A battle for water

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Union Water Resource Minister Arjun Sethi with Chief Ministers Amarinder Singh of Punjab and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan at a meeting on the SYL canal in New Delhi. - M. LAKSHMAN

Union Water Resource Minister Arjun Sethi with Chief Ministers Amarinder Singh of Punjab and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan at a meeting on the SYL canal in New Delhi. - M. LAKSHMAN

The Punjab-Haryana dispute over the Satluj-Yamuna Link canal resumes as Punjab ignores another deadline for the completion of a portion of the canal and approaches the Supreme Court.

IF the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal were a Hollywood epic, its producers would without doubt have advertised it as the most expensive and useless ditch ever built. Upwards of Rs.850 crores have been spent building the 306-kilometre-long canal. But because Punjab refuses to build the small section of the project that has yet to be completed, it carries no water. The 1,700-strong staff that Punjab employs to build the canal has not had a day's serious work for the past two decades. The project even claimed two lives in July 1990, when terrorists shot dead two of its top engineers and succeeded in bringing work to a grinding halt. If the polemic emanating from Punjab and Haryana is any indication, it might just claim a few more lives before it is finally built - or, of course, simply filled in.

Ironically enough, neither outcome is unlikely to transform the lives of farmers in Punjab or Haryana.

The renewed bickering over the SYL canal in December illustrates just how often history can repeat itself, the farce deepening each time around. On January 15, 2002, the Supreme Court ordered Punjab to finish work on the canal within a year. Failing this, it said, the Union government would have to undertake the work. Justice G.B. Pattanaik noted that "the Union government is feeling embarrassed to take any positive decision, which, in our view, is not in the interest of the nation." The core problem, he argued, was "lack of political will at the Central level to deal with the problem with determination". The Centre was also ordered to find a Judge to head the Ravi-Beas Waters Tribunal, which had for all practical purposes ceased to function in 1987. True to form, neither the Punjab government nor the Centre did anything. January 15, 2003, was the seventh deadline for the completion of the canal, after the ones in December 1983, August 1986, December 1987, March 1988, June 1989 and January 1991. Like the previous ones, this was also ignored.

Central officials seem reluctant to intervene in this protracted Punjab-Haryana feud. At a meeting with delegates from all major political parties in Haryana on January 14, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee refused to commit to Central intervention. When Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala argued that the failure to build the canal was costing Haryana Rs.1,000 crores a year, Vajpayee is believed to have replied that there was nothing new or urgent about this fact, that warranted immediate action.

Efforts to resolve issues between Punjab and Haryana too have gone nowhere. A letter from Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to Chautala asking for negotiations met with a stinging riposte. Chautala described Punjab's basis for negotiations as "totally irrelevant". "I also do not feel it necessary," the letter stated, "to give my viewpoint on issues such as the transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab or Hindi-speaking areas of Punjab to Haryana in lieu thereof, or the proposed Yamuna basin allocations or Sharda-Yamuna link , as in my opinion, these issues are absolutely out of context in reference to the legal mandatory obligation caused upon Punjab for implementing the apex court judgment." As things stand, matters seem headed to exactly the same place they have been for the past decade - the Supreme Court.

A fresh legal intervention by Punjab is now awaiting hearing. Punjab, in essence, argues that it has no surplus water to release. While 17.17 million acre-feet (MAF) was earlier believed to have been available in the Ravi-Beas systems, Punjab says, the 1981-2002 flow data show only 14.37 MAF is in fact on hand. As a result, the transfer of water to Haryana would affect 9 lakh acres of irrigated land in Ferozepore, Muktsar, Moga, and Faridkot. The recharge of Punjab's depleted groundwater reserves would also be hit hard, the State government claims. Punjab argues that the release of water through the SYL canal is contingent on other key components of the 1985 Rajiv Gandhi-H.S. Longowal Accord, including the handing over of Chandigarh to Punjab, and the transfer of Punjabi-speaking areas of Haryana. Finally, Punjab claims that Haryana has no claims to the water of rivers that do not flow through its territory - that is, the Ravi and the Beas.

