Badal is the New Saviour of Punjab’s Waters But Eventually There May Not be Much to save

The Sutlej-Yamuna Link Land Bill 2016 will help chief minister Parkash Singh Badal gain political mileage but it will not help the state solve its water woes

Patiala Mayor Amarinder Singh Bajaj operates a eath moving machine brought by youth activists to fill up the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, near the Banu-Chandigarh road last week. Credit: PTI

Patiala Mayor Amarinder Singh Bajaj operates a eath moving machine brought by youth activists to fill up the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, near the Banu-Chandigarh road last week. Credit: PTI

Chandigarh: Punjab’s political narrative witnessed unprecedented changes last week thanks to chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s unexpected, and bold, step of adopting the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal (Transfer of Proprietary Rights) Bill, 2016 in the assembly. With the March 14 decision, the process of denotifying (and dismantling) the 121-km long Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal that was constructed in Punjab to carry water to Haryana has begun.

At the political level, this major action has changed the direction of political discourse in the state, with the Akali Dal regaining its lost credibility. The Akali leaders had lost every hope of an honourable exit in the February 2017 assembly elections, such was the tsunami of anti-incumbency they felt they were facing.

Interestingly, the situation would have been different had state Congress chief Amarinder Singh given a call to the people to fill up the canal on March 3 –  as was suggested to him at a meeting of the party’s manifesto committee – rather than on March 16, after Badal had already stolen a march over him. Amarinder was known as the ‘saviour of Punjab waters’, an honour he earned after the enactment of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004, which put a stop to the Supreme Court’s intervention pressing for the completion of the SYL. That legislation is presently under scrutiny by the apex court, a situation that prompted the move to denotify the canal.

While Singh had succeeded in getting his bill signed by the governor within hours of the assembly adopting it, Badal has not been so lucky. But judging by the speed with which people, helped by the state administration, have deployed heavy earthmoving machinery all along the canal to fill it up, the technicality of the governor giving his consent to the new bill is no longer relevant. Nor will it matter if the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004 or the latest SYL bill is struck down by the Supreme Court.

The facts behind the controversy

The issue of the apportionment of Punjab river waters has always been dictated by political considerations.

The seeds of the dispute can be traced to the time immediately after partition, when the Bhakra Nangal project was conceived and executed without anyone taking notice of the fact that the command area of the Bhakra canal also included parts of Rajasthan, which was in violation of the riparian principles under Article 262 of the constitution.

The facts are simple: Punjab owns three rivers but less than 30% of its land is under canal irrigation. It is the one state in which virtually all land, barring some negligible forest area, is under cultivation. The major portion of all its river water flows to Haryana and Rajasthan.

Perhaps nowhere in the country is water wastage so high as in the areas serviced by Rajasthan feeder, which carries its 8 MAF share from Harike in Punjab to Rajasthan. In the Suratgarh area, water from Punjab has turned the desert into huge swamps. Lifts have been installed at three places along this canal to lift water as this canal is an anti-gravity one. The layer of gypsum in the soil does not allow water to be absorbed. The actual utilisation of the canal water is about 45%. In southern Haryana too, lifts have been installed along the canals. Neither Haryana, which was earlier a part of Punjab, nor Rajasthan, are in the Punjab rivers’ basin.

This jinxed project took the lives of prime minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984 and Akali Dal chief Sant Harchand Singh Longowal on August 20, 1985, both of whom were gunned down by extremists driven by a set of grievances that included the question of river waters.

The waters of the three Punjab rivers started turning red on April 8, 1982, when Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone of the Punjab portion of the SYL canal at Kapoori in Patiala district. It was at Kapoori that Congress MLAs joined people in filling up the canal on March 16, an exercise that farmers started on their own, soon after the state assembly passed the bill to de-notify the canal.

At the Congress manifesto committee meeting on March 3, Amarinder Singh was advised to mobilise people to start filling up the canal in view of the case having come up in the Supreme Court for day-to-day hearing. The idea came from committee member Gurpartap Singh Mann. Amarinder liked the idea. However, Abohar MLA Sunil Jakhar suggested a walk along the canal to mobilise people. Later in the evening, Dera Baba Nanak MLA Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa also tried to convince Amarinder to go ahead with the filling of the canal. Perhaps the idea was leaked to the government, which then took matters to a logical conclusion.  After March 14, it is not Amarinder who will be known as the saviour of Punjab waters but Badal.

Badal’s role questionable

The situation is ironic for Badal as well. It was the his government that issued the first two notices on February 20, 1978 for the acquisition of land for this project under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act 1894, in villages including Kamalpur, Sarala Kalan and Ramnagar. This canal was conceived when Indira Gandhi apportioned 7.2 MAF surplus from Ravi-Beas water with each state being given 3.5 MAF on March 24, 1976 under Section 78 of the Punjab Re-Organisation Act, 1966. It is the Badal government that has now de-notified this canal and returned land to the original owners.

Badal’s role is questionable, for according to Haryana government records, his government wrote a letter to Haryana on July 4, 1978, seeking Rs 3 crore for the project.

Work on the canal stopped after the gunning down of 32 labourers at Majat village in 1988, followed by the killing of a chief engineer and superintending engineer by the Babbar Khalsa in 1990. By that time, about 80% of the job had been completed. Over the years, the canal has been crumbling. Now even its remaining parts are being destroyed by the people.

Punjab has again created history. The basic problem – of the ownership of waters – remains unresolved, however. The present flow to Rajasthan and Haryana cannot be stopped, but that is not the issue. The issue is about supplying water that is just not there, since the entire availability is presently being utilised by three states. With the alarming rate at which the water table is going down due to excessive tubewell irrigation, Punjab faces the eventual threat of turning into a desert.