Inter-state issues have been known to raise their head time and again in north India. It is mainly Punjab and Haryana that have often bickered over sharing of river waters, construction of the contentious Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal. The two states also lay claim over the unique city of Chandigarh, which is their shared capital while also being a union territory.

But of late there have been new dimensions being added to these claims, counter claims, rejections and assertions. All of these have a potential to add to the already complex lexicography of Indian federalism.

To begin with it is the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, has entered the ring and has been asserting its own claims at regular intervals. Another new dimension to these feuds making headlines at regular intervals is the addition of new subjects to the already contentious list.

Politically speaking there is now a new leadership and forces fighting out these old issues as well as new ones. Haryana has seen the arrival and establishment of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Manohar Lal Khattar, to accompany the traditional rivals, the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). Punjab has seen the arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in power since last year, till when it was mainly the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and the Congress that had ruled the roost.

Even in terms of political personalities, the veterans have faded away and now it is up to the new leadership of various parties to assume power and take these inter-state battles forward.

Punjab has seen the demise of Akali patriarch and stalwart Parkash Singh Badal, while former Congress Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh is now sitting in the BJP that has scant representation in the legislative bodies.

In Haryana it is a relatively young Abhay Chautala being the INLD flag bearer, while former CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda remains the Congress heavyweight. In Himachal Pradesh too there a new and young Congress leader has emerged in Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, after the void left by stalwart Virbhadra Singh’s death. The BJP too has witnessed the emergence of former CM Jairam Thakur after the fading away of the likes of Shanta Kumar and Prem Kumar Dhumal.

Coming to the raking up of inter-state contentions, observers point out that the noise around them becomes shrill whenever elections approach. This is because it provides an opportunity to score some quick brownie points amid public narratives.

Observers say that the politicians use this ‘ammunition’ to also divert attention from pressing issues that demand immediate attention, knowing well that sorting out even a single inter-state matter can take decades of tedious legal battles.

The last month-and-a-half has seen a lot of such issues making headlines. It is evident that they will continue to be in circulation at least till the Lok Sabha polls of 2024. It may even extend the Haryana Assembly polls that will follow the Parliament elections a few months down the line.

Of late it has been interesting to see the hill state of Himachal Pradesh getting assertive on some of the issues. Just a couple of days ago, Sukhu reiterated that the government under him aims to address long standing issues of its rights with the neighbouring states that have been in limbo depriving the due benefits of the state and its people.

Sukhu said that extracting waters from Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) projects without the need for any no objection certificate (NOC) from the BBMB is a win-win situation for Himachal and now Himachal has intensified its efforts to secure its legitimate rights over the union territory of Chandigarh.

"Punjab Reorganization Act, 1966 clearly mentions Himachal Pradesh’s entitlement to its share of 7.19 percent in Chandigarh. The state has been deprived of this right since the very beginning which is a grave injustice to the people of Himachal," Sukhu said, pointing out that a voice is being raised at all appropriate platforms to get all the legitimate rights.

Himachal Pradesh has constituted a cabinet sub-committee to look into all aspects of this matter. Sukhu further said that the state government is exploring all the options to recover its arrears in power share as well. He said that the Apex Court had already decided to grant a power share of 7.19 percent in all the BBMB projects in November, 2011.

Currently, Himachal is receiving its share, but an arrear of 13,066 million units of power has still not been released in favour of the state. Besides, the state has also demanded to raise its power share in all the BBMB projects set up in Himachal Pradesh, as natural resources of the state are being used to generate electricity through these power projects.

Sukhu contended that the current power distribution from the BBMB power projects allocates 51.8 percent to Punjab, 37.51 percent to Haryana and only 7.19 percent to Himachal Pradesh. So, the partner states shall consider liberally enhancing the share for Himachal Pradesh as thousands of families had been uprooted and thousands of hectares of land submerged due to construction of these power projects.

Some weeks ago, in a meeting with union power minister R. K. Singh, the CM had asked for completing the process for the time-bound transfer of Shanan hydroelectric project to Himachal Pradesh whose lease period is expiring in March 2024.

Himachal has been asserting that while 12,000 mw of power is being produced in the state it has been getting only 12 percent of power as state share which is ‘unfair to the people’. The state is now calling for enhancing royalty in hydropower projects that have completed the payback period.