Both States have now hired legal top-guns to argue the issue afresh: Punjab has engaged the services of Fali S. Nariman, while Haryana will be represented by Harish Salve and P.P. Rao. Sources in the Punjab government told Frontline that the legal battle would cost both sides some Rs.50 lakhs apiece. Many experts, however, believe that chances of Punjab achieving a breakthrough in the courts are poor.

Most of the issues it has now raised were argued earlier, in a review petition Punjab had filed after the Supreme Court judgment of January 2002. In March that year, the Supreme Court rejected Punjab's arguments out of hand. Haryana, for its part, has asked the Supreme Court to set a deadline by which the Centre must complete work on the canal.

Political pressure is intense on all the players. Farmers' organisations in Punjab have demanded that the State government repudiate all its water treaties, and have threatened to obstruct construction.

In Haryana, meanwhile, Chautala's government is being accused of dragging its feet on the issue, and failing to use its leverage as a supporter of the National Democratic Alliance.

HISTORY, however, suggests that Punjab in fact has some ground to feel hard done by. The problem began in November 1966, when Punjab was divided and two new States were formed, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The Reorganisation Act of 1966 made it mandatory for the Union government to divide the waters of the Satluj and Beas systems if Punjab and Haryana were unable to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution. A decade later, since no agreement could be hammered out, New Delhi divided unutilised water of the Ravi and Beas systems between the two States. Punjab found the order unacceptable. For one, it apportioned the waters of the Ravi, excluded from the 1966 Act. Secondly, Punjab argued that the 1976 order mandated the sharing of water on the basis of its utilisation in 1960, not that which was actually used in 1976, by which time approved projects on the river systems had been completed. Punjab moved the Supreme Court, but, in 1981 withdrew its legal intervention. It instead arrived at an agreement with Haryana and Rajasthan. New flow data was used to give both Punjab and Haryana an increase in their share of water.

Unsurprisingly, the agreement created a furore in Punjab. Many people in Punjab believed that the accord was arrived at under political pressure. Experts argued that the new flow data were unreliable, and that the agreement gave the State water that did not exist. Discontent simmered on. At one point the Punjab Assembly even declared the inter-State agreement invalid. Then, in 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Shiromani Akali Dal chief Longowal arrived at a broad agreement on the Punjab problem, intended to end the terrorist violence in the State. The agreement mandated that Chandigarh was to be made the capital of Punjab and that both Haryana and Punjab would swap Hindi and Punjabi-speaking areas on their borders. In turn, Punjab would build the SYL link canal to carry water to Haryana, but with the caveat that neither State's current use of the Ravi-Beas systems would be affected.

Justice V. Balakrishna Eradi was appointed to head the Ravi-Beas Waters Tribunal, which was to find out just how much water Punjab and Haryana in fact used, and to then apportion the surplus.

The Ravi-Beas Tribunal eventually handed out a please-all interim award in January 1987, even as terrorism in the State was escalating and the government of Surjit Singh Barnala, formed as a consequence of the Rajiv-Longowal accord, was about to fall. Eradi found that the usage of Ravi-Beas waters by farmers in the three States totalled 9.711 MAF. Haryana accounted for 1.620 MAF, and Rajasthan 4.985 MAF. Punjab farmers took 3.106 MAF, including about 0.352 MAF that Rajasthan could not utilise. This left some 6.6 MAF of surplus water to be divided between the two warring States. Justice Eradi made an interim award giving Punjab 5.00 MAF, and Haryana 3.83 MAF. The problem? The numbers did not add up. The difference between the 6.6 MAF actually available, and the 8.83 MAF of water they were given, was simply ingenious fiction. Water below the rim stations of the Ravi and Beas, the lowest points at which flow data were recorded, made up the difference. Punjab correctly pointed out that this water was useless, for the simple reason that no dams or barrages could be built along the Pakistan border to store it. Moreover, Punjab claimed, the utilisation of water by its farmers was understated.

