Water War

Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal

S S Mahil

In the recent budget session of Punjab Vidhan Sabha, Akali-BJP govt. led by Parkash Singh Badal got a Bill passed denotifying the land acquired by Punjab governmentt for construction of Satluj-Yamuna link canal and returning it to the original owners of the land. This stirred a hornet's nest in the politics of Punjab and Haryana. Indian National Lok Dal, a family enterprise of Chautala clan, declared breaking off of political relations with Akali Dal but not family relations with the Badals , which are above all based on mutual business interests. All parties including ruling BJP raised a volcano of wordy dust on this issue. All MLAs belonging to Haryana demonstrated in front of Punjab Vidhan Sabha. Similarly both the states accused the ruling dispensations of betraying the interests of the state.

As Punjab is going to have assembly elections within the year, a dog fight on this issue is particularly very sharp and furious with Akalis blaming Congress for giving water of Punjab rivers to other states---- Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan---- without any justifiable basis, with discriminatory and repressive attitude toward Punjab. On the other hand Congress is blaming Akalis and particularly Badal for helping the loot of waters of Punjab rivers because of his personal and family friendly relations with Chautala family.. Aam Aadmi Party which is also a major player in coming assembly elections and hopes to form government in Punjab is in catch twenty two situation and is trying gimmickry in an utterly opportunistic method. Kejriwal, when in Punjab, gave a statement that only Punjab has the right over its river waters, but when he reached Delhi, he said that Haryana and Delhi should also get water from Punjab rivers. In the Supreme Court, the attorney of Delhi Government of Arvind Kejriwal opposed Punjab and supported Haryana baring its real character as a ruling class opportunistic party.

Though Congress and Akali party are accusing each other of loot of river waters of Punjab, the truth is that both are responsible for this predicament, Congress being mainly responsible. In 1966 Congress government at the Centre got Punjab Reorganisation Act passed resulting in creation of Haryana and Himachal from erstwhile Punjab. According to Section 246 the river water was retained by Central government. Though control of head works in Haryana and Himachal is with those states but control of head works of Punjab is with the Centre. Indira Gandhi led Congress government was at the Centre and Giani Zail Singh led Congress government in Punjab in 1976 when Indira Gandhi gave an award giving 3.5 million acre foot water each to both Punjab and Haryana and announced construction of Satluj- Yamuna link canal. It was none other than Indira Gandhi who inaugurated the digging of SYL at village Kapuri in Patiala district in 1980 and it was Captain Amrinder Singh who published a poster welcoming it. So Congress and its present leader in Punjab are mainly responsible for the SYL issue and the water crisis in Punjab.

But Akali Dal too is not free from the blame and is partly responsible for SYL issue. After 1977, when Congress was defeated in assembly elections after its defeat in Lok Sabha election, Akali-Janata Party coalition came to power in Punjab and Parkash Singh Badal became chief minister. Similarly in Haryana Janata Party government came to power and Ch. Devi Lal became the chief minister. At that time Badal took rupees two crores for the construction of SYL. After a prolonged agitation and so much bloodshed in Punjab, an accord was signed by the then Akali Dal President, Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, popularly known as Rajiv- Longowal accord, in which apart from other items, one was that SYL will be completed within a stipulated period. Thus Akali Dal committed itself to construction of SYL. Twice National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government assumed power at the Centre while simultaneously Akali Dal was holding reins of power in Punjab but it never did anything to undo the injustice meted out to Punjab by various governments at the Centre. It did not even raise this issue with its leading coalition partner but consigned the matter to cold storage. When Captain Amrinder Singh, as Chief Minister of Punjab, got an Act enacted by legislative assembly terminating all the agreements on water sharing then Akali Dal felt that Amrinder had high -jacked this important issue. Now with defeat looming large in coming assembly election Badal has tried to grab this issue and put his opponents on defensive.

Though Akali and Congress parties are trying to use this issue as a political weapon for assembly elections but this is not a non-issue for the people. On the other hand it is a real issue which has become a question of life and death for people of Punjab as they are facing a very serious water crisis. Threat of desertification is looming large over Punjab. If the water problem is not handled properly, the days are not far off when Punjab will become desert.

