There is a long-standing dispute between the states of Punjab and Haryana over water-sharing agreements. Their dispute has hit the news again recently when Punjab’s Assembly proposed a Bill to return land acquired for the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal. This project is intended to carry Haryana’s share of water from the Indus river basin.
1. Disputes over the unfair division of state Punjab
The dispute has its roots in the post-Independence era during reorganisation of India. In 1966, the Province of Punjab was divided into Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana, of which the latter two had the most water, causing disputes among the neighbours. Various water sharing arrangements and projects were proposed to resolve this dispute, and a key element of the solution was to build the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal.
2. Punjab government backs out of the water sharing agreement
However, the Punjab government did not hold up its end of the agreements. Despite having signed the water sharing accord in 1981, the Punjab Government has repeatedly stalled construction of the canal on its end. It has also formalised this position through the passage of legislation in 2004, disavowing its part in the YSL Canal project. To aggravate matters even further, the Punjab Assembly passed the ‘Transfer of Property Rights Bill’ during the ongoing Budget Session, authorising the repatriation of land acquired for the SYL project back to the original owners.
3. An incomplete project causing losses to Haryana
The SYL project has cost a lot and is almost complete, but remains useless until it is finished. 90% of the 212km route is complete at the cost of over Rs. 700 cr. In fact, the Haryana portion of the canal was completed by 1990. Haryana’s Irrigation Minister, OP Dhankar, has claimed a loss of Rs. 35,000 crore to the state government due to the incomplete canal, and an additional Rs. 20 crore in litigation costs. Meanwhile, agriculture in Haryana remains water-deficient, adding to the difficulties faced by the state’s peasantry.
4.The Supreme Court’s verdict
The Supreme Court stepped in on 17th March 2016 and directed the Punjab government to finish the project, but it has yet to fulfill its end. In 2002, and again in 2016, the Supreme Court had ruled that the canal must be constructed, but the verdicts were defied both times. More recently, activist farmers have been supported by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) as they started occupying land that had been acquired for the SYL project.
Water sharing has always been a contentious issue in India as the flow of a river does not conform to artificial political boundaries. The increased regionalization of Punjabi politics has created a situation where this dispute cannot be resolved when the same party is in charge (or in the ruling coalition) in Punjab, Haryana and Central Governments. With all stakeholders suffering, it falls to the politicians to take a responsible stand and resolve this issue once and for all.
Also, read about the other critical challenges that Punjab faces.