Punjab: A River Runs Through It

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A Supreme Court verdict has handed a live-wire issue to politicians in an otherwise dull election season in Punjab

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, 1990 was a gory year in Punjab. The cycle of killings that began five years earlier showed no signs of abating. Surinder Singh remembers the summer of that year vividly. Not far from his home at the edge of his village, 13 construction labourers were mowed down in cold blood. Within days, two senior engineers were slain in Chandigarh. The labourers and engineers were working on the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal, a project meant to carry surplus river waters from Punjab to its neighbouring state Haryana. “That night, just as I was sitting down for my meal, some 200 labourers rushed to my home begging me to let them stay for a night. These men from Rajasthan used to sleep in the open in a makeshift camp. The next day, they left for good,” recounts Singh, now in his sixties, of the incident that occurred in his village Bassian in Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district.

Like his village, Punjab in general has been dished out memories of those grim days. Earlier this year, after a Supreme Court verdict on the matter of river water sharing, the state government defied instructions from the top court and began filling up the incomplete SYL canal. Compounding matters, Punjab returned land acquired for making the canal to its erstwhile owners almost overnight.

“It takes months, if not years, to get the land title changed to one’s name. When we heard the news, we enquired from our local revenue officer if this was true. He told us we could take the title deeds anytime we wanted,” a group of land owners tell Open. No questions are being asked about these farmers having to return the monetary compensation handed out to them, which in any case would be beyond their means once interest costs are added to the original sums.

In a state where elections have been a rather tame affair since the end of a secessionist insurgency in 1992, an order of the apex court on November 10th has changed the political climate within no time. The canal issue, along with religious controversies and perceived (or real) grievances against the Union Government, was among the motivating factors that propelled Punjab to a decade of violence. After a quarter century, one would imagine these would be nothing more than bad memories. Perhaps not.

Within hours of the Supreme Court delivering its opinion on a 2004 presidential reference asking if a law passed by Punjab that year—nullifying water sharing agreements with Haryana and Rajasthan—was valid, a political eruption began. Former Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who was among a handful of Congress Members of Parliament, quit his seat in the Lok Sabha as did all members of the Punjab Legislative Assembly belonging to the party. The move is considered cynical by political observers in Punjab who argued that since Amarinder Singh was leading his party’s campaign for elections there early next year, his resignation was just a matter of time. Similarly, the current Assembly is almost at the end of its term and hence Congress members quitting makes no material difference to them.

But that is not how the Congress party looks at the move. Says Amarinder Singh, speaking to Open, “Personally, I don’t think it is either an electoral issue or an election-eve strategy. It is a matter of life and death for the people of Punjab and not something that I or my colleagues in the party can even dream of being cynical about. Election or no election, we have always stood by the people of Punjab in this regard and will continue to do so, irrespective of whether we are in power or outside.” It was during his tenure as Chief Minister in 2004 that the Assembly passed the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, which the Supreme Court has now held to be unconstitutional.

The effect of the Congress move, however, has been swift. All parties—including the ‘insurgent’ Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)— latched onto the theme. Within a week of the court’s pronouncement on the presidential reference, the state Assembly passed two resolutions. One asked the Punjab government not to hand over land for the construction of the canal, nor permit any work on it. The other, more alarmingly, directed the government to approach the governments of Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and the Centre to levy ‘cost and royalty’ on water being supplied to them. On its part, AAP launched an agitation at Kapoori, the village where the SYL canal leaves Punjab and enters Haryana territory.

If elected to power by over two-thirds majority, I will bring another bill to protect the water of Punjab. I have already initiated discussions with legal experts to ensure that the people of Punjab are not made to suffer more because of diversion of SYL water

But perhaps the most dramatic raising of the political pitch came from the state government led by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). In defiance of recent Supreme Court verdicts ordering the status quo not be disturbed, Punjab rescinded a notification issued in the 1970s to acquire land for the SYL canal, so that it could be returned. In March this year, the state Assembly passed the Punjab Satluj Yamuna Link Canal Land (Transfer of Property Rights) Bill that sought to achieve that task by legislation. This was a response to another case—among a string of suits on the matter—that went against Punjab. The Bill passed by the Assembly never became a law as the Governor has not given it his assent. After the November 10th verdict, the pretence of using legislative means has been given up even before the Governor has taken a decision one way or the other. As elections near, the drama is only likely to heighten.

THE SYL CANAL issue has political potency for several reasons. For one, the charge of Punjab being ‘robbed’ of its water is an emotional one. For another, and more importantly, there are real livelihood issues involved. The state no longer has a water surplus. Estimates vary, but of the 138 groundwater assessment blocks in the state, roughly 80 per cent fall in the over-exploited category. There, the water table continues to fall alarmingly every year. It has declined to the point that the cost of extracting water is now prohibitive. “It costs close to Rs 1,000 per foot to bore out water here. The current water level is around 280 feet [under the surface]. Can you imagine the money that is needed to install a tubewell here? Forget irrigation, we don’t have water to drink,” is the common refrain of Bassian residents.