Punjab was the first state selected by imperialists to implement their agricultural model with maximum use of chemicals in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides. First requirement for this model was abundant availability of water round the year, the other being an owner peasantry. Though most part of the irrigation canal network remained in western Punjab in Pakistan at the time of Partition, a very scanty portion was in eastern Punjab which became part of India. But Punjab had a shallow aquifer of sweet water usable for agriculture which could be easily pumped out by installing mono block pump sets. Peasants pumped out water excessively as ground water available was very less. This has led to the emptying of the shallow aquifer available at 40-50 feet. Now they have to sink tube wells 350 feet deep and water can be pumped out by using submersible pump sets only. The situation now is that this aquifer is also nearing its end. As a result of this, 124 blocks out of 145 blocks of Punjab are already declared black blocks, where no further tube wells shall be sunk but despite this sinking is continuing making the situation further worse. This has pushed the poor, small and marginal peasants out of cultivation, making them dependent on landlords and rich peasants because they (poor, small and marginal) are not in a position to afford submersible tube wells which cost at least Rs. one to one and a half lakhs. These peasants have only two options - either to stay at the mercy of landlords-rich peasants or be edged out of cultivation. Both these processes are on. Apart from water for agriculture, drinking water has also become a very serious problem. As sweet drinkable water was available only 40 to 50 feet deep, even agricultural labourers were able to draw water with the help of simple and cheap hand pumps but after the shallow aquifier drying up as an ill effect of imperialist model of agriculture, hand pumps are not possible in most parts of Punjab. So rural workers, small, poor and middle peasants are dependent on water supplied from the public works water supply. Following the policies of privatization, Punjab government has handed over 27 government departments, mostly related to public welfare, to the Panchayats. As these Panchayats are not allotted any additional funds for these departments and Panchayats don't have any credible and sufficient resources of their own, so the functioning of these departments is generally bogged down. Public water supply is in such a situation that running of this is funded by user charges and poor people are mostly not able to pay these charges. So electricity bills are generally not paid and electricity connections are snapped and people remain without water for long periods or are dependent on rich class/upper caste people who have submersible pumps in their houses. A similar situation arises when there is some break down.

Thus if such a situation continues unabated then Punjab will become a desert in the near future. So more availability of surface water and recharging of water table is a must to save Punjab from becoming a desert. While ruling class parties play their political gimmicks, the water question is of life and death for the people of Punjab.

Rivers of Punjab are part of Sindhu (Indus) river system. When British left India in August 1947, India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan. As a result Punjab and Bengal were partitioned. So the question of distribution of water of Indus river system between India and Pakistan became a contentious issue between both the countries. World Bank, considering this an international dispute of river system, intervened. It sent a team of experts to examine this issue. Both countries, while presenting their cases, exaggerated their claims beyond the ground reality. Finally, on the basis of use (as overwhelming portion of canal system was in Pakistan) India got only 31.3 million acre feet water out of the total 170 million acre feet while the rest went to Pakistan.

On 29 January 1955, Government of India convened an inter-state conference for sharing of river waters. In this meeting a decision regarding Ravi-Beas water was arrived at according to which the total surplus water was 15.85 million acre feet, out of which Punjab was allotted 5.9 million acre feet, Pepsu was given 1.3 million acre feet, Rajasthan was allotted 8 million acre feet. In 1956 Pepsu state was merged with Punjab, hence share of Punjab became 7.2 million acre feet. But despite this distribution of river water no proper treaty was signed by the Government of India and concerned state governments. At that time agriculture was not developed. It was mostly one crop cultivation, so neither the people nor the state government were aware of the ill effects of this distribution and none took this problem seriously, so it was not contested.

