WRITER: K.R. Lakhanpal*
The Sutlej-Yamuna link canal, or SYL as it is popularly known, is a proposed 214 km long channel to connect the two rivers. The canal is required to carry surplus Ravi-Beas waters that have been allocated to Haryana under various agreements.
The dispute regarding the sharing of river waters arose after Punjab was reorganised in 1966. Haryana demanded 4.8 MAF (million acre feet) share of water out of Punjab’s total 7.2 MAF share of water from the rivers, while Punjab claimed the entire quantity belonged to it. As no agreement could be reached, Haryana requested the Union government to intervene in the matter. In 1976, when the country was under an internal Emergency, an executive orderThe was issued by the Union government, which allocated 3.5 MAF of water to each of the two states and the remaining 0.2 MAF to Delhi.
Pursuing construction of the canal without first determining the total quantum of water that is available for distribution amongst various states, its current usage, and quantification of surplus water, if any, for allocation to Haryana through a process of fair and judicious adjudication under the relevant laws would only be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.
The decision was met with opposition from various groups, including the All-India Sikh Students Federation, Damdami Taksal, Babbar Khalsa International and the Khalistan Liberation Force. In 1979, the Government of Punjab filed a suit in the Supreme Court challenging the 1976 executive order regarding sharing of waters between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, and also vires of Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966.
Haryana also filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court seeking directions for construction of the SYL canal. In 1976 Haryana unilaterally submitted a project report for construction of SYL Canal to the Govt. of India, and also provided a sum of Rs. 1.0 crore to Punjab for the purpose. An agreement was reached on 31st December, 1981 between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan under which Punjab's share was increased to 4.22 MAF and that of Rajasthan to 8.6 MAF, while the share of Haryana from the revised availability of 17.17 MAF, remained the same. A provision for the construction of SYL Canal was also made. All states withdrew their suits following signing of the agreement and the construction of the canal was formally launched on the 8th April, 1982. In 1985, the Punjab Legislative Assembly repudiated the 1981 agreement. Following the Rajiv-Longowal accord, Eradi Tribunal was constituted on 2 April, 1986. On 30th January, 1987, the tribunal upheld the legality of agreements of 1955, 1976 and 1981 and also increased the shares of Punjab and Haryana, allocating them 5 and 3.83 MAF, respectively.
The construction of the canal had to be abandoned in 1990 due to the gunning down of 30 labourers on the site of the canal in 1988 and the murder of a Chief Engineer and a Superintending Engineer in 1990 by the militants. Since then, the construction of the canal has been embroiled in disputes, in and outside of courts, between the warring states, culminating into the enactment of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which abrogated all the previous river water agreements with the neighbouring non-riparian states, and the President of India making a reference to the Supreme Court of India under Article 143(1) of the Constitution of India, seeking its advisory opinion on the legality of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004 and the honourable apex court, has returned the Presidential reference with its opinion. However, on 30-11-2016, the Honourable court directed status quo regarding land and property of SYL Canal. Haryana has now moved an application for execution of decree to construct SYL canal. The matter is now fixed for hearing before the apex court on the March 28.
The introduction to the dispute is necessitated to put the issue in perspective and to trace its chequered and bloody past. Pursuing construction of the canal without first determining the total quantum of water that is available for distribution amongst various states, its current usage, and quantification of surplus water, if any, for allocation to Haryana through a process of fair and judicious adjudication under the relevant laws would only be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. It is also to examine the myth that construction of the canal is a win-win and cost-free venture for both the stakeholders. That it is quite to the contrary is evident from the following:
Firstly, the so-called agreements for sharing the river waters between different states are unilateral, arbitrary and a product of political expediency, rather than an outcome of a fair and judicious process of adjudication. When Punjab’s request for constituting a new tribunal was not acceded to and the Supreme Court decreed the Haryana suit for construction of the SYL canal, the state government was left with no alternative but to enact a law abrogating all such agreements to safeguard the interests of the farmers of the state. Even while doing so, the government took care to safeguard the current use of water by different states by a specific provision in Section 5 of the Termination of Agreements Act, 2004. It shows that the state’s intention is not to deny any state its fair share of waters.
Secondly, even though the Presidential reference under Article 143(1) of the Constitution has been returned by the honourable apex court with its opinion, it is advisory in nature and the President is yet to take a view on this. As such, a window of opportunity still exists for the Union government to find a fair and just solution to this vexed issue by consulting all stakeholders. This must be seized to avoid miscarriage of justice that is bound to result from the single-minded pursuit of the construction of the canal.
Thirdly, the award of the Eradi Tribunal, holding various agreements in the matter as legally tenable, cannot be enforced, as it is yet to be finally notified after publication and hearing objections of the stakeholders, as required under the provisions of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. In the meanwhile, the Eradi Tribunal has become defunct due to the death of its Chairman. Therefore, a fair solution would be to make a reference to a new Tribunal under the new law in the making, with new terms of reference having regard to ground realities.
Fourthly, contrary to the popular belief that there is enough surplus water, which the State of Punjab is letting go down to Pakistan, rather than sharing it with its needy neighbours, there is just no surplus water. Therefore, any additional water to be given to Haryana over and above its current usage through the Bhakra Main Line (BML) system, consequent upon the completion of the SYL canal, will be through diversion and at the cost of its current users in Punjab. This will render large tracts of land in the south western Punjab a desert and will cause untold misery to lakhs of its farmers. It is also going to cost the nation dearly if apart from the cost of construction of the canal, costs arising out of loss of income and livelihood to Punjabi farmers, loss of water through leakage, seepage and evaporation over such long carrying system and the cost of lifting the water from the Western Yamuna Canal for use by Haryana farmers are also reckoned. If we add to it the incalculable cost of violence which the construction of the canal is likely to lead to, it sounds rather Tughlakesque.
Fifthly, after a long flux of time of over 40 years since the issuance of the first order of allocation of waters in 1976, the order of the Supreme Court for the construction of the SYL canal has been rendered impracticable for implementation. Radical changes in agronomy, hydrology and ecology have taken place since. The most important of such changes is the change in the availability of water for allocation to different states, which is evident from the following table:
Flow series Available water
It would be observed from the data that the water availability has reduced from 17.17 MAF based on the 1921-1960 flow series to 13.38 MAF based on 1981-2013 series. Therefore, contrary to the common belief, there is no surplus water, Punjab is not misutilising even a cusec of water and the water flows to Pakistan occur mostly during the monsoon, because of inability to store.
Sixthly, the waters of the Yamuna also formed an asset of erstwhile Punjab at the time of its reorganisation on November 1, 1966. As much as 2.64 MAF of Yamuna waters were being utilised in Haryana areas at that time. As per the agreement of 1994 amongst the states of UP, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal and Delhi, Haryana was allocated 4.65 MAF of Yamuna waters, an increase of 2.01 MAF over and above their utilisation at the time of reorganisation of Punjab. In the absence of construction of storage dams on the Yamuna, full utilisation of Yamuna waters is not being made and part of it is at present going waste.
It may, therefore, be fair to conclude that the construction of the SYL canal is likely to be a zero-sum game, resulting in no net benefit to the nation. It will only result in a diversion of about 2 MAF of water from the current usage by farmers of Punjab to an inefficient future usage by farmers of Haryana and leave in its wake a tale of misery and violence. Such a misadventure is better avoided in the larger national interest, for which the Union government must intercede with the apex court and the legitimate water needs of Haryana be met by alternative innovative means.
*The writer is former Chief Secretary, Punjab.