Water is a commodity no one can survive without, and an agricultural region particularly can never have enough of it. Whipping up passions over access to water is thus the quickest way to create a following. There is no dearth of leaders in Punjab and Haryana who have built reputations on defending their respective state’s interest in the water sharing issue, specifically the SYL Canal dispute. Capt Amarinder Singh, as Chief Minister of Punjab in 2004, ran away with the title of lead protester of the state with his one-sided reneging of all contracts on water sharing with neighbouring states. The constitutionality of his action is before the President, who has referred the matter to the Supreme Court.
The political one-upmanship, however, can mean a cost to be paid by the states involved and their people. The election season has come early to Punjab. But Haryana, convulsed by the Jat agitation, seems to have found the SYL dispute handy — to fight fire with fire. In the midst of a running feud with the state’s farming community, the BJP government in Haryana decided to seek an urgent hearing on the water dispute in the Supreme Court. Promptly, the government of the same party at the Centre took a stand seemingly favouring Haryana. It is a legal matter with constitutional implications for inter-state and Centre-state relations. Yet, it is hard to avoid political interpretations of decisions that affect large swathes of population.
The “Punjab farmers’ party” SAD, a BJP ally in the state, is in a difficult spot, and Capt Amarinder Singh sees an opportunity in its discomfort. That would be fine if he were not to ratchet it up to a level beyond political. He has called upon Punjabis to be prepared for “all sacrifices” to protect their interests. Between Haryana Chief Minister Khattar and him, they could end up pitting the farming communities of the two states against each other. That would be nothing less than sinister — Punjab has known a dark period, and Haryana has just experienced the choking grip of communalism. What can be sorted out in courts and legislatures should not be sought to be settled in the streets.
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