How the River Waters Dispute May Change the Course of Punjab Politics

Elections in the state are less than a year away but a Supreme Court decision on the sharing of waters with Haryana may end up having major implications for all the parties in the fray.

The river Satluj near Ropar. Credit: Harpreet Riat/Flickr CC 2.0

The river Satluj near Ropar. Credit: Harpreet Riat/Flickr CC 2.0

Chandigarh: The decades-long legal dispute between Punjab and Haryana on the sharing of river waters is back in the spotlight. This week, the Supreme Court resumed hearings on the validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act.

With the Punjab elections less than a year away, this issue has the potential to change the political discourse in the state. This development may give political advantage to the Congress, as it is the party’s state chief, Capt. Amarinder Singh who passed the Act in question during his tenure as chief minister.

On the other hand, the Aam Aadmi Party, a new contender that is emerging as a major challenger to the Congress and the ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance, may take some time to comprehend not just the ramifications of this new development, but the core issue itself, which has a violent and complicated history.

A brief history

Map of the rivers of undivided Punjab, circa 1890

Map of the rivers of undivided Punjab, circa 1890

The issue goes back to the creation of the state of Haryana.

After Partition, a dispute arose between India and Pakistan on the sharing of water from the rivers of undivided Punjab: Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. In order to settle this, the two countries signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, under which both were allowed unrestricted use of three rivers each. India was allocated the eastern rivers – Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi.

Once this treaty was signed, the water from these three rivers was shared between Punjab, Delhi, and Jammu and Kashmir. Punjab was re-organised in 1966, and the state of Haryana was created out of it. As a successor state, Haryana was eligible to receive a share of Punjab’s river waters. The river Yamuna – whose course took it   through undivided Punjab but now flowed only in Haryana – was never considered a part of this arrangement.

Predictably, the sharing of river waters became a bone of contention between Punjab and Haryana. In 1976, Indira Gandhi intervened in the matter, ruling that of the available 15.2 million acre feet (MAF) water from the three rivers, Punjab and Haryana would receive 3.5 MAF each. With this, the seeds of trouble were sown.

Map of Punjab rivers and the proposed Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal. Credit: KBK

Map of Punjab rivers and the proposed Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal. Credit: KBK

In 1979, Haryana approached the Supreme Court to implement this allocation. Punjab filed a civil suit in the apex court a few months later, challenging it. These lawsuits began a slew of legal battles that continue to this day.

As it stands now, the core issue is the completion of the Sutlej Yamuna Canal which was meant to carry water from Punjab’s rivers to Haryana. Construction of the canal was halted in 1990, after militants gunned down a number of workers, the superintending engineer, and the chief engineer.

In 2002, the Supreme Court issued a directive to the Punjab government to complete the canal. To counter this, Capt Amarinder Singh, then the chief minister of Punjab, helmed the Punjab Termination of Waters Agreement Act, 2004, which was unanimously adopted by the Punjab assembly.

The Act annulled all earlier accords and awards on the apportionment of river waters between Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan, and provided statutory protection for the first time to the water already flowing to Rajasthan and Haryana. Within the state, the captain became known as ‘the Saviour of Punjab’s Waters.’

The role of the Akali Dal

On this issue, the role of the Akali Dal in general, and that of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in particular, has always been ambiguous.

Badal became the chief minister of Punjab for the second time in 1977. The same year, his friend, Devi Lal took over as his counterpart in Haryana. It was under Badal’s regime that the design of the Sutlej Yamuna Canal was finalised, and the first notice for the land acquisition in order to build it was issued.

Years later, Akali Dal leader Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra claimed that Badal had acquiesced to a suggestion from Devi Lal to jointly lay the foundation of the Sutlej Yamuna Canal. However, Tohra says he intervened and convinced Badal not to act on this. Later, Badal downplayed his involvement in the project by claiming that bureaucrats acting independently might have been responsible for beginning the process of land acquisition to build the canal.

The construction of the canal was eventually undertaken by the Akali Dal government headed by Surjit Singh Barnala in 1985.

Despite these associations with the canal, the Akali Dal’s Dharam Yudh Morcha in 1982 opposed its construction. This issue was ‘resolved’ under the Punjab Accord, signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Akali Dal president Harchand Singh Longowal. Construction resumed, only to violently come to a halt with the 1990 killings.

The current situation

The Punjab Termination of Waters Agreement Act, 2004, was referred to the Supreme Court by the President of India in that same year. Now, Haryana has petitioned the court to expedite the case.

The Narendra Modi government’s stand is that the enactment of this Act by Punjab violated two earlier Supreme Court judgments. Politically, this line threatens the BJP’s alliance with the Akali Dal in Punjab. The BJP is, of course, the ruling party in Haryana.

As for the Aam Aadmi Party, it is yet to understand the nuances of this issue and take a firm stand.

In case the Supreme Court rejects the Act passed by Capt. Amarinder Singh, the river waters will be on the boil again. This may well become the main issue in the upcoming state elections. Since it is Capt. Singh who is responsible for the Act, this would augur well for the Congress.

Incidentally, Capt. Singh had defied party chief Sonia Gandhi and then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s authority by not consulting them before enacting the legislation in 2004. Today, it seems, that act of rebellion might end up helping the party regain Punjab.

  • Anil Maheshwari

    Politics and litigation continue to play havoc with farmers in Haryana over the contentious issue of sharing river water from Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL)Canal. The conflict over sharing of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej waters began in 1966, when Haryana was carved out of Punjab and the new state demanded a share under the Punjab

    Interestingly, the Reorganisation Act is not recognised by Punjab. Despite numerous interventions by the centre and the Supreme Court, the Sutlej Yamuna canal remains incomplete and a general stalemate prevails. In the midst of this controversy, the main issues facing farmers in the two states remain unanswered – that of inefficient irrigation policies and practices and increasing cultivation of water intensive crops like paddy and sugar cane.