Indian Punjab’s water woes rooted in Indus Water Treaty


Jagtar Singh

Chandigarh, September 27: One of the most fertile regions in the world that got separated by the Radcliffe line in 1947 and a barbed fence in 1988 is on the verge of turning barren. Pakistani part of Punjab and other regions face this specter despite the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 and Indian Punjab because of the Indus Water Treaty. This  perhaps is the only intensive river system in the world with five rivers flowing through the region from which the name Punjab is derived-Pun Aab, the land of five rivers. Indus is the sixth river with which all the five Punjab rivers merge downstream Pakistan.

Indian Punjab suffers from a strange paradox bordering absurdity. Three of the five rivers flow through the state. However, 70 per cent of the irrigation is from tubewells and the rest of the irrigation depends upon canal system. More than 70 per cent of the waters from these rivers flow to neighbouring Rajasthan and Haryana. Entire water available in this system is presently being consumed. It is only flood water that flows doen to Pakistan from Indian Punjab rivers.

However, Haryana  has been pressing for its ‘share’ of 3.5 MAF and the Supreme Court is about to announce its verdict. The portion of the SYL Canal that was to carry waters to Haryana as part of its ‘share’ for which the land was first acquired by the Parkash Singh Badal government in 1978 in Punjab has been partly filled up. Water is the most sensitive issue concerning Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. It is Himachal Pradesh that is upper Riparian in this case with Indian Punjab and Pakistan being lower Riparian.

Water table in Punjab has drastically gone down but the Badal government has been continuing with its largesse of providing tubewell connections as power supply for farm sector is free since 1997. Punjab is going to pay a very heavy cost in not too distant a future for this free power. All the political parties have been expressing the apprehension of Punjab turning barren within two decades. Going by the rate the water table is going down due to cultivation of water guzzling paddy, such a situation can be approaching faster. Every party competing for February 2017 Assembly election is vying with one another  while promising to continue free power supply while creating the scare of Punjab turning barren. The main issue with them is that of grabbing power and not the future of Punjab.

Rebel AAP MP from Patiala Dr Dharam Vira Gandhi last week expressed the apprehension of mass migration from Punjab in case the present arrangement was allowed to continue.

Then there is the other side that is Pakistan.  The Economist carried a story in its February16, 2012 issue with the caption ‘Going with the flow’. It stated, “For millions suffering the misery of the past two years’ flood it must seem the cruelest of jokes, but Pakistan is one of the most arid countries. Average rainfall is less than 240  mm, and the total availability of water per person has fallen from about 5000 cubic metres in 1950s to about 1100  now, just above the 1,000  cubic- metre-per-head definition of “water-scarce”. A shortage of water is  a more serious peril than any of the others mentioned in this report. Combined with continued fast growth in its population, it is true existential threat to Pakistan.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to use the Indus Water Treaty as a weapon against Pakistan in the wake of Uri attack saying water and blood can’t flow together.

Significantly, Pakistan has been lobbying for revisiting this treaty for the last several years.

“Projecting   water as a core issue appears to be Pakistan’s well-thought out plan to tell the world that water is an unresolved issue between the two countries and that India accepts implicitly that it has given Pakistan cause for complaints. The world’s  sympathy is  with the lower Riparian nation always”, wrote  Lt Gen P K Grover (retd) two years ago (Hindustan Times, May 26, 2014).

Can India stop flood waters flowing to Pakistan? The flow of rivers can’t be stopped and can only be dammed. That would take decades. Can India divert water from Indus, Chenab and Jhelum to irrigate fields in Haryana and Rajasthan and allow Punjab unrestricted use of its three rivers? After all, Ravi flows nowhere near Rajasthan or Haryana  and there are Satluj and Beas rivers in-between.

Ravi waters has been allocated to non-Riparian Haryana and Rajasthan.

It is the Indus Water Treaty that led to the diversion of waters from Ravi, Beas and Satluj to Rajasthan as Haryana  surfaced on the map only on November 1, 1966.

Here is the brief history of the signing of the treaty and the 1955 agreement that allocated waters from Punjab rivers to Rajasthan on the basis of which Indus Water Treaty was signed five years later.

The dispute arose for the first time immediately after partition in December, 1947  about  Satluj, Ravi and Beas waters and it was dealt by the Punjab Partition Committee. At a meeting on December 20, 1947, two chief engineers each from the East and the West Punjab agreed to maintain status quo ante till March 31, 1948. This was approved by the Punjab Partition Committee. The issue was to be sorted out by that period. Yet another meeting of chief engineers took place at Shimla on April 18, 1948. Two agreements were arrived at that were to be ratified by the two countries on these three rivers. This agreement noted that “A dispute has arisen between East Punjab and West Punjab governments regarding the supply by east Punjab of water to the Central Bari Doab, Dipalpur canals in West Punjab; the contention of the East Punjab government is that is that under the Punjab Partition (Apportionment of Assets and Liabilities) Order, 1947, and the arbitral award, the proprietary rights in the water of rivers of East Punjab vest wholly in the East Punjab government and that the West Punjab government claim any share of these waters as of right…The East Punjab government has revived the flow of water into these canals on certain conditions”.

It may be mentioned that Kashmir was already on the boil at that and world powers  feared it to be the next conflict zone.

It was in this background that World Bank president Eugene Black offered the services of his organisation in 1952 to settle the dispute as it had the potential of escalation.

The first intervention was made in  1954 that stated that India  should have exclusive right over the use of  Ravi, Beas and Satluj  rivers with  similar rights to Pakistan over Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

This Rajasthan Feeder canal was originally conceived on October 29, 1948.  The work on Harike Barrage from where this channel was to take off started in 1950 and was completed in 1952. The barrage had been designed to divert 15,000 cusecs to the canal to be constructed later.

The total availability of waters Satluj, Beas and Satluj on the basis of 1921-22 to 1945-46 flow series was 32.58 MAF  that included Satluj with 13.30 MAF, Beas having 12.85 MAF and Ravi with 6.43 MAF. The dependable availability was about 26.9 MAF. Bhakra project had already been conceptualised and partly implemented by that time to utilise entire Satluj waters.  The issue was with Ravi and Beas rivers with total flow of 19.28 MAF.

Under the Bhakra project, Rajasthan was allocated 1.39 MAF. Here was the first violation of Riparian principle.

Accordingly, a meeting of the inter-state conference on the development and utilisation of waters of the rivers Ravi and Beas  in the context of the above assessment was held in Delhi  on January 29, 1955. That was the time when Punjab should have planned network of canal system. The area in Indian Punjab had only Upper Bari Doab Canal on Ravi taking off from Madhopur,  Sirhind Canal system on Satluj from Ropar and Western Yamuna Canal from Yamuna from Tajewala, now in Haryana. Punjab was under gravity flow. All these three canals were from pre-partition period. It was only the Bhakra project that was undertaken during the post-partition period with the Bhakra Main Line having been completed in 1954 but its main command area is what is now Haryana. Punjab government was not forced to divert 8.MAF to Rajasthan but the state had failed to project its demand. It was the 1955 allocation that was to influence the Indus Water Treaty.

Punjab and PEPSU were allocated 7.2 MAF, Rajasthan 8. 0 MAF and J and K 0.65 MAF from Ravi and Beas over and above the actual pre-partition utilization based on the flow series pertaining to the period 1921-22 to 1945-46 under the 1955 agreement. The Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan was signed in 1960 on this basis under which Satluj, Beas and Ravi became available to India for unrestricted use after March 31, 1970.

Let Indian Punjab benefit in case water is to be used as a weapon.


Jagtar Singh


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