Just a fortnight ago it was the Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann who had vehemently opposed the decision of the Centre to waive off the conditions of seeking NOC for drawing water by Himachal Pradesh for water supply and irrigation schemes. In a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mann called this decision ‘unfortunate, unjustified, baseless and a grave injustice with Punjab’.

He contended that as per the water agreements, no water is required to be allocated to Himachal Pradesh out of the Sutlej and Beas. He said that though the Supreme Court has allowed 7.19 percent share to Himachal but that share only relates to power and no orders have been issued by the Apex Court regarding the sharing of water.

Moreover, Mann contended that the sharing of water is an inter- state dispute on which no unilateral directions can be issued. Citing the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966, Mann said that the BBMB is not authorised to give any water out of the rivers to any state other than the partner states while underlining that Himachal is not a partner state.

He said the waters of rivers Sutlej, Ravi and Beas have been allocated to Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi and Rajasthan under separate agreements, and Himachal Pradesh cannot raise any claim on these waters. He added that the partner states have been very liberal in the past to provide water out of the interstate carrier channels to the hill state for drinking purposes.

Recalling that during the previous years, the BBMB has allowed release of water on 16 different occasions to Himachal Pradesh, Mann said that in the present circumstances when the water in the rivers is declining drastically year after year and there have been pressing demands for water by all the partner states namely, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, the above said unilateral decision of the Government of India needs to be reconsidered and withdrawn.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, playing to the domestic gallery on the political mat of Punjab, Mann dared the leader of opposition and senior Congressman Partap Singh Bajwa to clarify the stand of his party on the claim of Himachal Pradesh government over Chandigarh.

He said that Chandigarh is, was and will always be an integral part of Punjab while underlining that his government is firmly committed to safeguard the interests of the state and its people.

Bajwa hit back tweeting, “I along with Punjab Congress will always stand firm to safeguard Punjab's rights over Chandigarh. I and my party's stand is crystal clear that not even a single inch of Chandigarh could go to HP and Haryana. It is the @AAPPunjab govt that attempted to dilute Punjab's claim on the Capital and river water. CM@BhagwantMann in a tweet demanded a piece of land in Chandigarh from the centre for a separate Vidhan Sabha. Similarly, Cabinet Ministers, @HarpalCheemaMLA and @harjotbains sought a new tribunal for assessing the state's river waters. They weakened Punjab's claims on the capital and river waters.”

The Akalis too threw their hat in the ring with senior leader Virsa Singh Valtoha pointing out the injustice done to Punjab during the reorganisation of states in 1966. He accused former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of mischief when Punjabi speaking areas including Kangra, Una and Kullu and Lahaul Spiti were added to Himachal Pradesh.

He said, “Recognising the right of Punjab over Chandigarh, Indira Gandhi had announced to keep Chandigarh under the central government until Haryana made its own new capital. The Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi's had announced the transfer of the city to Punjab on January 26, 1986 and had backtracked.”

He hit out at the dual stands of various parties on various issues with their central and state units talking in contradicting tones.

Yet another issue had made headlines last month when Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar reportedly sought affiliation for colleges located in Panchkula, Yamunanagar and Ambala to Panjab University in Chandigarh.

Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit had reportedly backed Haryana’s demand while Mann came out to reject it. The issue had come up at a meeting chaired by Purohit in which Mann and Khattar had discussed different issues. Khattar had reportedly said that this was in the interest of the students and had pointed out at the Delhi University building a campus in Haryana.

He had stated that expanding education and affiliation of the colleges will provide many new opportunities to the students.

Meanwhile, asserting that Panjab University is a part of the emotional, cultural, literature and rich legacy of the state, Mann had categorically said, “Neither any college of Haryana will be given affiliation from the University nor will any attempt of Haryana for back door entry in the Senate of the University be allowed”.

He bemoaned that regular attempts were being made to change the status of the University and said that the Punjab government will not allow any such move in the larger interests of the students. He said that 175 colleges of the state are affiliated with this premier University due to which generations of Punjab are emotionally attached with it.

