‘We do not understand that when water disputes between countries are being resolved, what is there in this matter,’ the Supreme Court said
Water is a natural wealth that must be shared, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday as it asked the states of Punjab and Haryana, locked in a 26-year-old water dispute over the Satluj-Yamuna link (SYL) canal construction, to resolve their differences and arrive at a negotiated water sharing agreement under the mediation of the Centre within four months.
“Individuals of the state or city cannot say that only I need water. Have a broader view as water is a natural wealth and must be shared,” said a bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, AS Oka and Vikram Nath.
The top court’s observations came after it was informed by the Centre that Punjab was avoiding the meeting to arrive at an amicable settlement. Attorney General KK Venugopal appearing for the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti presented a letter dated September 5 and said that despite many endeavours, Punjab refused to take part in the meeting called by Centre in terms of the previous order of the court passed on July 28, 2020. The chief ministers of the two states last met on August 18, 2020 and since then, Punjab was non-committal on talks.
Taking exception to such an approach by Punjab, the court said, “Absenteeism from the meeting cannot be a solution. Either you have to join in the meeting or the court will take a harsh stand and pass directions.” AG Venugopal sought a direction to be passed by court to Punjab chief minister to have a meeting with his Haryana counterpart.
The letter written by the ministry further informed the court that no constructive development took place since the last hearing and while the manner of agreement is worked out between the states, the construction of the SYL canal and carrier canals may continue.
Punjab counsel Jagjit Singh Chabra told the court that the state was keen on continuing with talks but the gap was due to Covid and the farmers’ agitation. “The new dispensation in the state is willing to cooperate,” he said pointing to the fact that since the court’s order of July 2020, the chief ministers met a month later to resolve the dispute.
The bench said, “When you don’t cooperate, all situations arise as you allow the wounds to fester. We do not understand that when water disputes between countries are being resolved, what is there in this matter. We do not want to pass any orders but the states are compelling us to do so.”
Recording the consent of Punjab in its order, the bench held, “It is agreed before us by the states to have a meeting and continue further meetings between the CMs and senior bureaucrats.” The bench further reminded the counsels appearing for both sides, “We are sure the parties do realise the necessity of a negotiated settlement also in view of the security considerations and other forces taking over.” The court posted the matter in January 2023 and sought a report from Centre on the negotiated settlement.
The dispute between the two states has refused to die despite the Supreme Court in a decree issued on January 15, 2002 ruled in favour of Haryana and directed Punjab to construct the SYL canal within a year. This decree came on a suit filed by Haryana in the year 1996. In June 2004, the Court reiterated its earlier decision while dismissing a suit filed by Punjab seeking discharge of its obligation to construct the SYL Canal.
The same year, Punjab passed a law by which it cancelled the agreement with Haryana over SYL. This law, titled Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2004 came to the Supreme Court by way of a Presidential reference and got decided in November 2016.
The court while holding the law as unconstitutional, said, “One state, which is a party to the litigation or an agreement, cannot unilaterally terminate the agreement or nullify the decree of the highest court of the country. The state of Punjab cannot discharge itself from its obligation which arises from the judgment and decree dated 15 January, 2002 and the judgment and order dated 4 January, 2004 of the apex court.”
In July 2019, the court while dealing with the 1996 suit filed by Haryana against Punjab noted with anguish that its January 2002 decree remains unexecuted till date. The court had been passing several orders since 2017 (after the Presidential reference judgment) to work out some amicable settlement between the states which has failed to yield any results.