The sharing of river waters with Haryana and Punjab is a live- wire political issue in the water-scarce central and southern districts of the state where over-exploitation of ground water leaves canal irrigation as one of the few remaining feasible options. But it is too much of a stretch to say there is a one-to-one relation between the Supreme Court verdict and the way in which political parties are trying to gain mileage from the issue. The effect in different regions of the state is likely to be varied. In the water-scarce regions of Punjab through which the SYL canal passes—roughly along the eastern periphery—the response is surprisingly very different from the one that parties are hoping to exploit.

“If we are given a choice between taking our land back and the canal being built, we are in favour of water running through it,” says Manjit Singh, who has been given back six acres of land. This surprising response has impeccable logic behind it: once water flows through the SYL canal, its seepage into the adjoining soil is expected to help raise the water table over time and possibly help ameliorate the dire water shortage in this part of Punjab. This is in spite of the fact that land prices have skyrocketed in recent years.

If we are given a choice between taking our land back and the canal being built, we are in favour of water running through it

It is in southern Punjab that the political dividends from the SYL issue may be along expected lines.

THERE IS FEAR that ill-thought-out solutions to this vexed issue—one of the longest inter-state water disputes after the one on sharing Cauvery river water between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—may lead to political violence in Punjab. No one is using the expression ‘militancy’ to describe that possibility, but hints of it are loud and clear.

Open spoke to one of the most seasoned observers of Punjab politics for over three decades now, Professor Sucha Singh Gill, formerly of Punjabi University in Patiala and now at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) in Chandigarh. “At the moment,” says Gill, “Khalistanis have no space in Punjab’s politics. But if the SYL is forced on the state—by coercive implementation of the Supreme Court’s orders—I fear that extremist violence is possible. It is not clear what form this violence will take, but the likelihood of such violence cannot be ruled out at all.”

This is not an exaggerated fear. A combination of Constitutional issues, historical grievances—including seemingly unfair intervention by the Centre in the past—and now, in recent years, an acute shortage of water in the state, has ensured that a satisfactory outcome for all parties to the dispute remains elusive.

Constitutionally, water resources are a state subject and the Centre has no role to play in the matter. In case of inter-state water disputes, the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act 1956 makes arrangements for a judicial tribunal for their resolution. The Act rules out an appeal to the Supreme Court. In Punjab’s case, these principles were virtually cast aside.

“States were re-organised extensively in the 1960s. For example, Gujarat and Maharashtra were created by the Bombay Reorganisation Act of 1960. This law provided for no sharing of river waters between these states or any adjoining ones. But in 1966, when Punjab and Haryana were created, the law created a unique situation by adding a section that treated Punjab and Haryana on an equal footing in the matter of sharing river water resources when according to established legal principles there was no basis to do so,” says Pritam Singh Kumedan, a retired civil servant who argues that the legal strategy followed by Punjab has been flawed and has led the state to a cul de sac.

Then there are claims of ‘arm-twisting’ by the Centre that refuse to die down even after decades of controversy over water sharing. Much of this centres on the ‘agreement’ of December 31st, 1981, between the chief ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, which split the surplus water from the Ravi Beas river system among these states. The deal was forged under the aegis of Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister.

“At that time, Darbara Singh was the Chief Minister of Punjab. He was a Congress leader. On July 22nd, 1981, during the course of negotiations on the SYL issue, he was given an ultimatum by the Prime Minister. He was told that ‘either you sign on the dotted line or you resign from your position immediately’. It is not for me to say if Darbara Singh was a weak Chief Minister or not, but that was a sad day for Punjab,” says a person who was intimately involved in the matter.

In the last fortnight, these old grouses, historical baggage and current realities have come back to haunt Punjab once again. In real terms, there is not much ‘surplus’ river water left anymore—the allocations were made in 1976 on the basis of flow series dating to 1921-1945 and the last order of the Supreme Court has come more than a quarter century after work was stopped on the SYL canal. Politically, the apex court ruling has come at a time when the state is in election-mode, although the political temperature is yet to pick up. The one thing that is certain—irrespective of whichever party comes to power—is that re-starting work on the canal, let alone actually sharing water with Haryana, is going to be a Herculean task. No political party in Punjab will accept it willingly.

“As stated earlier, if elected to power by over two-thirds majority, I will bring another bill to protect the water of Punjab. I have already initiated discussions with legal experts to figure out all possible legal actions to ensure that the people of Punjab, already reeling under a severe water crisis, are not made to suffer more because of diversion of SYL water to the non-riparian states of Haryana and Rajasthan,” says Amarinder Singh when asked what he will do about the problem in case his party is elected to govern Punjab.

Given its complex history—including a long spell of secessionist violence—and the obduracy of governments there, Punjab appears to be a nail that sticks out when it comes to river water disputes. But a look at the map of India shows that upper riparian states almost everywhere are up in arms against a legal order that privileges a certain notion of fairness. There was Kerala and Karnataka. And now it’s Punjab, once again.