DELHI: The Supreme Court of India on Tuesday directed the states of Punjab and Haryana alongside the Centre to resolve the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal issue by September 3, which has also been fixed as the next date of hearing.

The apex court directed the two states and the Centre to convene a meeting and find an amicable solution to the issue that had been lingering on since the Supreme Court in July 2017 asked Punjab to first build the SYL canal before bringing their respective points of view and challenges on the vexed issue.

The Supreme Court has since maintained that the orders passed by it on the SYL canal issue have to be “respected and executed” by the governments of Punjab and Haryana.

Last year, the Haryana government had moved the Supreme Court seeking an early solution to the row over the SYL canal. The Supreme Court had on November 11, 2016 declared the Punjab government law (passed in 2004) that it would not share water with Haryana as ‘unconstitutional’. It had also directed the Centre to mobilise a central agency to take control of the canal works immediately and complete it expeditiously.

Immediately after the decision, the SAD-BJP government in Punjab had de-notified the land and even returned Haryana’s share, stating that it could not share even a single drop of water. The Haryana government had then moved the Supreme Court that then stayed the Punjab government proceedings.

The longstanding row over Punjab’s river waters followed the Punjabi Suba movement which led to Punjab Reorganisation Act whereby the state of Haryana was carved from Punjab and came into existence on November 1, 1966. Differences arose between Punjab and Haryana over their share of surplus Ravi and Beas waters. While Haryana claimed 4.8 million acre feet (MAF) of water of the total 7.2 MAF (share of the erstwhile Punjab) on the principle of equitable distribution, the Punjab government did not agree. Haryana approached the Centre, which issued a notification on March 24, 1976, spelling out the rights and liabilities of the states. Haryana was allocated 3.5 MAF of waters.

The 212km-long SYL canal was to carry Haryana’s share of water to its “dry and arid” southern part. While 121km of the canal was to run through Punjab, the remaining 91km through Haryana, which completed the work in June 1980. Around Rs 250 crore were spent on the canal system. Haryana also gave Rs 1 crore to Punjab in November 1976, the first instalment of the Rs 192 crore it would give the neighbour over the years for building the canal. However, Punjab did not start the work. Both the state filed separate petitions in the Supreme Court in 1979.

Punjab began the work on the canal after a tripartite agreement. Though the petitions were pending in the court, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi met the chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan on December 31, 1981. The three Chief Ministers signed an agreement that saw an increase in the available Ravi-Beas waters from 15.85 MAF to 17.17 MAF.

The agreement allowed Punjab the use of Rajasthan’s share till it could spare the water, allowing the state an additional 1.32 MAF. Punjab agreed to complete the canal work within two years and the two states withdrew the petitions from the Supreme Court. On April 8, 1982, Indira Gandhi led the ground-breaking ceremony near Kapuri village in Patiala district.

Within weeks of the ground-breaking ceremony, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) launched an agitation against the canal under the leadership of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal. They followed it up with protests. In August 1982, the agitation was became a “Dharam Yudh”.  On July 24, 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Longowal signed the Punjab accord in New Delhi. The agreement called for completion of the canal by August 1986 and an Supreme Court judge-led tribunal to decide Punjab and Haryana’s share of the remaining water. In its report submitted in January 1987, the tribunal increased the share of both the states but the award was not notified.

The Barnala-led SAD government started the work and 90% of it was completed, costing around Rs 700 crore. But the construction was stopped when Sikh militants allegedly gunned down two senior engineers and 35 labourers working on the canal. On November 23, 1990, the Haryana Chief Minister asked the Centre to hand over the work to one of its agencies. A decision was taken to rope in the Border Roads Organisation, but not a brick has been laid since. In September 1996, Haryana filed a plea in the Supreme Court, seeking directions for Punjab to complete the canal.

The court, in January 2002 and June 2004, ordered the remaining portion of the canal to be completed. The Centre was on June 4, 2004 told to ask one of it agencies to take control of the canal work. But a month later, the Punjab assembly enacted the Punjab termination of agreements act, annulling all inter-state agreements on sharing Ravi and Beas waters.

The Union minister for water resources has conducted a number of meetings with the states, but a settlement is yet to be reached.