Inter-State River Water Disputes in India: A Study of Water Disputes Between Punjab and Haryana

Date01 December 2019
Published date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Inter-State River
Water Disputes in
India: A Study of
Water Disputes
Between Punjab
and Haryana
Amit Ranjan1
In its 10 November 2016 advisory opinion, the Supreme Court (SC) of India
nullified the Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2004. This inter-State water
sharing termination act of the Punjab government had challenged the constitu-
tional authority of the Union government over the states. The SC looked at that
dimension of the Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2004, and maintained
the constitutional supremacy of the Union government over the states. This arti-
cle discusses the federal water relationships in India, and then examines the river
water disputes between the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. The author
argues that the growing inter-State water disputes in India have also challenged
the federal constitutional arrangement which holds the primacy of the Union
government over the State governments in matters relating to regulation and
development of inter-State waters and river valleys.
Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, Supreme Court, The Punjab Termination
of Agreements Bill 2004, the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of
Property Rights) Bill 2016
Besides creating political tensions between the riparian states, most of the inter-
State river water disputes in India, often, challenge the federal arrangements made
Indian Journal of Public
65(4) 830–847, 2019
© 2019 IIPA
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0019556119873442
1 Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
Corresponding author:
Amit Ranjan, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, 29 Heng Mui Keng
Terrace, #08/09-06 (Block B), Singapore 119620, Singapore.
Ranjan 831
in the Indian Constitution. One such inter-State water disputes is between Punjab
and Haryana over sharing waters of Ravi–Beas rivers through Sutlej–Yamuna
Link (SYL) canal. This dispute is existing since Haryana was carved out of Punjab
in 1966 but took a serious turn in 2004 when, using its legislative power, the
Punjab government through an Act terminated its water sharing agreements with
the adjoining riparian states. While doing so, the government of the day did not
take into account the fact that the water sharing agreement it terminated was
mediated by the Union government of India. Therefore, its Act not only created a
water-related tension between the adjoining states but also challenged the consti-
tutional authority of the Union government over the states in India. Reacting
against the legislation, the President of India, after an advice from the Union
cabinet, referred the matter to the Supreme Court (SC) of India to seek an advi-
sory opinion.1 On 10 November 2016, the SC delivered its opinion on the Punjab
Termination of Agreement Act, 2004. In the advisory opinion, explaining Union–
State relations, Justice Shiva Kirti Singh wrote:
Despite the distribution of legislative power by Article 246, leave aside the situations of
emergency, even during normal times provisions like Articles 248, 249, 251, 252, 253
and 254 run counter to the normal legislative powers of States. Over subjects covered
by the Concurrent List, in the case of any repugnancy, the laws by Parliament have
superiority and prevail over those by State Legislature. Executive powers are under-
standably co-terminus with the legislative powers. (RE: The Punjab Termination of
Agreement Act, 2004, 2016, p. 43)
Obviously, this opinion was not welcomed by the Punjab government and it
decided to take other measures to restore its rights over ‘own’ waters. On the
contrary, the Union government accepted the SC’s observation on the issue.
Excluding introduction and conclusion, this article is divided into three parts.
The first section looks into the constitutional provisions regarding the inter-State
water issues in India. It also highlights the recommendations and the policies
adopted by the Union government to address inter-State water disputes. The second
part of the article discusses the water disputes between Haryana and Punjab. The
last part is on another water-related bill passed by the Punjab Assembly in 2016.
Inter-State River Water-related Constitutional
Provisions, Recommendations and Proposals in India
In an independent India, to accrue benefits from the water infrastructures, multi-
purpose hydropower plants were planned. Though federal system was adopted by
the Indian Constitution, most of those projects were commissioned by the Union
government because, at that time, states had not enough financial resources to
build water infrastructures. This issue was settled in the Constituent Assembly
debates itself where most of the members were in favour of giving more powers
to the Union government to develop rivers water, especially, inter-State flowing
rivers. Highlighting it, Hussain Imam2 said (Constituent Assembly Debates,
Volume V, 1989, p. 172):

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