Citing the history of the University, its constitution, its ethnic, socio-cultural and historical roots as well as its faculty and students who hail primarily from the state of Punjab, Mann said that it is important that the present legal and administrative status of the Panjab University should be preserved.

This issue too has seen an inter-party feud in Punjab. Mann had slammed the Akalis and the Congress for ‘backstabbing the state and its people’ while claiming that former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had written to erstwhile Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on August 26, 2008 seeking central status for Panjab University. He said that going beyond; the Akali Dal government had issued an NOC to the union government for converting this premier institute into a central university.

Attacking the leaders of the two Opposition parties, he said that they have always preferred their own interests by jeopardising that of the state. He said the Congress was also dyed in the same wool as a woman Congress MLA of Haryana had in August 2022 moved a resolution in the state assembly to affiliate colleges of her state to the Panjab University.

Mann’s claims were countered by senior Akali leader Dr Daljit Singh Cheema who said, “The SAD has all along questioned as to why the chief minister attended the meeting called by the Governor to affiliate Haryana colleges with Panjab University. Now it has come to light that a decision to this regard was taken at a meeting of the North Zone Council and that the AAP government did not object to the proposal to discuss the issue afresh.”

Dr Cheema said that earlier also the Chief Minister had sacrificed the interests of Punjab vis a vis Chandigarh by failing to oppose Haryana’s proposal to build a separate Vidhan Sabha in the union territory. “He owes an explanation to Punjabis as to why he is betraying his state at the instance of his boss and AAP Convener Arvind Kejriwal who wants to attain power in Haryana at the cost of the interests of Punjab and Punjabis.”

The SYL construction and the sharing of river waters remains among the most dominating of inter-state issues when it comes to Punjab and Haryana. Interestingly it is the INLD that is trying to rake up the matter the most while the party leader Abhay Chautala continues with his pan Haryana yatra aiming to revive the sinking fortunes of the party.

Party functionary Seva Singh Rapadia in a latest communiqué stated, “In Haryana, whenever there is talk of distribution of river water on any major political platform, the name of 'SYL' canal comes up and then Tau Devi Lal is mentioned after it. Tau had also taken out a journey named 'Nyaya Yudh' from Hisar to Delhi in the year 1985 for the construction of SYL and bringing water in it.

“It was only Jannayak who had started the construction work of the SYL canal and when he became the chief minister of the state again in 1987, this work gained momentum. After this, when the INLD government headed by Chaudhary Omprakash Chautala came to power, due to the tireless efforts of the INLD supremo the Supreme Court got the SYL issue decided in favour of Haryana. Apart from the Chautala family, no other leader has fought so hard for SYL.”

Listing the continuous efforts made by the Chautala family for getting water for the state, he said, “The state and central governments have been misleading the public for decades regarding their share of water for SYL water. The chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi keep arguing with each other and with the Prime Minister about this water, but the problem is still the same.”

On the other hand the AAP leadership is being accused of double speak on the issue of sharing of river waters. Recently it was senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia who accused Mann of following his boss Kejriwal and in the process selling off the river waters of Punjab for ‘petty political gains in Rajasthan and Haryana’.

Rajasthan is to go for Assembly polls by the end of this year and AAP is also aiming to get a foothold in Haryana where the state elections are scheduled to be held after the Lok Sabha polls of 2024.

Referring to an AAP event in Sri Ganganagar a couple of weeks ago, Majithia said “The Chief Minister promised water to Rajasthan in the presence of the AAP ally Hanuman Beniwal without even being asked for the same. Earlier the chief minister shared the stage with the AAP Haryana president Sushil Gupta who announced that once AAP was elected to power in Haryana it would ensure SYL waters reached the fields of farmers of Haryana. Simultaneously when in Punjab Mann claims that Punjab waters are for Punjabis and will not be given to anyone.”

He said that even Kejriwal has also taken three different stands on SYL river waters in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. “While in Punjab, Kejriwal said Punjab waters would remain in Punjab. In Haryana he said they should be shared with the farmers of Haryana and in Delhi he filed an affidavit in favour of Haryana’s stand on SYL in the Supreme Court,” Majithia added.

Observers say that such issues will gradually move to the centrestage of poll narratives in the coming few months. It would be interesting to see who reaps maximum benefit from them.