CHANDIGARH: The Satluj Yamuna Link [SYL] canal is a major factor in the political economy of Punjab and has the reputation of stoking terrorism in the state back in the 1980s. In the more gruesome episodes in that grim chapter, militants gunned down the then Shiromani Akali Dal [SAD] president Sant Harchand Singh Longowal in 1985 and killed two engineers and 32 labourers working on the project in 1990.
The then prime minister Indira Gandhi had laid the foundation stone for the canal on April 8, 1982 at Kapoori near Patiala, an act that provoked the Akali Dal, then in the opposition, to launch an agitation against the Centre which later moved to Amritsar and took the form of the Dharamyudh Morcha.
On July 24, 1985 Rajiv Gandhi signed the Punjab Accord with Sant Longowal, one point of which was that a tribunal would be set up to verify the claims of both Punjab and Haryana to river waters. On August 20, 1985, Longowal was killed by militants. Five years later, SYL chief engineer M L Sikri and the then superintending
engineer A S Aulakh were gunned down by Babbar Khalsa International [BKI] militants and 32 labourers working on the
project were slain.
The Supreme Court ruling on Thursday, striking down a Punjab law that rescinded the state’s commitment to the SYL agreements, raises the spectre of unrest again. The Congress, now in the opposition, is already up in arms, and the radical Sikh organization Dal Khalsa has vowed not to allow the construction of SYL at any cost.
The party’s senior leaders H S Dhami and Kanwar Pal Singh blamed the executive and the judiciary for muddling the Punjab river waters issue. They were categorical that Punjab owns the waters of the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas and no legislation or court could deprive the state of its right of ownership.
“Our brethren have laid down their lives and suffered imprisonment for years for the waters. We we won't let their sacrifices go in vain,” they said.
In 2004, the Punjab Assembly enacted the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act which annulled all previous inter-state agreements signed by the state relating to the sharing of the Ravi and Beas waters. At that time, Capt Amarinder Singh was the Congress chief minister of the state. In 2002 and then in 2004, the Supreme Court had ordered the Union government to complete the SYL canal.
The same year, the Union government sent a presidential reference to the Supreme Court seeking its opinion on the river water issue. The reference was heard by the apex court without any result until 2009. In 2011 Haryana Assembly passed a resolution requesting the Union government to pursue the matter in the apex court for an early decision. Last year, Haryana filed a suit in the apex court to get the act declared illegal. Punjab also filed a suit in the court seeking a new tribunal to be set up to settle the issue.
Amidst all this litigation, the canal stands incomplete. It starts from the tail end of the Anandpur hydel canal near Nangal in Punjab and goes up to the Western Yamuna Canal from where it collects the waters of the Ravi and Beas. The construction of canal started in both Haryana and Punjab in 1981 but it stopped in Punjab in 1990 in the face of those terror killings.