The Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab may believe it has pulled a rabbit out of the hat by passing a bill to return land acquired for the Sutlej Yamuna link canal to those from whom it was acquired three decades ago. The party faces the prospect of a voter backlash at the end of a two-term incumbency, in the 2017 elections. What better issue than water, with its emotive connotations, to convince people that the government is on their side? Putting land back in their hands is even better. The Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill, 2016 seeks to paper over many of the state’s building crises. The economy is in poor shape. Agriculture, Punjab’s mainstay, has become increasingly unsustainable, but there have been few serious policy interventions to create other employment avenues. In the Punjab village, the aspiration of the able-bodied person is to flee and seek employment outside even if this means borrowing to pay unscrupulous agents for visas and dodgy journeys to faraway lands. There is no more money for sops to hand out to the people, government profligacy has plunged the state into deep debt. The Comptroller and Auditor General has warned that Punjab’s finances are in such bad shape that it is now borrowing to pay off its loans.
Clearly, the government hopes the uncomfortable questions will be water under the bridge with the anti-SYL bill. Few recall that it was during the 1977-80 Badal tenure that the design of the canal was finalised and the process of acquisition set in motion. The construction of the canal began under another Akali government in 1985. In the race to grab credit, Amarinder Singh of the Congress has claimed that it was he who signed the canal’s death warrant — the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act was passed in 2004 during his term as chief minister. The Badal government has been discomfited by the revelation that in the Supreme Court, which began hearings on the validity of the act last month, the Union government, in which the SAD is a partner, had taken a pro-Haryana position.
The BJP has been self-servingly supportive of the bill, even though the party rules Haryana, an agricultural state that needs its share of water as much as Punjab. The Congress in Haryana has attacked the Khattar government for mishandling the issue, while the party proclaims itself to be the first mover against the canal in Punjab. The cynicism and short-sightedness behind the competitive politics over the SYL canal, and the parochial debate have obscured the serious implications of the bill for inter-state relations across the country. The bill is bad in law. It also endangers the cooperative federalism on which India rests.
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