On November first 1966, Punjab State Reorganisation Act was passed. Punjab was divided and state of Haryana and Himachal were created. Instead of deciding the issue of water on the basis of internationally accepted principles, Union government inserted Articles 78, 79 and 80 according to which right to distribute the river waters was with the Centre. The control and maintenance of hydel projects and head works was given to the Haryana state and those falling in Himachal were given to Himachal state government. This was a very clear and glaring case of discrimination against the state of Punjab. In the light of the above Act, Central government issued a notification on 24th March 1976 regarding the distribution of Ravi-Beas river water. According to this notification the so-called surplus water was equally divided between Punjab and Haryana, both were given 3.5 million acre feet each and Delhi was awarded 0.02 million acre feet. According to this notification water for Haryana was to be carried by a canal named Satluj -Yamuna link canal. The whole cost of construction of this canal was to be borne by Haryana. In 1979 Punjab government challenged Articles 78, 79 and 80 of the Punjab State Reorganisation Act 1966. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 mid-term poll, she called a meeting of chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan on 31st December 1981 and forced an agreement on river water sharing. Before that she forced Congress chief minister Darbra Singh of Punjab to withdraw the case challenging Sections 78, 79 and 80 of Punjab Reorganization Act 1966 from Supreme Court. According to this agreement, Satluj - Yamuna link canal was to be completed in a short period in pursuance of notification of 1976. Implementing this agreement, Indira Gandhi inaugurated the digging of SYL on 6th April, 1982 at Kapuri village in Patiala district. Akalis, CPI, CPM and Janata party launched an agitation named Kapuri Morcha by courting arrests at Kapuri. Meantime, Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale launched a Dharm Yudh Morcha in Amritsar for the release of Bhai Amrik Singh, president of Sikh Students Federation. Akali Party abandoned Kapuri Morcha and joined Dharmyudh Morcha of Bhinderanwale. Rise of Khalistani terrorism, State terror and military attack on Golden Temple and destruction of Akal Takht in1984 are well known. On 24th July 1985 an accord was signed by President of Akali Dal Sant Harchand Singh Longowal and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. It envisaged that Satluj-Yamuna link canal would be completed by August 15, 1986. A Commission was to be appointed to ascertain the water surplus of being utilized by three states and to distribute this surplus water between Punjab and Haryana. In pursuance of this agreement a one man Commission of Justice Bala Krishna Iradi was appointed on 2nd April, 1986. The Commission submitted its report to the Central Government on 30th January 1987. But Justice Iradi artificially increased the total availability of water. It arbitrarily increased the water flow in Ujh and Basantar streams in Nrot Jaimal Singh block of Gurdaspur district (now Pathankot district) whereas these were only seasonal streams. Commission distributed the water in the ratio of 70:30 to Punjab and Haryana. Thus Justice Iradi distributed an imaginary amount of water which did not exist on the ground. Construction of SYL canal continued. Khalistanis fired and killed workers involved in construction of SYL; since then work on this project has remained at a stand-still.

In 1996, Haryana government approached the Supreme Court pleading to order the Government to urgently complete SYL canal. Supreme Court directed Punjab government to complete construction of SYL within one year and also directed Union government that if Punjab government fails to complete the work then Union government shall get it completed by its own agency. This judgment was given on15th January 2002. But construction of canal did not start despite this Supreme Court judgment. Meanwhile Congress government led by Captain Amrinder Singh came to power in Punjab. This government got an Act passed by Punjab assembly terminating all the agreements signed by Punjab government on sharing of river waters since 1981. When this Bill was sent to the Governor for his assent, he sent it to the President of India. President approached the Supreme Court for advice. He asked the Supreme Court's advice on the following points: (1) Whether the Act passed by Punjab assembly is within the purview of the constitution or not? (2) Is this Act violative of Water Dispute Act 1986, Punjab Reorganization Act 1966 and notification of 1976? (3) Does Punjab Government have legal right to terminate the agreements of river water distribution? Has Punjab government become free from the Supreme Court verdicts of 15 January 2002 and order of 4th June 2004?

This is the brief history of the dispute on water sharing between Punjab and Haryana. But if we peep deep beyond the surface of this maze of agreements and notifications, this is nothing but a history of discrimination and high-handedness against Punjab. Why? Because all these agreements, notifications and orders were not based on any principles recognised at international and national level but were based on the political exigencies of ruling dispensations and arbitrary whims of the chief of the ruling party at the Centre. This was a policy of divide and rule, initiated by British colonialists and followed by their native successors on the basis of regions.

