We conclude with a reminder to the State of Punjab that ‘Great states have a temper superior to that of private litigants, and it is to be hoped that enough has been decided for patriotism, the fraternity of the Union, and mutual consideration to bring [the matter] to an end”’. Those words from the Supreme Court in 2004 as it ordered Punjab to build the Sutlej Yamuna Link canal, went unheeded. Instead, Punjab passed a law to nullify the 1981 agreement, forcing the Court once again to remind the state of the Constitution. Giving its opinion in a presidential reference on the Punjab Termination of Water Sharing Agreements with States 2004, the court said: The Punjab Act is “contrary to the Constitution of India”, and Punjab is not free from its obligation to uphold the 2002 and 2004 Supreme Court orders that the SYL canal must be built.
Back in 2004, the court had reminded the Punjab government that it is “the Constitutional duty of those who wield power in the States to create the appropriate political climate to ensure a respect for the constitutional processes and not set such processes at naught only to gain political mileage.” It is unfortunate that exactly the opposite is happening. The Punjab government is once again preparing brazenly to ignore the court. The principal opposition party, the Congress, is as defiant. This, of course, is not the only such instance. Three months ago, political parties in Karnataka rallied violently against the court’s order for the release of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu. Instead of seeing it as a national resource that needs to be shared, political parties view water as an instrument with which to arouse chauvinist sentiments, useful for papering over other serious failures. In Punjab, with elections just months away, it will now be a race to the bottom to determine who can be the most selfish and most narrowly provincial.
Pakistan and India did a better job of resolving their water dispute than states within India have done. India was able to secure the unrestricted use of the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas in the Indus Waters Treaty only by making the case that these waters were essential for the irrigation of arid regions of undivided eastern Punjab, including territory that is now Haryana and Rajasthan. In one of its orders on the Cauvery row, the SC had said that when a state takes unilateral steps in its favour in a dispute with another states, “[t]he action forebodes evil consequences to the federal structure. it will lead to the breakdown of the constitutional mechanism and affect the unity and integrity of the nation”. Punjab’s political parties must keep this in mind. Punjab is not above the Constitution.