ERADI wound up work soon afterwards, citing escalation of violence in Punjab as the reason. Work on the canal, too, came to a halt. The coming of peace in 1993 did not, however, help matters. Two Congress (I)-backed Chief Ministers, Beant Singh and Bhajan Lal, failed to reach any kind of agreement. In 1997, two Bharatiya Janata Party-backed Chief Ministers, Prakash Singh Badal and Bansi Lal, again exchanged invective on the issue.

Meanwhile, in 1994, Punjab added another grievance to its growing portfolio of complaints. In May 1994, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi arrived at an agreement on the use of the Yamuna system. Use of the Yamuna was earlier governed by a 1954 inter-State agreement that gave united Punjab two-thirds of its water, and Uttar Pradesh the rest. The agreement was to have been binding until 2000, and Punjab's request to be included in the 1994 agreement was shot down outright. The State however, pointed out that if the successor-State of Haryana could be given a share of the Ravi-Beas systems, neither of which fell in its territory, Punjab ought to get a share of the Yamuna.

Punjab's efforts to arrive at some kind of deal on the Yamuna have had no success. In a November 1, 1994, letter made available to Frontline, the Centre told Punjab that since a part of the Ravi waters were used in irrigation projects on the Beas, the two rivers were clubbed together for the purposes of the Ravi-Beas award. Since the Reorganisation Act said nothing about the Yamuna, the Union government argued, Punjab was entitled to no share of it. Punjab, in two letters written on December 29, 1994 and February 10, 1995, made a forceful response. The Reorganisation Act, it pointed out, referred only to the Ravi, not the Beas. The water from the Ravi diverted through the Madhopur-Beas canal, it claimed, went to Rajasthan, not Punjab, and was in any case flowing through the system long before work began on the Beas irrigation projects. If Haryana could get a share of the Ravi, the letters argued, Punjab ought to get the Yamuna water.

Like everything else to do with the SYL canal issue, this correspondence had no outcome. The saddest part of the saga, however, is that the SYL canal issue is in essence a straw man. The real problems facing farmers in both Punjab and Haryana have to do with their colossally inefficient irrigation policies, and the indiscriminate proliferation of water-hungry crops such as paddy and sugarcane. At a recent conference, top irrigation engineer G.S. Dhillon pointed out that Punjab faced a crisis even though it had access to all the water that would be ceded if the canal was built. In 1955, Punjab had 34.8 MAF of water in all forms, but was today left with a reserve of only 12.8 MAF. While groundwater levels had been falling precipitately in areas such as Malerkotla and Sangrur owing to the excessive use of aquifers, areas on the State's borders were waterlogged because of seepage from poorly maintained canals, and the intensive watering of soils not suited for flood irrigation. Haryana has similar problems, but neither State appears to take the need for water conservation seriously.

Punjab wants to now litigate the issue afresh, arguing that political pressures skewed the whole course of events since the creation of Haryana. "We want a de novo examination of the entire issue," says Amarinder Singh. "The fact is that Punjab has just not received a fair hearing of its position over all these years." As Chautala's recent letters make clear, that is not a position Haryana is willing to accept.

While both States spend lakhs slugging it out in court, they might consider doing their farmers a real favour. Union government-backed plans for subsidies for farmers introducing sprinklers and drip irrigation seem to have been forgotten by the NDA at the Centre. Even then, by stopping early sowing in May and June, both States could save enormous quantities of water. Moving away from paddy and sugarcane to a welter of crops that need less water would also help curb both States' almost alcoholic thirst. Punjab at last seems to be making some conservation efforts, by encouraging crop diversification and introducing user charges for canal users. If these efforts take root, the outcome of the SYL battle might just prove irrelevant.

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