News & Views
I S C
Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Prof Kulwant Singh
Real Cause of the Punjab Crisis
There is no doubt that the condition of the Punjab is critical, and it will worsen in the coming days. The problem needs to be properly analysed. The Punjab government is under a debt of 63000 crore rupees which entails a yearly interest of 6000 crore rupees. The Punjab Electricity Board carries a debt of 16720 crore rupees which incurs an annual interest of 1923 crore rupees. The Punjab farmers are reeling under loans of 35000 crores of rupees. For many of them suicide is the only way out of their plight. Many others are dying of cancer and other diseases. Young men and women, for want of proper employment, are ruining themselves and their families by getting addicted to intoxicants, or are fleeing to foreign countries where only misery awaits them. Punjab’s bill of salaries and pensions amounts to 18242 crore rupees which is 70% of the total income of the government. The whole blame for this predicament is laid on the policies of the successive governments. It is said that the Badal government is wasting money on schemes like giving free power to farmers, helping the poor brides and providing subdised grains to the BPL families. But such practices are adopted by other states also, even by the Centre. In fact such is the vote politics prevailing in the country that governments have willy- nilly to do many good or bad things to keep the voters in good humour. When the salaries and pensions of employees were raised under the fifth pay commission, Punjab incurred an additional annual expenditure of 2700 crore rupees, besides arrears of 4800 crore rupees. An impression was created about all this as if the government had committed a crime, although increase in salaries is a normal thing and the Centre and other states have also increased the salaries of their employees.
Green Revolution: One big factor responsible for the misery of Punjab is the so-called green revolution which started in 1960s. It was really a cruel fraud played upon the farmers of Punjab. The government, the agricultural university and the big trading companies prompted the Punjab farmers to produce maximum grains in their fields. Banks and other agencies showered loans on them. Punjab has 4 lakh tractors. If the cost of one tractor, including implements, is assessed at minimum of Rs. Four lakhs, the cost of these tractors amounts to 16000 crore rupees. In 2009 Punjab provided 140 lakh tons of rice and 100 tons of wheat to the Centre. But what did Punjab farmers gain out of this? If the costs of fertilizers, pesticides, diesel, electricity, rent of the land and labour are taken into account, the production of one quintal of wheat costs the farmer Rs. 1500-1600. Similar is the case with rice. According to the prices fixed by the Centre, the farmer gets Rs. 1080 for one quintal of wheat and Rs. 950-980 for one quintal of rice. Thus the farmers of the Punjab suffered a loss of 14400 crore rupees in one year. Somebody may argue: If dividends are really so negative, why do the farmers continue with this work? The farmers are in fact helpless. If they do not extract the maximum from their land by using all their means and energy, the noose of debt tightens around their necks. They also have to provide bread to their families. The real gainers are the Centre and the companies which sell fertilizers, pesticides, diesel and other such things. The condition of farmers is really that of slaves. In olden times the invaders took away men, women and children as captives and forced them to do hard work. But these days slavery has assumed a new form. Today the farmers of Punjab are bound by the invisible chains of debt, and their men, women and children have to toil day and night. The peculiarity of this type of slavery is that slaves do not know that they are slaves. And the condition of the Punjab farmers is going, day by day, from bad to worse. There is no hope from any quarter. The Centre sanctioned large funds in the 2009-10 budget; but Punjab received a paltry 1.3% of that money. Policies are framed in such a way that Punjab benefits the least from them.
23 % of land in Punjab is irrigated by canals. 73 % is irrigated by tubewells. There are more than 13 lakh tubewells in the state; one third of which run on diesel. Farmers have spent billions of rupees on installing these water-extractors. Rs.3000 crore worth of electricity was consumed by tubewells during 2009 (farmers got this power free of charge; but the state had to foot the bill). Besides this, an almost equal amount was spent by the farmers on diesel for running tubewells. According to an estimate, Punjab has so far spent 80000 crore rupees on extracting ground water. (Compared with canal irrigation, irrigation by electric operated tubewells is 3-4 times more costly, and that by diesel-operated tubewells is 10-12 times more expensive). In order to get maximum produce, the farmers use excessive quantities of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which is 4 to 5 times the quantity used per acre in Canada. Punjab uses one quarter of total national insecticides and pesticides. It has poisoned soil, ground water and crops. In this way, Punjab produces 20 % of the total wheat and 12 % of the total rice of the country. And its contribution constitutes 60 % of wheat and 40 % of rice of the central pool. This overuse of land and subsoil water is like tearing open the womb of the goose which laid golden eggs. The water which was deposited in the ground over thousands of years is being extracted most recklessly. Now, as the upper layer of water has been exhausted, submersible pumps are being sunk which suck water from the depth of 5-6 hundred feet. One submersible pump costs more than two lakh rupees. During the last few years the farmers have incurred loans of billions of rupees for this purpose. Now things have come to a pass where hand pumps in many areas have gone dry and people have to install submersible pumps for drinking water. The subsoil water in almost half of the Punjab is saline and not fit for irrigation. Its long time use is bound to render the soil saline and infertile. There is another dangerous aspect of the tube well irrigation. The extraction is much higher than the recharge. So, there is real danger of Punjab turning soon into a semi-desert.
