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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2039

Troubled Canal Cruise

By Aallabaksh - Syndicate Features

It was in 1976 that the chief ministers of the time in Punjab and Haryana, Giani Zail Singh and Banarsi Das Gupta, exchanged letters on constructing a canal to link the basins of the Sutluj and Yamuna rivers. It was to boost irrigation facility in the two premier agriculture producing states of India and reduce dependence on tube wells.

Forty years on, not a drop has flown in the canal. It couldn’t when it remains incomplete while the water table in the two states is declining drastically. On top of it, the almost abandoned 122-km Sutluj-Yamuna Link has generated much acrimony between the two states. Even the Supreme Court, where the then President of India had referred the dispute over sharing river waters, has been unable to offer any solution for the last 12 years.

In the meantime, the dispute has snowballed into an uneasy triangle. The party in power at the Centre at any given time is certain to be damned by its own party in the two disagreeing states whenever a final verdict on the river water sharing dispute is delivered—either by the court or arbitration or whatever.

The idea of a link canal between the rivers flowing in the two states could not have been conceived with any malicious intent. But for the last 20 years or so Punjab has been vehement in opposing the Rs 260 crore SYL project.

In one instance, 30 people were killed and in another an engineer and his assistant were killed during violent agitation that forced suspension of work on the link canal. The Punjab state assembly has passed a resolution opposing the construction of the link canal and also announced that 500 acres of land acquired for constructing the unfinished canal will be returned to the original owners.

The refrain of the Punjab government, a coalition of the Shiromoni Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party is: ‘Come what may, not a drop of ‘our’ water will be allowed to flow into Haryana’. Emotions run very high in Punjab. The state assembly poll, due next year, has made it a very hot political issue, with none of the political parties ready for any ‘compromise’ on their stand.

Haryana in the above context is a euphemism for the SYL canal project. But it might be added that the states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Rajasthan have also claimed stakes in getting a share, in different proportions, from the flow of Punjab river waters. The Punjab case rests on the ‘rights’ of the Upper Riparian State. Haryana, now ruled for the first time in its history by a BJP government, views it differently. It accuses Punjab of denying its ‘just’ claim on sharing water and, thus, harming its agriculture.

There is no doubt that as on many previous occasions, the Centre would filibuster the matter; if possible, it would not allow it to boil further and damage the chances of the ruling combine in Punjab, already rated low, retaining power in the forthcoming assembly polls. The Centre’s efforts to prolong the uncertainty over SYL do not go down well in Haryana. And the Centre wants to put off decision because the final decision on SYL would certainly deal a telling blow to the ruling party in one or both states.

Any decision to abandon the SYL project would not only result in wastage of all the money spent on constructing the major portion (about 90 per cent) of the canal but would undo the advantage the BJP had gained in the last assembly poll. The poll had ended the BJP’s almost 50-year wait to come to power in Haryana. The peaceful relations between the neighbours, Punjab and Haryana, may be endangered.

As was witnessed during the very recent agitation over the demand for reservations by the Jat community—predominantly agriculturist community—Haryana is still not rid of tension. A feeling that the state has been ‘deprived’ of water for agriculture will open another front for a possible violent agitation that may also affect Punjab and the other states in North India. Roads in Haryana open the door to the rest of North India and highways and railway lines are often the first target of the agitators in the state.

Punjab politicians, including the Akalis, suspect that the Centre is tilted in favour of Haryana. In 2011, the then central government had suggested that the matter be placed before a panel consisting of representatives of Punjab, Haryana and the Central Water Power Commission. Punjab rejected the suggestion. Various governments at the Centre have not shown any keenness to announce the demise of the SYL project.

Political factors compel the government at the Centre not to be seen as antagonistic towards Punjab where an electoral loss would be a big blow to both the partners in the ruling coalition. The ruling party at the Centre is further hamstrung by the fact that relations between the Akalis and the BJP in Punjab have been strained. Often the BJP looks like an Opposition party. The state unit of the BJP is said to be unhappy at the decision by the central authority of the party that the partnership between the Akalis and the BJP should be retained.

The Congress may be an Opposition party at the Centre and in Punjab, but its dilemma is no less. The Congress was responsible for the birth of the SYL project. The party is suspected to be more sympathetic to the concerns of Haryana than Punjab over the SYL project. But the Congress would not like an issue to stand in its way when it is making a determined bid to wrest power from the Akalis.

Observers have said that the outcome of the assembly polls in 2017 has become uncertain after the announcement that the Aam Admi Party of Arvind Kejriwal will enter the fray. Its leaders in Punjab have hinted support for the Punjab government stand on SYL because they cannot hope to make an impressive debut without taking up a cause that agitates the people in the state. But as the poll days draw near, expect some U-turns by the Aam Admi Party too, if it is looking to enter Kejriwal’s home state of Haryana. The sum and substance of all this is that the SYL pot will keep simmering—and so will the tensions.

- Asian Tribune -

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