Why Indian river water war getting murkier?

There has been a slew of legal battles, conflicts among political parties and accords but the fact remains that Haryana stands deprived of its share.


Pic: All India Radio

This month, as the Supreme Court resumed hearings on the validity of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act-2004, the six decades long water battle between Punjab and Haryana got fresh blood.

The Act had unilaterally cancelled all agreements of Punjab with neighbouring states in relation to sharing the water of the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas rivers, thus making the construction of Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) redundant.

The Punjab government, concerned by the Centre taking Haryana’s side in this Presidential reference case, reacted immediately by passing on Monday another Bill in the assembly that would seal the fate of the SYL forever.

Called the Punjab Sutlej- Yamuna Link Canal (Rehabilitation and Re-vesting of Proprietary Rights) Bill-2016, it provides for de-notifying the acquisition of all lands acquired from farmers for the SYL and returning the same to original owners at no cost.

Dirty water politics

The new Bill has put the Punjab Governor Kaptan Singh Solanki, who is also the Governor of Haryana, in a fix.

A week after starting in the Punjab assembly that Punjab’s rights over its rivers be safeguarded, he had to assure all in his speech in Haryana assembly that Haryana government is committed to obtaining its legitimate share of Ravi-Beas waters and completion of the SYL canal.

It is a big question if Solanki will give his nod to the Bill.

This issue has also provided fodder to a very interesting political turmoil with Punjab elections less than a year away.

When the PTAA-2004 was passed by the Congress (now in opposition) led government, with the support of Akali Dal (now ruling), the then Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh was hailed as a ‘savior of water’ in Punjab.

Now, each party in Punjab is supporting the current Bill. Ironically, the BJP is either ruling or an ally in all the three governments that are in conflict now.

Even the AAP, which is emerging as a major political force in Punjab, has been dragged into the controversy after its chief Arvind Kejriwal supported Punjab’s stance and echoed Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal’s view that there is no surplus water in the state to be given to Haryana.

Haryana’s BJP CM Manohar Khattar has warned he would stop water supply to Delhi, signalling another battle.
The SYL is witnessing a peculiar situation.

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Almost Rs.700 crores worth public money has been spent on this canal, 90 percent of which has already been completed.

However, if the Punjab government has its way, a 60-year-old initiative will die a premature death even before taking birth.

Farmers in Punjab have already started to reclaim portions of the canal with the support of JCB machines supposedly provided by both the ruling and opposition party leaders.

The Supreme Court on Thursday, hearing an urgent application from Haryana government against the canal levelling, asked the Punjab government to maintain status quo on the SYL canal.

However, the government of the state was quick to reject this. On Friday, Badal tabled a resolution in this regard and got it passed unanimously.

The CM said: “We will not accept under any circumstances any decision coming from any quarters that seeks to deprive its people of their legitimate rights over Punjab’s river waters by violating the nationally and internationally accepted Riparian Principle.”

He added that there was “a wide consensus” that Punjab did not have “a single drop of water to spare for any other state”.

History ridden with conflicts

The current affairs may have made the headlines of national media because of the upcoming elections, but the conflict’s root goes back to the times of the Partition.

Disputes with regard to sharing of six river water then had led to the signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 in which both India and Pakistan were allowed unrestricted use of three rivers each. India got free access to Sutlej, Beas and Ravi.

Then, water from these rivers was shared between Punjab, Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir. In 1966, when Haryana was carved out of Punjab as a separate state, it got the natural share to water of these rivers. But conflicts started.

There has been a slew of legal battles, conflicts among political parties and accords but the fact remains that Haryana stands deprived of its share of water from Punjab. Construction of the canal to carry water has been halted since the early 1990s.

Militants had then killed about 20 labourers, a superintending engineer and another engineer working on the canal site. The work has also been halted due to SC stay orders.

No smooth sail for the grand ILR idea

Inter-state water disputes are not new for India. But the water war between Punjab and Haryana is a pointer to how such disputes are going to be murkier in future.

The SYL case is perhaps one of the best examples of how dirty and complicated such conflicts can be. It is also a perfect example of how the plan of linking rivers can go awry.

After the NDA government came to power at Centre in 2014, it revived the grand idea of Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been giving it an aggressive push.

People like me have all along warned about the disastrous consequences of such grand plans.

Water is getting scarce and opposition by states over its sharing getting shriller. Then, states have many ways to put projects like ILR off the track at any point of time if the political interests have any chance of being adversely affected.

They will not agree to SC orders, let alone tribunals and accords.


(Ranjan Panda is an Indian environmentalist, water and climate change expert).

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