Disputes over river water between upstream and downstream states are common. In India, they have often gone to the Supreme Court, which has given the best possible solution. It has to be enforced by the central government, which has often proved too indecisive. In this Business World column of 21 July 2004, I criticized the centre for its timidity.
Exercise your authority
The Punjab assembly, at the instigation of the government, unilaterally abrogated all treaties relating to the sharing of the waters of the Ravi and Beas rivers with Haryana and Rajasthan last week. The Central government went to the Supreme Court for a direction on the issue.
The Punjab government has stubbornly refused to construct its portion of the Sharda-Yamuna canal and to share the waters of the Ravi with Haryana. The issue goes back to the separation of Haryana from Punjab in 1966. Punjab was divided by an Act of Parliament – the Punjab Reorganisation Act – which specifically gives the Centre power to allocate the waters of the Ravi and the Beas. The division of the waters and the construction of the Sharda-Yamuna canal were agreed between the chief minister of Punjab, Harchand Singh Longowal, and the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1985 – in a peace pact that ended the militancy in Punjab but cost Longowal his life.
Thus the division of the waters flowing through it was implicit in the division of Punjab. When the Punjab government proved recalcitrant, the Centre took it to the Supreme Court. On January 15, 2002, the Supreme Court ordered the Punjab government to start constructing the canal forthwith and finish it within a year. The Punjab government did nothing; hours before the deadline expired, it filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, and on an application from the Haryana government, asked the Union government this June to take over construction and the Punjab government to hand over the land for the canal.
Thus there can be no doubt about the merits of the case. Both the Centre and the Supreme Court have repeatedly asked Punjab to cooperate in the division, and it has brazenly refused to do so. Whilst the Supreme Court may lay down what is equitable – and long ago did so – the responsibility to implement its verdict rests with the governments. And if the Punjab government flouts the Supreme Court’s verdict, the responsibility to bring it back within the law rests with the supreme national executive – the Government of India.
What the Supreme Court wants the Union government to do is laid out in black and white in its verdict of June 4: it wants the Centre to take over the construction of the canal. After this, the Union government did not need any further instructions; it should have moved forthwith to implement the Supreme Court’s verdict. Its failure to act expeditiously and allowed opposition to gather steam, which finally led to the Punjab assembly’s perverse verdict. To go back to the Supreme Court now only underlines the Union government’s indecision.
The precedent for this pusillanimity was set by the previous government. The Cauvery waters dispute is much older than the one over te Ravi and Beas. Judicial bodies have adjudicated over it and have been disobeyed by the Karanataka government. Exasperated, the Supreme Court asked the Union government to play a direct role: the prime minister was required to bring the two chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka together and bring them to their senses. But the chief ministers did not agree to get together with him, he did not press, and the chief minister of Karnataka sensed Vajpayee’s weakness and defeated all attempts at conciliation.
Prevarication was a part of Vajpayee’s style. Let Manmohan Singh not make it a part of his. Governments are elected to sort out political differences peacefully. In our country, weak governments abdicate this responsibility and toss the ball to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court can give a verdict, but it is for the governments to implement it. Vajpayee did not fulfil his duty as head of government, which was to implement the law. His is a legacy that the prime minister needs to shed if he is not to join the all-too-long list of weak and eminently forgettable leaders.
The constitution gives the Centre primacy over the states; it must retain and exercise that primacy if the country is not to eventually disintegrate or become ungovernable. Power decays unless it is exercised. This does not mean that the Union government must use force to bring the Punjab government to its heels. But it must use all the constitutional means at its command to make Punjab see the error of its ways. Punjab’s dereliction must be debated in Parliament, and the full weight of Parliament must be brought to bear against Punjab. Perhaps Vajpayee could not have done this against Karnataka. But both the numbers in Parliament and the status of Manmohan Singh make it possible for him to revive the authority of the Centre, and to restore its role as the guardian of justice. Let him come out boldly in favour of justice and the rule of law.