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New Delhi: The face-off between Punjab and Haryana over sharing of Satluj-Yamuna water has put the spotlight on brewing confrontations between states across India over access to water.

India is probably staring at its next challenge to its federal polity—water wars.

On Monday, the Punjab assembly unanimously passing the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal land (Transfer of Proprietary Right) Bill, 2016.

The bill is basically against the construction of the contentious Sutlej-Yamuna link (SYL) canal, whose digging started way back in April 1982, under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It seeks to transfer proprietary rights back to the land owners from whom the land was acquired free of cost by the state government for the construction of SYL.

The bill is seen as an attempt to not share water from Punjab’s rivers with neighbouring states such as Haryana. Though the bill is yet to get Punjab and Haryana’s Governor Kaptan Singh Solanki’s assent, farmers in Punjab who are backed by political parties have already started to fill up the dry canal to claim land.

Ashok Khemka, principal secretary to the Haryana government, has requested Solanki to withhold his assent to Punjab assembly’s bill. In a letter to Solanki, which was also published in The Indian Express, Khemka requested him to reserve the bill for the consideration of the president of India.

The case has put Solanki in a strange position. Speaking in the Haryana legislatively assembly this week, Solanki talked about Haryana being committed to getting its share of Ravi-Beas waters and completion of the SYL canal. Last week, during his speech in the Punjab assembly, he spoke about safeguarding Punjab’s rights on waters of its rivers.

However, this is not the only case of states sparring over water. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are fighting over the Krishna and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry over the Cauvery. The newly formed state of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh too have locked horns over numerous water projects.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently highlighted the need for setting up a permanent tribunal for resolving extremely sensitive inter-state water disputes.

“I personally feel that we probably require a permanent tribunal rather than a tribunal which on and off takes up water dispute. So probably in a country like India, (we) require one tribunal which deals with all these disputes and also has some amount of expertise in the members of the tribunal," said Jaitley.

Water expert Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People said: “The way Punjab is acting is not justified and constitutionally incorrect. It’s true that water is a state subject, but it means the state government has been made a trustee to take care of it. Ravi and Beas catchment area is in Himachal Pradesh and what if it says that they won’t share the water with Punjab anymore?" He warned that the state governments’ handling of river issues has been getting worse and if this continues, they would give enough justification to the Centre to take control of the rivers, which would be a big loss for the states. “The need is to decentralize rivers not centralize them," he added.

Many reports in recent times have highlighted that India is a water stressed country and the disputes are bound to grow as authorities strive to manage water for India’s huge population.

On 18 February, Mint reported a recent study that said 80% of India’s 1.25 billion population faces severe water scarcity for at least a month every year and 180 million Indians face severe water scarcity all year round.

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