Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal or SYL, is an under-construction 214-kilometer long canal in India to connect the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers. The canal is being built with aim to share the waters of the rivers Ravi and Beas between the states of Haryana and Punjab.
The Indus basin was divided after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, with Pakistan having lower reaches of the Indus River and its tributaries and India gaining the upper reaches of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. This resulted in a situation where the use and growth of water resources in one country would hinder those in another. In 1954, while the dispute was being resolved through negotiations, India had already begun to take similar steps in preparation for a treaty.
The Bhakra Nangal project was able to fix the Sutlej river water issue, but the surplus water issues with the Ravi and Beas rivers that do not include the pre-Partition use still exist.
The allocation of water from the rivers was agreed upon by the states of Punjab, PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union), Rajasthan, and Jammu and Kashmir in January 1955. When Punjab and PEPSU merged in 1956, Punjab's part of the anticipated 15.85 MAF of water decreased to 7.2 MAF (metric acre-feet), while Rajasthan's share increased to 8 MAF, and Jammu and Kashmir's share increased to the remaining amount.
The 1960 Indus Water Treaty gave India free access to water from the Sutlej, Ravi, and Beas rivers.
After the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966 and the creation of the state of Haryana, a disagreement over the sharing of river water arose. Punjab claimed ownership of the whole amount of water from the rivers, while Haryana requested 4.8 MAF of Punjab's total 7.2 MAF share.
Punjab refused to share water with Haryana, claiming that doing so would violate the riparian principle, which states that a river's water is only the property of the State or States through which it flows. As no agreement could be reached, Haryana requested the intervention of the central government.
The Union government issued an executive order in 1976, during a time of domestic emergency, allocating 3.5 MAF of water to each state while giving Delhi the remainder. A Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal was suggested in order to utilise all of the water that was allotted.
Shromani Akali Dal, a political party in Punjab, opposed the decision. The Shiromani Akali Dal sought that the water sharing between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan be decided by the Supreme Court after assuming power in 1977 and launched a lawsuit in opposition to the Union government's decision.
A deal between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan—all of which were under the control of the Indian National Congress (INC)—was made on December 31, 1981, after the INC had taken control of Punjab in 1980. The deal upped Punjab's share to 4.22 MAF and Rajasthan's to 8.6 MAF, while leaving Haryana's portion from the revised 17.17 MAF of water unchanged.
Indira Gandhi formally began work on the canal's construction at Punjab's Kapoori hamlet on April 8, 1982. The Punjabi government published a white paper on April 23 applauding the accord. In September 1985, the Akali Dal retook control of Punjab, and a few months later, the newly elected Punjab Legislative Assembly rejected the 1981 pact. The canal was first built by the Akali Dal administration of Punjab, led by Surjit Singh Barnala. But it persisted in taking its time to finish. By June 1980, all work on the canal's section in Haryana had been finished.
The Eradi Tribunal headed by Supreme Court Judge V Balakrishna Eradi was set up to reassess availability and sharing of water. In 1987, the tribunal recommended an increase in the shares of Punjab and Haryana to 5 MAF and 3.83 MAF, respectively.
After a Chief Engineer involved in its development was shot by Khalistani activist Balwinder Singh Jattana in July 1990, the construction was halted. Due to the disagreement over the problem, the canal remained unfinished.
Haryana filed a lawsuit at the Supreme Court in 1999 to have the canal built. Punjab was given a year to build the SYL canal by the Supreme Court in 2002. Punjab refused to comply with the court's order and submitted a petition for its review, which was denied. In 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the Union government to use a centralised organisation to complete the canal. In 2004, the Punjab government appointed the Central Public Works Department to take over the canal construction. The Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which was adopted by the Punjab Legislative Assembly, revoked all of the state's river water agreements with its neighboring states.
In order to determine the validity of the 2004 Act, the SC began proceedings in 2016 on a presidential reference (Article 143) and concluded that Punjab had broken its pledge to share river waters.
Image Source: The Economic Times, November 2016
The Punjab Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Property (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill, 2016, which proposed returning the land that had been taken from owners for the construction of the SYL canal, was passed by the Punjab Legislative Assembly by a unanimous vote in March 2016. The following day, the Legislative Assembly of Punjab passed a motion requesting royalties for river water delivered to its non-riparian neighbours Delhi, Haryana, and Rajasthan.
Since then, the Punjab government has been mandated by the Supreme Court to keep things as they are on the land intended for the canal's construction.
After 2029, several areas in Punjab may become dry, and the state has already overused its groundwater for irrigation, filling the Central Granaries with wheat and paddy worth Rs 70,000 crore annually.
The government claims it is difficult to share water with any other state since water is overused in 79 percent of the state's land area.
Out of 138 blocks, 109 blocks are “over-exploited”, two blocks are “critical” five blocks are “semi-critical” and only 22 blocks are in “safe” category.
It claims that delivering irrigation is difficult for the state and that there was a drinking water shortage in southern Haryana because groundwater levels had dropped below 1,700 feet.
Haryana has been making the case that it is not receiving its fair share of the water as determined by a tribunal by highlighting its contribution to the central distribution pool.
To tackle the problem before it grows enormous, the central government has its work cut out for it. The impending election in one of the contending states gives the already complicated scenario a political undertone.
The problem requires a political resolution because even the Supreme Court seems to be caught in a pickle. It is time for the leaders to act wisely and impartially, giving appropriate consideration to the claims of all interested disputing parties.