A canal for campaign

Print edition : February 16, 2002

As political parties in Punjab and Haryana bicker over the Sutlej-Yamuna canal, the people of both the States show a weary disinterest in what they appear to consider a non-issue.

LAWYERS, it seems, are celebrating the campaign for the February 13 Assembly elections in Punjab. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal is suing Congress president Sonia Gandhi and State Congress chief Amarinder Singh for defamation. Badal and his son Sukhbir Badal have asked for damages of Rs.5 crores, and made their seriousness known by paying Rs.4,90,350 as court fees at a Chandigarh magistrate's court on February 8. Meanwhile, Pratap Singh Chautala, son of former Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, has moved the Supreme Court accusing Badal of contempt of court.

Congress supporters campaigning in Ludhiana.-

This explosion of litigation is the consequence of the January 15 Supreme Court order, which demanded that Punjab complete the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal within the next 12 months. Shortly after the judgment was delivered, the State Congress put out videotapes and posters that charged Badal with having sold Punjab's interests in return for a 22-acre, Rs.500-crore property at Gurgaon in Haryana. While the Badal family does own this property, which was granted by the Haryana government to construct a hotel complex, it denies that it has anything to do with the SYL canal. With his political career on the line, Badal told party workers at Kurali on January 16 that he would "not implement the court order at any cost. Not a drop of water will be given to anyone even if we have to go to jail".

In Haryana, where the SYL canal issue provokes as much irrational sentiment as it does in Punjab, politicians reacted to Badal's assertion with outrage. The Supreme Court has scheduled the hearings of Chautala's contempt petition, and on the face of it it appears that the Punjab Chief Minister is going to have difficulty explaining his position. But irrespective of whether Badal is re-elected or Amarinder Singh becomes Chief Minister, the State government is determined to seek a review of the January 15 order. It believes that the Supreme Court exceeded its jurisdiction when it issued this order. According to section 11 of the 1956 Inter State Water Disputes Act, "neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall have or exercise jurisdiction in respect of any water dispute'' of this kind.

An appeal will mean complicated legal battles, which is another reason why lawyers should be happy about the way the election campaign has progressed. What is interesting, however, is that the political affray on the SYL issue has not provoked any real public passion. Part of the reason for this may be that all political parties in Punjab, as in Haryana, agree on the issue. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party unit in Punjab, in a remarkable turnaround on its traditional position, declared on January 29 full support to Badal on the issue. But it may also be that ordinary people see the controversy as part of Punjab's ugly decade of violence, an issue that does not deserve to be centre-stage in the State's political life. No canal has caused so much bloodshed, and few people seem interested in revisiting its awful past.

WHAT then is the SYL canal issue all about? In 1960, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty, which reserved the waters of the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej exclusively for India. Six years later, however, the State of Punjab was reorganised, and the new State of Haryana claimed a share of the waters. In 1976, the Union government announced that both States would receive 3.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water from the available annual flow of 15.2 maf. Although Badal had begun the construction of the canal during his first term in 1978, Punjab felt short-changed, and moved the Supreme Court. Haryana also went to court demanding implementation of the Union notification. Five years later, Congress(I) Chief Ministers Darbara Singh and Bhajan Lal of Punjab and Harayana respectively arrived at a fresh agreement. This time the new flow data that were used pegged the water availability at 17.17 maf. This gain enabled a generous redistribution to all the States, with Punjab getting 4.22 maf, Haryana 3.50 maf, Rajasthan 8 maf and Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi 0.20 maf each.

On the streets, however, the issue was acquiring an increasingly ugly form. Politicians of the Sikh Right, who deemed the struggle against the SYL canal a dharma yuddh (holy war), declared that Punjab was being robbed of its waters by a predatory, Hindu-dominated State. Others suggested that international riparian laws ought to apply to the dispute, which would mean that only Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab could lay claim to the waters of the Sutlej, the Ravi and the Beas. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Akali Dal leader Harchand Singh Longowal arrived at their historic Punjab accord of July 1985, Clause 9 of the document acknowledged these resentments and agreed to set up a tribunal headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge to settle the issue. The accord also stated that the SYL canal would be completed by August 15, 1986, allowing Haryana and other downstream users to utilize whatever share of water the tribunal would eventually allot them. There was one caveat: that Punjab farmers would get no less than their current usage levels.

