Always an emotive issue for the people of Punjab, the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal controversy has plunged to new lows of discussion and debate in the past few days, since the Supreme Court pronounced its much-awaited verdict on the issue, with all its explosive ramifications.
Some of the frequently asked questions are: How can Punjab refuse to give water to Haryana now that the apex court has stamped its approval on the SYL canal? Why is Punjab being so adamant on the issue? Isn’t water a natural resource meant to be shared by all humanity? How can Punjab be so selfish and greedy?
Valid questions, one might say, except that none of them really seeks to address the core issue at the heart of the problem faced by Punjab. And that core issue, unfortunately, was neither raised nor argued in the court even once all through the pendency of the case. The result is that the apex court ended up making conclusions on the presidential reference based neither on facts and ground realities nor on the basis of the country’s Constitutional principles, but on an analysis of incomplete and insufficient information and data.
Now, the point is that amid the hullabaloo that we are currently witnessing on the issue lies the moot question – where is the water that everyone is asking Punjab to share with the neighbouring Haryana?
This is an important question that needs to be urgently addressed if we are to save Punjab from an inevitable doom. After all, how does one share something that one does not have? It is like asking a homeless man to share his roof or a poor beggar to share his alms. The futility of such a demand is self-evident, except perhaps to those who suffer from a myopic vision.
PUNJAB’S WATER DEMAND
Data available in public domain indicates that Punjab’s total water demand currently stands at over 50 MAF (million acre feet). As far as river allocation goes, the state’s share is 14.33 MAF (this includes pre-1947 allocation of 1.98 MAF), of which 8.02 MAF is expected from Sutlej and another 4.33 MAF from Ravi and Beas rivers. These numbers may look impressive, but they actually represent a mere 40% of the total estimated water of the three rivers, which can meet only 28% of the state’s total water demand.
Incidentally, Punjab water woes don’t end here. If national and international data is to be believed (and there is no reason to doubt it), the water table in the plains of north India is depleting fast. So much so that according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the agriculture output in states like Punjab and Haryana is on the verge of collapse.
Closer home, the water resources and environment directorate has revealed that the water level in Punjab has dipped in 80% of the state’s total area. A spate of drought years, coupled with inadequate rainfall, has left the river canals that feed the bulk of Punjab’s agricultural land high and dry, quite literally. What further escalates the problem is the melting of glaciers as a result of the climatic changes taking place in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. As many as 109 new lakes were formed between 2013 and 2015 on account of accelerated glacial melting in the Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers.
With the canals drying up, farmers in Punjab are increasingly shifting to unregulated use of borewells (approximately 14 lakh of them exist already), thereby further causing the decline of subsoil water. In areas like Hoshiarpur and Sardulgarh, the decline is more than 58 metres – a clear sign of the way things are going for Punjab on the water front.
SYL’S IMPLICATIONS FOR STATE
It is in this troublesome context that we need to look at the SYL issue and its implications for Punjab. According to experts, the moment the SYL starts flowing, around 9.75 lakh acres of Punjab’s fertile land will be rendered barren, putting to risk the livelihood of 15 lakh families.
Now if that does not sound serious enough, then sample this: If Haryana is given 3.5 MAF water for its SYL network, several districts of Punjab, notably Bathinda, Ferozepur, Mansa and Faridkot, with their saline and toxic ground water, will become completely dry.
Ironically, the central government has declared three-fourths of Punjab as ‘dark zone’, or ‘no-extraction zone’, thereby admitting the insufficiency of water in the state. Yet it failed to bring this vital fact to the notice of the Supreme Court during the hearing on the SYL issue, resulting in a totally unjust and unfair conclusion on the part of the honourable judges.
Clearly, it is a situation crying for collective wisdom and proactive intervention, which, unfortunately, is conspicuous by its absence in the current political scenario in the poll-bound state of Punjab. But even as we fight our political battles, let us not forget that the failure to address its water crisis in a timely manner could lead to disastrous consequences for Punjab, which is clearly sitting on a landmine that a mere spark would be enough to explode.
NEED TO ADOPT RIPARIAN PRINCIPLES
Is there, then, no solution to the problem?
Of course, there are always the riparian principles of water sharing, recognised and applied across the world, that we can adopt to resolve the SYL issue and other water rows. Political compulsions keep us, in India, from taking recourse to this simple method to find a way out of the water mess gripping many states. And unless we let go of these compulsions in favour of a more realistic and humanitarian approach to the issue, we may end up transforming the once green belt of India into a parched desert, incapable of nurturing life and sustenance for the nation.
So let us, for once, rise above our petty, vested interests and come together to save Punjab and the interests of its people. Failure to do so would result in inevitable doom for the state, and eventually for the country.