The unanimous passage of a resolution by the Punjab assembly against construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal, while making a political statement of intent, may have raised the stakes for an impending legal battle in the Supreme Court but it will not invite any contempt action until the SAD-BJP government in the state tinkers with the land and properties acquired for the canal.
The Constitution Bench has not restrained the Punjab government from passing a resolution or from carrying out any other legislative business because that is not within the domain of the judiciary.
A constitutional court can examine the validity of a law or a resolution passed by a state assembly or Parliament on the ground of it breaching a fundamental right but it does not prevent the legislature from mandating its affairs. It is only after a law is enacted or a resolution is passed that the court can step in as protector of fundamental rights.
So the Punjab government was within its rights to pass a resolution a day after the Constitution Bench, on a plea by the Haryana government, directed it to maintain status quo with respect to the land acquired for construction of the SYL canal.
Expressing displeasure at attempts being made by the Punjab government to render its judgments on construction of the canal as “inexecutable”, the Bench had asserted it would “not be a silent spectator” and directed that the status quo order operate with respect to “lands, works, property and portions of the SYL canal and all lands within the alignment of the SYL canal within the territories of the State of Punjab”, covered by its judgments in 2002 and 2004.
The Punjab government will be inviting legal trouble only if it acts upon the resolution and seeks to change the status quo on ground. Should the Punjab government move ahead with its announcement to denotify 3,900 acres of land acquired for construction of the SYL canal and restore it to farmers, it will amount to tinkering with the Constitution Bench order.
Also, changing the status quo will call for an explanation from the Union Home Secretary, the Punjab Chief Secretary and Director General of Police who were made accountable as court receivers to ensure that the order of status quo is complied with. “All the properties referred to in the said para shall be deemed to have vested in them and they shall also see that status quo is maintained with regard to the properties,” the Bench said.
The Punjab government has been asked to respond by March 28 to Haryana’s application demanding ad-interim protection by appointing a court receiver and restraining publication of assent to Punjab’s Bill in the gazette notification. Hearing has been fixed for March 31.