What are the internationally and nationally recognised principles of sharing of river waters between countries and provinces? Most recognised and implemented principle is the principle of riparian rights. This means that when a river passes through a country then that country is a riparian country and in a country if it passes though a province then that province is the riparian province of that river. If the river passes through more than one country or more than one province than those countries or those states are riparian countries or provinces of that river. The province or country through which the river flows first is called the upper riparian and in which it enters later is called lower riparian. In the case of Indus river system, India is upper riparian country and Pakistan is lower riparian country. Similarly in case of Satluj, Raavi and Beas rivers, Himachal is the upper riparian state and Punjab is the lower riparian state. This riparian law is based on the fact that if a river is flooded it causes destruction and damage in that country or state through which it flows, hence only that country or state has the right to harness the water of that river and reap benefits from it and non riparian states have no right on river water as they have not to suffer any loss and damage because of that river. It was because of this riparian right that water of Indus river system was divided between India and Pakistan through international mediation. It was because of riparian right that when Rajasthan demanded a share in Narmada river water, Supreme Court refused to accept the right of Rajasthan as Rajasthan was not a riparian state of Narmada river.

In the light of riparian principle, none of the Punjab rivers i.e. Satluj, Raavi and Beas even touch Haryana and Rajasthan, what to talk about passing through those states. Those are in no way riparian states of Satluj-Raavi -Beas and have no right on the water of theserivers. Only Punjab and Himachal are riparian states of these rivers and only Punjab and Himachal have right on the water of these rivers. As Himachal has already drawn its share hence only Punjab has the right on the water of these rivers flowing in Punjab. Giving water of these rivers to Haryana and Rajasthan ignoring all the established principles of water sharing and without any judicious basis is a clear case of vendetta and discrimination against Punjab. On humanitarian ground drinking water can be given to these states but giving water for agriculture or industrial purposes has no legal basis. No law provides for the giving of water for irrigating the fields of non-riparian states at the cost of parching and making barren the green fields of the riparian state.

Other principle regarding water is the basin principle, which means that all the rivers which have one basin are to be considered one water and if any of the rivers of one basin passes through some states then that state has the right on the water of all the rivers of that basin. Looking from this angle also Haryana or Rajasthan have no right on the river water of Punjab rivers. It is more than clear that Punjab is situated in the Indus river system whereas Haryana is located in the Yamuna basin and Rajasthan is in no basin. So according to basin principle too Haryana and Rajasthan have no right on Satluj-Raavi and Beas waters.

As earlier said, when World Bank team came to settle the water distribution between India and Pakistan, both sides tried to artificially inflate their claims. N.D. Gulati, who represented the Indian side, in his effort to inflate India's claim tried to present Ghaggar as a river belonging to the same delta i.e. Indus system rivers. He tried to argue that as Ghaggar touches Rajasthan also so India needs water for Rajasthan. Haryana tries to base itself on the argument of ND Gulati ignoring that this argument was not accepted and India could get only 31 million acre feet water. Leaving aside history, let us base on facts. The fact is that Ghaggar is not a river, it is only a seasonal stream which passes through Punjab and Haryana and withers away in Rajasthan.

Another argument put forward by Haryana is that at the time of carving out Haryana from Punjab all the assets were divided in the ratio of 60:40, 60% for Punjab and 40% for Haryana, so water should also be shared in the same proportion between two states. But this argument is basically misplaced and untenable. Assets divided between two states are those that are human creations and water is not an asset in that sense but is a natural resource which cannot be shifted from one place to another. If those are to be shared that can be on the basis of universally accepted and implemented principle and that principle is the riparian right principle. As discussed earlier Haryana has no right on river water of Punjab.

After examining the matter from all angles it is clear that there is no basis for construction of SYL. The water crisis Punjab is facing, is a question of life and death for it. If this construction is pushed through by some administrative measure or court order it will have very serious consequences for the whole region.

Vol. 53, No. 18, Nov 1 - 7, 2020