A canal crisis

Print edition : August 13, 2004

The controversy over the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal only serves to stoke regional chauvinism and deflect attention from the real agrarian crisis faced by Haryana and Punjab.

in Chandigarh

IT takes a fair bit of asking around to find the dank office tucked away in a corner in Chandigarh's Sector 35, the Office of the Superintending Engineer of the Satluj-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal. There used to be a board outside, a nearby cigarette-stall owner recalls, but it was removed after Khalistan terrorists shot dead engineers working on the project. For the past 15 years, ever since work came to a grinding halt, the 1,708 permanent and temporary staff hired to build the canal have had nothing to do. Strangely, most of them seem to show up for work, if collecting salaries and letters granting promotions can be called that. Every now and then, there is a rumour that the last few remaining kilometres of the SYL Canal will at last be built: that the water that runs into the right-hand power house of the Bhakra-Nangal Dam will course its way towards Haryana. It almost always turns out to be an illusion.

The Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal in Haryana.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

On July 22, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam referred Punjab's controversial Terminations of Agreements Act to the Supreme Court, starting what could prove to be the last legal round in India's longest-running and most complex water dispute. In the coming months, the Supreme Court will consider whether the Act is constitutional and whether Punjab must obey a 2002 order mandating that the SYL Canal be completed in a year. The Act is unprecedented: it is the first time a State government has sought to overturn a Supreme Court order through legislative means. Even the Karnataka Assembly, which passed legislation on how much water it would release to Tamil Nadu from reservoirs on the Cauvery, sought to overturn only an award of a water disputes tribunal, not a judicial fiat (see separate story).

Punjab's move has sparked off a furore in neighbouring Haryana, which has threatened to retaliate by abrogating the Yamuna Waters Treaty, crucial to meeting the water needs of New Delhi. The State has witnessed massive protests and its Congress MLAs have threatened to resign en bloc if those from other parties will join them.

By contrast, almost everyone in Punjab is standing behind the Act. It is not hard, however, to spot the many ironies glossed over by the extraordinary support Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's course of action has won him in Punjab. Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader and former Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, at Amarinder Singh's throat until recently because of the Chief Minister's anti-corruption campaign, has thrown his weight behind the Act. Yet, it was during Badal's term as Chief Minister that work on the canal first began, in 1978. Three Congress Chief Ministers - Punjab's Darbara Singh, Haryana's Bhajan Lal and Rajasthan's S.C. Mathur - along with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed the 1981 agreement Punjab now seeks to repudiate (see box).

Punjab has said it does not actually intend to renege on the quantity of river water it has been releasing to other States in past years, but no hard commitments have been made on just how much will be given and when. Just as important, it is obvious that Punjab's course of action takes Indian federalism into uncharted waters. No one is quite certain just how the SYL Canal saga will play out - and what it will mean for emerging and existing water disputes across the country.

For all the opprobrium the Act has earned him, however, it is hard to flaw Amarinder Singh's political survival instincts. Starting work on the SYL Canal would have given a political handle to the SAD, something the Punjab Congress can ill afford. At once, the fact that the Chief Minister chose the path of confrontation with the Supreme Court casts instructive light on the state of the central Congress apparatus. In this case, the interests of the Punjab unit of the party clearly prevailed over its national interests, since the Act is likely to damage the Congress' chances in the elections to the Haryana Assembly. Politicians close to the Chief Minister say that the central leadership was only told that the Punjab Congress was considering a dramatic tactic to avoid starting work on the SYL Canal, but its advice was not sought. Some analysts point to the unusually rapid gubernatorial assent given to the Act as evidence that the Union government preferred to duck a bruising confrontation with the Punjab government. If true, it would suggest that some kind of dramatic shift in the structure of power within the Congress apparatus is under way.

ADVOCATES of Punjab's new law have not, however, put forward a particularly compelling case on the actual issues so far. In full-page advertisements put out in newspapers across India, the Punjab government has argued that the latest flow data shows the amount of water in the Satluj has declined from an average of 17.17 million acre-feet (MAF) a year, on which the 1981 agreement was based, to just 14.37 MAF now. But the significance of this data has not been made clear. The average amount of water available in a river will always fluctuate over the years, depending on several factors, notably rainfall. The latest data include several bad monsoon years; a succession of good monsoon years would raise the average amount of water available to the 1981 levels or higher. The data is at best an argument for a clear distress formula, which would divide the burden of a bad monsoon among all the users. This, however, would have to be hammered out in the Eradi Tribunal or in multilateral dialogue, and does not per se constitute an argument against agreements signed in the past.

Similarly, Punjab's riparian rights argument is problematic on several counts. Legal convention and discourse on the issue has, worldwide, rejected narrow riparian rights claims and privileges the need for water over territorial rights. Punjab claims that Haryana ought not to have been granted waters from the Satluj since it is not a riparian state, or, alternately, that it should have received a share of the Yamuna waters, which pass through Haryana. This line of argument is specious on a first-principles basis. Until the 1966 division of Punjab, the residents of what is now Haryana had riparian rights, and cannot have lost them simply because of a redrawing of State borders - a redrawing, moreover, demanded by political parties in what is now Punjab, not Haryana. Equally important, Punjab has pressed its own claims to a share of Yamuna waters through the courts. In 1995, after the Yamuna basin States signed an agreement on the use of its waters, Punjab moved a legal challenge to its exclusion from the process. If Punjab believes it deserves a share of the Yamuna waters, it needs to mount a credible legal campaign - not abrogate agreements.

