A long-running dispute

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

ROOKIE journalists visiting the Press Club in Chandigarh for the first time can, for the price of a couple of bottles of beer, acquire sage advice on how to get three front-page stories without leaving its bar. "Your first story ought to be headlined `SYL Canal Will Be Built Over My Dead Body, Says Punjab Chief Minister'," a veteran will suggest, "and the second `I Will Give My Last Drop of Blood To Build the Canal, Says Haryana CM'. Then, you can do a third piece on the raging controversy, secure in the knowledge that no one can actually deny the words you put in their mouth."

It all began in July 1955, when the Union government, allotted the surplus waters - those unused at the time by farmers and urban consumers - of the Ravi and Beas river systems. The undivided State of Punjab and the Patiala and East Punjab States Union area received 7.20 million acre-feet (MAF) a year. While Rajasthan, though not a riparian State, was granted 8 MAF on the grounds that the water was badly needed there, Jammu and Kashmir was allotted 0.65 MAF. The treaty with Pakistan was signed in 1960 and, bar some fringe mutterings on the subject, nothing further was heard of the matter for the next five years.

Then, in 1966, Punjab was divided following a prolonged Akali Dal-led agitation and the new State of Haryana came into being. No agreement was reached on the division of the Ravi-Beas waters at that time. In March 1976, under the terms of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, which mandated a division of undivided Punjab's assets in a 60:40 ratio, the Union government split 7 MAF of the Ravi-Beas system's surplus waters between Haryana and Punjab, leaving 0.2 MAF to meet New Delhi's needs. Since the Ravi-Beas system's waters could not be physically imported to Haryana, the latter's water entitlement was to be taken out from the Satluj river in Punjab through a canal fed by the Bhakra-Nangal dam that would empty into the Yamuna after passing through arid southern Haryana.

Work on the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal started in February 1978, ironically on the orders of an Akali Dal government led by former Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal - now among the most bitter critics of the canal. Dissatisfied by the pace of work, Haryana filed a case against Punjab in the Supreme Court and Punjab responded with a counter-suit. Despite the litigation, however, the Chief Ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan were able to resolve their dispute through a trilateral agreement in 1981, which was brokered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In essence, the agreement rested on new flow data which suggested that there was 17.17 MAF available in the Ravi-Beas system, up from the 15.85 MAF on which the original award had been based. This new flow data allowed everyone's allocations to be increased: Punjab now got 4.22 MAF, Haryana 3.50 MAF, Rajasthan 8 MAF, Jammu and Kashmir 0.20 MAF and Delhi 0.20 MAF.

It all could have ended happily at this point. Instead, the issue got embroiled in communal politics in the region. For the religious right in Punjab, the SYL Canal became one of the several grievances, real and imaginary, on which its claims for a separate Sikh nation-state were premised. Punjab's hard-working farmers, they argued, were being robbed of their rightful waters by a predatory Central government. The Congress regime in Haryana, which had arrogated to itself the task of representing the worst kinds of Hindu chauvinism against Sikhs, argued equally strenuously for the immediate construction of the canal. The partly constructed SYL Canal became a focus for agitation in both States, with the Punjab Assembly at one point declaring the 1981 Accord redundant - a move just one step short of the legal manoeuvre it has now executed.

A final chance for peace came in 1985, with the signing of the Rajiv Gandhi-Harcharan Singh Longowal accord. This envisaged the setting up of a tribunal, which would give an award within six months, subject to the condition that farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan would receive no less water than they were using on July 1, 1985. Even as Justice V. Balakrishna Eradi commenced his hearings, another Akali Dal government, now led by Chief Minister S.S. Barnala, resumed construction of the SYL Canal, hoping to meet its accord mandate of completion by August 15, 1996. The tribunal, for its part, discovered that the usage of Ravi-Beas water by farmers in the three States totalled 9.711 MAF. Haryana accounted for 1.620 MAF, Rajasthan consumed 4.985 MAF, while Punjab farmers used 3.106 MAF, including 0.352 MAF 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 MAF and Haryana 3.83 MAF. Neither side was happy, though both their allocations had increased. The problem was that the numbers did not really add up. Water below the rim stations of the Ravi and the Beas, the lowest points at which flow data was 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. Even as debate raged on, so did violence in Punjab. Senior engineers and workers of the SYL Canal were killed by terrorists and Justice Eradi wound up hearings in July 1988.

In fact, any reasonably dispassionate observer would have to conclude that the reason why Punjab received 0.78 MAF more than it had in 1981 and Haryana 0.33 MAF more than it had agreed to then was to placate their respective fundamentalism. Work on the canal came to a grinding halt with just a few kilometres remaining to be built and has since been degenerating beyond repair.

Debate on the issue, if name-calling can be called that, resumed in 1994 and involved two Congress Chief Ministers, Bhajan Lal and Beant Singh. In 1997, another round of confrontation took place, this time between two Chief Ministers backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, Badal and Bansi Lal, just after the tribunal re-commenced hearings.

Now, yet again, the issue is back in court. It is impossible, of course, to second-guess the Supreme Court on how it will respond to the Presidential Reference, but history suggests one of the sides will be unhappy with the outcome. During the 1997 fracas, only one party chose not to join in. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) stayed away from the succession of all-party meetings called in both States on the SYL Canal issue, arguing that the tribunal and the courts, rather than political pulpits, were the appropriate arenas for discussing the issue. It was a sound position. Seven years on, however, the temptation to play politics with water is just too strong for politicians in Punjab and Haryana to resist.

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