SYL row: Centre can't be a mute spectator

Under the radar, a constitutional crisis is brewing in north-west India, and national parties or the central government must step in to cool it down. The most egregious instance of the breakdown of central authority came when the Punjab Assembly chose to support Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal's resolution that the state would defy the Supreme Court of India if necessary, and "not abide by any order against its interests". The Court is addressing a question over the sharing of river water for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal. Hundreds of crores have already been spent on infrastructure for this canal, over decades - Haryana, a beneficiary, has paid for a large proportion. The Supreme Court may have stopped Punjab from returning land acquired decades ago for the canal to the farmers from whom it has acquired - but the state has reportedly moved ahead with the land return programme anyway, encouraging farmers to dump debris into the half-built canal.

Outright defiance of the Supreme Court, if this is what is happening, is an extremely dangerous precedent. It reflects a fraught moment in the state's politics, when a government - an alliance between the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is facing a re-election test against not just the Congress but also the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Under such circumstances, the political temptation to slip into soft-separatist patterns of behaviour must be great - but it should have been anticipated by the Centre and headed off. Indeed, the government at the Centre is also led by the BJP - so surely there must have been some feedback that this is what their state government in Punjab intended. If the feedback was not sent, then it is dangerously poor political management on the part of the BJP; if the feedback was ignored, then it is irresponsible governance. The Centre cannot afford to be a bystander just because the party in power believes there might be an electoral payoff to this defiance of lawful, constitutional authority. The BJP is after all also in power in Haryana. The Congress is also a national party, and the AAP has pretentions of being one. Both must act in the national interest as well and avoid making this an electoral issue.

Certainly, tensions between upper and lower riparian states will only grow in a time when more states are feeling the pinch of water pressure. If the legitimacy of the SYL canal can be bypassed so easily by Punjab, there are serious risks for several other such river-sharing agreements among other states in the country. The Centre, therefore, cannot allow the current developments around the SYL canal project to become an unhealthy precedent for other river-sharing agreements. Moreover, north-west India has been particularly profligate in its use of water. The crop mix of Punjab and Haryana is not suited to its natural climate. This has led to massive depletion of groundwater and a water crisis in the region. The Centre should have worked to anticipate this, and to wean the two states off water-intensive agriculture. This long-term plan has not been put into effect. But even worse, perhaps, are the long-term effects of allowing Punjab and Haryana - but especially Punjab, given its history of separatism - to slip into an anti-outsider and anti-Centre mentality. Such open challenges cannot be permitted and the Centre must act.

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