India must revisit approach to inter-state waters disputes at the national level

Jagtar Singh

Chandigarh, May 13: For a change, both Punjab and Haryana gave out signals loud and clear at the Northern Zonal Council meeting of shedding the confrontationist approach on the river waters dispute that has rocked the region since Haryana was carved out of Punjab in 1966. The region has been witnessed to years of turmoil with water dispute being among the core issues. The approach, however, continues to be political and emotive rather than framing the issue in the context of changing technologies and ground realities. India can’t continue to resort to the irrigation systems that are ancient. This is perhaps one country where more water goes waste than it is judiciously and optimally used. But tempers always run high whether it is dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu or diversion of Punjab waters to Haryana and Rajasthan.

Both Punjab and Haryana opted to sort out this dispute across the table while adopting the public posture of no change in their respective positions. Punjab took the position that 75 per cent of its river waters was already flowing to Rajasthan and Haryana and that is a fact. Normal laws have never been applied in case of diversion of Punjab waters beginning with the conceptualisation and implementation of the Bhakra dam project that was in violation of Riparian law that Punjab quotes in its defence. None objected when Rajasthan was allocated 8 MAF to Rajasthan in 1955 as Punjab did not put up any plan for the use of its own waters. India was to show utilisation of three rivers while settling the dispute with Pakistan that is the Indus Water Treaty of 1960.

With Punjab and Haryana agreeing for across the table negotiations, the situation is back to  1966.

Section 78(1) of the Punjab Re-organisation, 1966, states:

“(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act but subject to the provisions of sections 79 and 80, all rights and liabilities of the existing State of Punjab in relation to Bhakra- Nangal Project and Beas Project shall, on the appointed day, be the rights and liabilities of the successor States in such proportion as may be fixed, and subject to such adjustments as may be made, by agreement entered into by the said States after consultation with the Central Government or, if no such agreement is entered into within two  years of the appointed day, as the Central Government may by order determine having regard to the purposes of the Projects: Provided that the order so made by the Central Government may be varied by any subsequent agreement entered into by the successor States after consultation with the Central Government.”

It was the failure of the Punjab and Haryana that invited invention from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1976 during Emergency, an award that favoured Haryana. This share was to be carried through the Satluj-Yamuna Link Canal that has mainly been constructed during Akali governments with Parkash Singh Badal government issuing the first notice for land acquisition for this project in 1978 while revoking emergency provisions. Work on the project stopped when Babbar Khalsa militants gunned down its chief engineer and superintendent engineer in their office in Chandigarh. Earlier, they had targeted labourerers working on this project that triggered  exodus of migrant workers.

The issue is no more confined to the warring states. India faces serious crisis in the coming years as flow in almost all the rivers in the country is going down while rain water continues to be wasted. The system of irrigation in India continues to be the ancient one. It is the government at the centre that should come out with a holistic national water policy rather than talking of irrational and ant-environmental plans like linking of rivers.

 “If water management is not accorded the importance it deserves, the country can very much expect to find itself in troubled waters as the years roll by. Estimates of the Central Ground Water Board are that the reservoir of underground water will dry up entirely by 2025 in as many as fifteen States in India – if the present level of exploitation and misuse of underground water continues. By 2050, when more than 50 per cent of the Indian population is expected to shift to the cities, fresh drinking water is expected to get very scarce. A new category of refugees is expected to emerge around that time: the water migrants. Future wars, between or within nations will be fought on the issue of water”, wrote Surinder Jha in his article ‘Rainwater harvesting in India’ years’ back.

India would have to go in for massive infrastructure  investment  to implement water harvesting and irrigation techniques. This issue must get top priorities before it is too late.


Jagtar Singh


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