Punjab's argument that the 1981 agreement constitutes unreasonable Union intervention in a State subject is also somewhat perplexing. The Union's rights to the waters of the Satluj, the Ravi and the Beas were the outcome of the Indus Waters Treaty, which gave Pakistan exclusive rights to the waters of the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab and India the use of the three southern rivers. Interestingly, some politicians in Jammu and Kashmir have argued against the Indus Waters Treaty, claiming it robbed the State of rights to rivers that flow through its territory. In this case, Union mediation compelled all States - Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh - to make sacrifices and sought to protect all their interests. Should all agreements be abrogated, Himachal Pradesh could in principle start demanding royalties for the water and power it releases to Punjab and the Union government could, in turn, ask for reimbursement of the funds it pumped into the construction of the dams at Bhakra-Nangal, Ranjit Sagar, Pong and Chimera. It could also begin to unilaterally sell water, to which Punjab is currently entitled, to other States. Himachal Pradesh residents could argue that they bore the brunt of the submergence caused by the dams and ask for recurring compensation.

What none of the States seems to be addressing is the most basic question of all: how much water do the farmers of Punjab and Haryana actually need? According to former Haryana government Chief Engineer Ram Niwas Malik, the command area of the Sirhand Canal, which feeds water released from the right-hand power houses of the Bhakra-Nangal Dam, simply cannot absorb all of the 7.0 MAF diverted to it from the Beas. Therefore, he says, the 3.85 MAF Haryana was granted for use through the SYL Canal would have been diverted without fuss had the division of Punjab not occurred. In other words, Malik seems to believe that chauvinistic concerns, not actual need, have shaped Punjab's move - it simply does not need the water that is Haryana's due.

Others, such as agricultural economist S.S. Johl, believe that any reduction in the canal water available to Punjab will lead to massive problems. In fact, Johl argued in a recent article that even the existing levels of irrigation in Punjab were not enough to stave off a crisis. The "water-table is receding at the rate of 36 to 42 inches per year in most parts of the central districts", he wrote. "If this trend continues, Punjab will be a barren State in less than a decade."

Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.-RAJEEV BHATT

IF nothing else, these irreconcilable views point to the need for a much more careful and nuanced debate on the use of water in both States, one that transcends any kind of parochialism. Some of the hysteria in Haryana on the SYL Canal issue is particularly hard to comprehend, since the lack of irrigation in its southern districts has not stopped the State from registering impressive growth in agriculture and industry. In Punjab, for its part, agricultural scientists and economists have for decades been calling both for massive investments in irrigation systems, to reduce seepage losses that exceed 30 per cent, as well as measures to contain the irrational use of water on soils that are less than ideal for flood irrigation. The massive rise in land committed to growing water-hungry paddy and sugarcane in both States is a large part of the problem and has caused considerable depletion of the water table. Neither State government, however, seems willing to even discuss the possibility that the right kind of public investment and usage policies could be more important to their long-term water security than the loss or gain of water through the SYL Canal.

Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Underlying the desperation, particularly in Punjab, is a larger crisis that confronts the farming community - one that has nothing to do with the SYL Canal debate. As the Punjab University academic Dr. H.S. Shergill pointed out: "[The] falling water table and environmental degradation are, no doubt, serious problems; but are certainly not the central issue. The core of Punjab's agrarian crisis is the stagnation of farm incomes for the past many years, and farmers' fears of imminent fall in their incomes if the World Trade Organisation agenda is implemented thoughtlessly." In several scholarly papers, Shergill noted that efforts to push farmers out of the wheat-rice cycle imposed punitive costs on them and exposed them to dangerous price fluctuations seen in new high-value crops. Instead, he argued, the answer to the agrarian impasse lies in improving the efficiency of cultivation techniques, the increased mechanisation of farming and a real effort to rebuild the public distribution system, bearing in mind that by some estimates, the slow growth of foodgrain production will mean that India will face a deficit by 2020.

As things stand, then, Punjab will face serious problems even if it does not lose water through the SYL Canal. "The scope of further expansion of irrigated areas is very limited," Shergill noted. "Most of the easy options for increasing canal irrigation have already been exploited. Ground water in dry areas has been tapped so heavily that the water table has fallen precipitously and there is little scope of further expansion of tubewell irrigation." Punjab, then, needs to be talking seriously about reducing its usage of water - in its own long-term interests. Haryana, too, needs to seriously consider if the arid southern districts will be well served by massive canal irrigation, or whether other, more cost-effective and sustainable options exist. India's experiments with water imports through canals have not always been happy, and the sad fact is that there is simply not an adequate body of scholarly work on the potential impacts the SYL Canal would have on southern Haryana soils. In both States, however, emotive mass mobilisation on river water issues has been a way for politicians to deflect attention away from the very real agrarian crisis they face and the need for serious, constructive reform.

Where might events go from here? The decision to refer the Punjab legislation to the Supreme Court means that all parties have some breathing space. Judging by past experience in politically sensitive and complex issues, it could be several years before the Supreme Court hands down a final verdict. Most legal experts seem to believe Punjab has a less than fighting chance of securing judicial redress. Should its challenge to the 1981 agreement fail, the State will have little option other than to construct the remaining portion of the canal. Others believe Punjab will use the nuisance value of its legislation to attempt to secure a softer deal, perhaps involving the loss of less water to Haryana, or a face-saving share of the waters of the Yamuna. Whatever happens, it is unlikely farmers in either State will actually benefit a great deal. It is certain, however, that the ugly regional chauvinism unleashed in recent weeks will gather momentum, spurred on by the patronage it has received from politicians in both Punjab and Haryana. So far, there has been little violence on the issue, but it seems possible that the SYL Canal will claim more lives before it is finally built.

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