the day the Water War between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan was triggered off? When the Punjab assembly passed the controversial Punjab Terminations of Agreements Bill 2004 on July 12, which became an Act the same day after it was endorsed by governor O.P. Verma, it effectively annulled all previous agreements pertaining to the sharing of the Ravi-Beas waters with Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. It also cocked a snook at the June 4 Supreme Court ruling which directed that the Centre take up the construction of the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal since the Punjab government had failed to construct it within one year as directed by an earlier order of 2002. The construction of the canal, which would take a proportionate share of the water to Haryana, was to be handed over to the Central Public Works Department on July 15.
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh pushed the bill through fully aware that he would stand accused of setting an unhealthy precedent of using the legislature to subvert rulings of the Supreme Court. According to sources, the CM also knew that his move would come as an embarrassment for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, which is why he kept the party high command and the pmo in the dark about the bill. As things stand now, the Opposition has been given an issue to raise in Parliament and a cornered government has filed a fresh application in the Supreme Court seeking fresh directions on the construction of the canal.
But possible discomfiture for the Centre was hardly a concern for Amarinder Singh. Water-sharing and the SYL canal are highly emotive issues in Punjab. And the CM knew if he allowed the construction of the canal to go ahead, he would virtually be committing political harakari and sealing the fate of the Congress in the state. His government would be accused of gifting away Punjab's waters. On the other hand, if he could somehow bypass the SC directive, he would emerge the hero. In a single stroke, he would have outwitted his arch rival, Akali leader Prakash Singh Badal, who had made the SYL canal issue his party's major plank for years. Amarinder consulted his political and legal advisors. They all agreed that he had only one option—convene the assembly and pass a bill to annul all earlier agreements.
On the big day, Amarinder was charmingly penitent, apologising profusely to Badal for the delay in informing him about the agenda of the one-day session of the Punjab assembly on July 12 which passed the controversial Agreements Bill. Having stolen one of Badal's main political planks, Amarinder could afford to be magnanimous in victory and was at his amiable best during the short debate before the bill was passed. The bill caused an astonished nation to wonder at Amarinder's chutzpah to take on the might of the highest court in the land. To say nothing of earning the ire of his own party leadership, battling charges of violating the federal structure of the country.
Scrapping all previous water-sharing agreements, the new act was an audacious political move designed to serve several selfish ends. According to the CM's camp, they are ready for the prospect of legal experts tearing it apart for its "legislative impropriety." The anger of neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan is nothing new. Amarinder and his smirking advisors know that once the initial furore settles down, it will be another long- drawn legal battle before the court. What matters for him and his government is that resumption of construction of the SYL canal has been effectively put off for now.
The SYL canal had to be completed in order to convey Haryana's stipulated share of the waters of Ravi and Beas from Punjab as per the 1981 agreement.Amarinder has done his homework well. He has all the explanations pat. Almost as if they were rehearsed in anticipation of the storm that would break out". For me, what matters is the nine lakh acres of land in Punjab which will go dry and bring 16 lakh families to the doors of penury if this water is given to neighbouring states. I cannot allow this, come what may," is his justification. Besides, as he points out, "the situation now is not the same as it was in 1981. The total availability of water in the Ravi-Beas basin has reduced from 17.17 MAF (million acre foot)—assumed under the 1981 agreement—to 14.37 MAF in 2002."
It was also important to get back at the Chautala-led government in Haryana which has been taking credit for the June 4 judgement. It was galling for Amarinder to see the Haryana government celebrating the verdict. Though Chautala is today publicly breathing fire at Punjab's questionable law, calling it "unconstitutional", no one is more pleased than him at the turn of events. With assembly elections due in less than a year, it was widely predicted that his INLD would be wiped out. But with Amarinder's manoeuvre, the INLD now not only has something to beat the Haryana Congressmen with, but has been gifted with a potent election issue to take to the people. Understandably, Congressmen in Haryana are livid. "Amarinder has taken a very foolish step. He has annoyed so many people. We are now firm that come what may we will get the SC judgement implemented," fumed Lok Sabha Congress MP from Rohtak, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Some others like MLA Captain Ajay Singh Yadav are threatening to launch an agitation.
To beat the Akalis at their own game was Amarinder's other compulsion. The Akali victories in the Lok Sabha and this month in the elections to the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) had left the Congress worried. For long Badal's Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had been leading from the front, demanding the scrapping of all previous water agreements. Amarinder, who is a former Akali, is now in a position to turn around and tell them that he has done what they failed to do.
This is why, even though the Akalis supported Amarinder in passing the bill, no one will be more happy than them if the SC strikes back and undoes what they all have unanimously supported. Says former finance minister and senior Akali leader, Capt Kanwaljeet, "Amarinder Singh will gain political mileage only till the time the SC does not reassert itself. It is only a matter of time. The act is a political stunt meant to avoid a contempt of court and has no basis."
The INLD, which is known for its agitational politics, might also take to the streets if the Centre does not respond. Rousing farmer's passions over precious water is just the elixir which the INLD needs at the moment to revive itself. "We do not want the farmers to turn around and tell us that you did not handle things properly. We also do not want to do anything which will annoy the SC at this stage," Haryana finance minister Sampat Singh told Outlook. No wonder then that while a section of legislators wanted the immediate convening of a session of the Haryana assembly to pass a counter-legislation, the idea was put aside as a possible option in the future. In anticipation, the cabinet has also authorised the chief minister to call a session of the assembly on this issue whenever it is necessary.
Haryana is not revealing all its cards. But when it does, it promises it will be as dramatic as Punjab's. As for Amarinder, he has certainly bolstered his own position in Punjab—but, the party may well ask, at what cost? Not only have Congress prospects in Haryana taken a beating but the party is attracting considerable flak from the Opposition in New DelhiBut the Punjab chief minister is sticking to his guns for now.