Supreme Court strikes down Punjab law on SYL canal, ruling heats up election run-up

The judgment is a huge setback for the SAD-BJP alliance ahead of the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections.

Written by Utkarsh Anand | New Delhi | Updated: November 11, 2016 12:22 pm
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In a ruling that’s likely to heat up the campaigns in election-bound Punjab, the Supreme Court Thursday declared as unconstitutional a law enacted by the Punjab government in 2004 to wriggle out of its liability of constructing the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and share the Ravi-Beas waters with neighbouring states.

“We are of the view that the Punjab Act cannot be considered to be legal and valid and the State of Punjab cannot absolve itself from its duties/liabilities arising out of the Agreement in question,” ruled a five-judge Constitution Bench while answering a Presidential Reference of 2004.

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The order by the bench, headed by Justice Anil R Dave, also restores and revives the decree passed by the Supreme Court in 2004 whereby the central government was directed to mobilise a central agency to take control of the canal works from Punjab immediately and complete it expeditiously.

Execution of the decree and completion of the canal work would mean allocation of 3.50 MAF (million acre-feet) water to Haryana whereas the existing Bhakra Main Canal has the capacity of supplying only 1.62 MAF of water to that state.

The bench, also comprising Justices P C Ghose, Shiva Kirti Singh, Adarsh K Goel and Amitava Roy, was critical of the fact that by seeking to terminate its 1981 agreement with Haryana and Rajasthan, the Punjab government also sought to nullify two Supreme Court judgments of 2002 and 2004, and the consequent decree passed by it whereby Punjab was asked to construct the canal on its territory.

It shot down Punjab’s argument that the bench did not have to answer the Presidential Reference and that the Reference was not maintainable since the law enacted by Punjab was within its statutory powers.

The bench held that there were good reasons to answer this Reference and noted that “Punjab had exceeded its legislative power in proceeding to nullify the decree of this court and therefore, the Punjab Act cannot be said to be a validly enacted legislation.”

It said that Punjab could not have unilaterally terminated the agreement, which would mean depriving Haryana and other states of their share of river waters despite court orders directing Punjab to carry out its obligation.

“The Punjab Act cannot be said to be in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of India as well as the provisions of the Inter State Water Disputes Act… there is a legal sanction to the said arrangement and once a binding decree has been passed by a court of law, a party to the litigation cannot unilaterally act in a manner which would nullify the effect of the decree,” the bench said in a concurring judgment.

On Punjab’s contention that the entire matter could be referred to the Inter-State Water Tribunal since circumstances regarding availability of water has changed over the years, the top court said that Punjab, being a party to the water-sharing agreement, could not be allowed to withdraw on its own to the disadvantage of other parties.

The bench also called it “unwarranted” that while it was hearing the Reference, the Punjab legislature brought in a Bill to de-notify land meant for construction of the canal and sought to return it to original landowners.

The Central government, during the course of the hearing, maintained that it was taking a “neutral stand” on the issue.

Writing a concurrent judgment, Justice Shiva Kirti Singh asserted that all stakeholders must remember the supremacy of the Constitution, essential features of federalism and the fact that judgments and decrees, which are the end product of exercise of judicial power, cannot be set at naught by the process of legislative declaration in respect of facts and circumstances.

Concluding his short judgment, Justice Singh regretted: “Delay in execution of a final judgment or decree, more so when it is of the apex court, should never be countenanced by any authority because it would surely tend to undermine people’s faith in the judicial system of the country, entailing in turn avoidable harm to all the institutions and functionaries under the Constitution, may be even to the Constitution itself.”

Protesting against the court judgment, Congress MLAs resigned en masse. Party state president Amarinder Singh also resigned as Member of Parliament and called for a press conference at 4.30 pm today. The judgment is a huge setback for the SAD-BJP alliance ahead of the upcoming Punjab Assembly elections. SAD MP In Rajya Sabha, Sabha Naresh Gujral, however, said the party would study all the legal options available instead of resorting to drama like the Congress. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar hailed the court’s decision, saying the judgment has brought a smile on every Haryanvi’s face. In March this year, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution not to share a single drop of water with Haryana.