Justice V. Balakrishna Eradi began the hearings, and the government of Surjit Singh Barnala resumed construction of the SYL canal. Justice Eradi discovered that the use of Ravi-Beas water by farmers in the three States totalled 9.711 maf. Haryana accounted for 1.620 maf and Rajasthan for 4.985 maf, while Punjab took up 3.106 maf, including the 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 numbers, obviously, did not add up. The difference between the 6.6 maf actually available, and the 8.83 maf that Eradi handed out was a creative fiction. The water below the rim stations of the Ravi and the 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.

Subsequent developments made it clear just why the Tribunal had acted in the curious way it did. Senior engineers and workers of the SYL canal were killed by terrorists. In July 1988, Justice Eradi adjourned the Tribunal because of the violence in the State. It was obvious that Punjab received 0.78 maf more than it had in 1981, and Haryana 0.33 maf more than it had agreed to then, to placate their respective fundamentalists. Work on the canal came to a halt, with a length of just a few kilometres remaining to be built, which engineers estimate involves just a few months' work. A mammoth SYL bureaucracy continues to be paid for, even as much of the canal works have degenerated. One abusive exchange on the issue took place in 1994 and involved two Congress(I) Chief Ministers, Bhajan Lal and Beant Singh. After Justice Eradi resumed hearings in November 1997, on Supreme Court orders, the two BJP allies, Badal and Bansi Lal of Harayana, clashed again.

JUSTICE ERADI dealt with the tremendous pressures upon him in the safest possible way: he did nothing. That incensed the Haryana government, which went back to the Supreme Court. Justice Eradi earned an unprecedented ticking off from his former colleagues, but it is hard to see what else he could have done under the given circumstances. With both Punjab and Haryana intractable, and their politicians having turned the issue into a test of manhood, any serious award would have been greeted with outrage in one State or the other. Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch the progress of the contempt litigation against Badal. The fact is that no Punjab Chief Minister is likely to take his political life in his hands by starting work on the SYL canal, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court. A bruising confrontation between the court and the State Assembly could well be in the offing.

In some key senses, the entire SYL furore is exceptional for its senselessness. Shortages of irrigation water in Punjab and Haryana are the consequences not of SYL canal water or the lack of it, but of poor infrastructure and planning. Canals in both States routinely record transmission and distribution losses of over 30 per cent because of poor or non-existent lining. Water-logging caused by leaking canals is a serious problem in many areas, as is excessive groundwater depletion in others. Another major culprit was the massive switch-over to profitable paddy cultivation, which consumes large amounts of water, in both States. Now, with southern and eastern States having improved their production, Punjab and Haryana are both saddled with enormous stocks of paddy that cannot be disposed of. The fuss, then, is driven not by a concern for farmers, but by a concern for votes.

So far at least, the public are not biting. Loud claims by politicians that they are protecting Punjab from ruin have been greeted with weary cynicism. In most constituencies, the vital issues are not those of the supposed prestige or honour of the State, but development, unemployment and corruption. The far-Right Panthic Morcha's efforts to cash in on the SYL canal issue have not resulted even in a cross-party meeting so far, let alone rallies on the streets. Interestingly, other efforts by the Sikh Right to cash in on the issues of a decade ago also seem to have failed.

A disgraceful official order to distribute Rs.1 lakh to each of the 366 prisoners held in Jodhpur on Khalistan-related charges has won the censure of the Election Commission and little support from ordinary people. Earlier, the State government had reinstated two police officers allegedly involved in an attempt to assassinate former Director-General of Police Julio F. Ribeiro, even though the courts had upheld their removal from service.

In 1992, just one, still-unnamed person voted in the village of Panjwar, near Amritsar. And with good reason. The village is home to Khalistan Commando Force (KCF) chief Paramjit Singh Panjwar, one of the 20 terrorists whose extradition India has sought from Pakistan. The KCF had then ordered an election boycott, which resulted in not just the voters but also the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) staying away from elections. Panjwar's 88-year-old father, Arjun Singh, and his brother Sarabjeet Singh, had fled the village at the time, fearing police harassment. Now, both say they intend to play an active role in the elections. As in much of the district, banners and posters of both the SAD and the Congress(I) are visible through the village, and most people believe that the contest between the Congress(I)'s Surinder Singh Kairon and the SAD's Ranjit Singh Bhrampura will be an energetic one.

Punjab's people have put the past behind them. Their politicians, however, just do not seem to be getting the message.

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