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Simply Put: Decades on, why SYL canal remains a bridge too far for Punjab, Haryana

As Assembly elections approach, both the Congress and SAD make strenuous efforts to milk an old, emotive issue.

 SYL canal, punjab SYL canal, haryana SYL canal, punjab haryana, india news, latest news, sutlej yamuna link canal Work on the Punjab stretch of the canal stands abandoned. Archive

What is the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, and the controversy over it?

The creation of Haryana from the old (undivided) Punjab in 1966 threw up the problem of giving Haryana its share of river waters. Punjab was opposed to sharing waters of the Ravi and Beas with Haryana, citing riparian principles, and arguing that it had no water to spare. At an inter-state meeting convened by the central government in 1955, the total calculated flow (read water) of the Ravi and Beas — 15.85 million acre feet (MAF) — had been divided among Rajasthan (8 MAF), undivided Punjab (7.20 MAF) and Jammu and Kashmir (0.65 MAF). In March 1976, a decade after the Punjab Reorganisation Act was implemented, and even as Punjab continued to protest, the Centre issued a notification allocating to Haryana 3.5 MAF out of undivided Punjab’s 7.2 MAF.

To enable Haryana to use its share of the waters of the Sutlej and its tributary Beas, a canal linking the Sutlej with the Yamuna, cutting across the state, was planned. On April 8, 1982, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ceremonially dug the ground at Kapoori village in Patiala district for the construction of the 214-km Sutlej-Yamuna Link (or SYL) canal, 122 km of which was to be in Punjab, and 92 km in Haryana. A year earlier, Indira Gandhi had negotiated a tripartite agreement between Punjab (where Darbara Singh of the Congress was Chief Minister), Haryana (where Bhajan Lal, who had defected to the Congress from the Janata Party with a number of MLAs, was CM), and Rajasthan (where again the Congress was in power, with Shiv Charan Mathur as CM).

Available supplies of the Beas and Ravi were recalculated to be 17.17 MAF, and Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan were allocated 4.22 MAF, 3.5 MAF and 8.6 MAF respectively. Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi got 0.65 MAF and 0.20 MAF. The Akali Dal, which was opposed to the agreement, started an agitation known as Kapoori Morcha to oppose the construction of the SYL canal.

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So, how did Punjab begin work on SYL? And why did it stop?

On July 24, 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Akali Dal president Harchand Singh Longowal signed the Punjab Accord, agreeing that a tribunal would verify the claims of both Punjab and Haryana on river waters — following which the Akali Dal agreed to withdraw the agitation. The Eradi tribunal headed by Supreme Court Justice V Balakrishna Eradi in 1987 recommended an increase in the shares of Punjab and Haryana to 5 MAF and 3.83 MAF respectively, while taking into account utilisable supplies of surplus water at base stations.

The tribunal’s decision, however, could not be notified. Punjab was roiled by militancy, and even many Akali leaders were opposed to the deal. Longowal was assassinated in less than a month of signing the accord. In 1985, after Punjab emerged from nearly two years of President’s Rule and Surjit Singh Barnala became Chief Minister, work began on building the canal. But the opposition never died, and in subsequent years, even as some 90 per cent of the work was completed, kept exploding periodically in violent incidents. In 1990, a chief engineer and his assistant were killed by militants apparently to protest the construction; 30 labourers working at a project site near Chandigarh had been killed earlier. As the turmoil escalated, Punjab stopped work.

How did Haryana react to Punjab’s decision?


In November 1990, Haryana took up the matter with Delhi, and asked that the work be taken over by a central agency. After failing to make headway, it moved the Supreme Court in 1996, seeking directions to Punjab to complete the work on the SYL. In 2002, and again in June 2004, the court directed Punjab to complete the work in its territory. But within a month of the Supreme Court order, on July 12, 2004, the Punjab Assembly passed The Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, terminating its water-sharing agreements, and thus jeopardising the construction of SYL in Punjab.

Why has the SYL issue taken centrestage again now?

Supreme Court earlier this month started hearings into a presidential reference to decide on the legality of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004. The presidential reference was made by the Centre days after the Punjab Assembly passed the Act. As the hearings resumed, the Solicitor General, appearing on behalf of the Centre, took a pro-Haryana stance, saying the Centre stood by the SC’s orders asking Punjab to complete the work on SYL in its territory. The development has triggered a political storm in Punjab.

Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief Capt Amarinder Singh — who was Chief Minister when the 2004 Act was passed — has launched a blistering attack on the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal, the alliance partner of the BJP, which leads the government at the Centre, and has announced a march to protect Punjab’s waters. The Congress moved an adjournment motion in the Assembly on the issue, but the Akali Dal pre-empted the move, with Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal moving a resolution against sharing any water, and the attempts to force Punjab to build the SYL canal. The House had to be adjourned five times as Badal moved the resolution and the Congress continued to protest, seeking an amendment in the resolution, and time to speak on the issue before Badal. But the Speaker rejected both demands, citing norms and protocol.


With Assembly elections due next year, both parties are keen to present themselves as champions of Punjab’s interests. The SAD-BJP government plans to bring a Bill in the ongoing Budget session to denotify the land acquired for construction of the SYL, and offer it to the original owners — an idea the Punjab Congress leadership claims was originally theirs. “Na rehega baans, na bajegi baansuri,” Badal said in his address after moving the resolution.

First published on: 14-03-2016 at 00:04 IST
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