Loot of Punjab in the time of extremism: Punjab was number one state in India in 1981; its per capita income was double the national per capita income. In 1982 the Akalis started a ‘Morcha’ (campaign) to stop the digging of the S.Y.L. canal meant for carrying the Punjab water to Haryana. Owing to the atrocities committed by the government, the ‘Morcha’ took a secessionist turn. In order to crush secessionism, the Centre permitted the police and security forces to loot and kill the Sikhs freely. Punjab became a hunting ground. Policemen of other provinces saw greener pastures in Punjab and sought deputation to the state. The police and other forces robbed and killed the Sikhs most ruthlessly for ten years. They would pick up Sikh young men and ask their parents to pay huge ransoms; otherwise they would be tortured and killed. The hapless parents raised money by incurring loans or selling their lands. Similarly, they had to pay large amounts to save the sanctity of their women. In this way billions upon billions of rupees were extorted. This consistent and prolonged plunder would shame the lootings of Abdali and Nadir Shah. Besides this, the Centre imposed Rs. 5800 crore on Punjab as charges of the central forces for eliminating about 40 thousand “terrorist” Sikhs. Punjab could have recovered from this horrible blow, as it had recovered from the immense losses it suffered during 1947. But, in spite of all their grit and toil, the condition of the people of Punjab continued to worsen. Why?
Loot of Punjab waters: The root cause of the deepening crisis of Punjab is the plunder of its river waters. It is nothing short of cutting the jugular vein of Punjab. 70 % of Punjab’s population lives on agriculture. Almost all the Sikhs are farmers. Formerly a good number of them went into army; but now that door has been almost closed upon them. They survive by cultivating their small holdings intensively, for which canal irrigation is most necessary. There being no other natural resources, the river waters have life-and-death significance for Punjab.
The issue of the distribution of the waters of the Punjab Rivers, as it stands now, is hopelessly complicated; best brains have been employed to distort and confuse it. However, there are some broad facts which can be helpful for a lay man to understand the problem.
The river waters are governed, on the national and international levels, by the riparian principle. According to it, if a river lies wholly within the territory of one state, it entirely belongs to that state and no other state has any right to it. And where a river flows through more than one state, each state owns that part of the river which runs through its territory. There can be disputes about river waters only between riparian states and not between a riparian state and a non-riparian state. Under international law, river and river waters which flow on land are an essential part of the land or territory of a state, which has absolute rights therein, because territory constitutes an integral attribute of a state. The fundamental principle and rationale underlying the riparian law is that the inhabitants in the basin of a river have suffered, for centuries, the losses of land, property, cattle and human life from the ravages of the river. Therefore they alone are entitled to the benefits of the river concerned. For example, in the 1988 floods alone, the Punjab suffered a loss of hundreds of lives besides the loss of property estimated officially at one billion dollars; while Rajasthan, Haryana or Delhi has never lost anything due to the floods of the Punjab rivers.
The riparian law is embodied in the Indian constitution. Under the constitution, river waters are a state subject, and only a state has the right to control and use the waters of its rivers. The river waters and hydroelectric power being an exclusively state subject, the Centre has no control over them. However, there is a provision for adjudication of disputes relating to river waters of interstate rivers or river valleys:
Parliament may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or in, any interstate river or river valley.
Notwithstanding anything in the constitution Parliament may by law provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute or complaint as is referred to in clause (i).
Under this clause the Centre has enacted several pieces of legislation, and thus assumed powers to set up boards and tribunals to adjudicate disputes and complaints about interstate rivers. But the riparian right has not been negated. The important point is that the tribunals constituted under this law can adjudicate only about disputes in respect of interstate rivers (i.e. between co-riparian states) and not disputes between the riparian and the non-riparian states.
A case in point is the claim of Rajasthan on the waters of the Narmada river. The Narmada flows through the territories of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, but not through Rajasthan. Rajasthan made a petition for a share from the waters of the river. The tribunal court consisting of a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, ruled:
“(i) Rajasthan being a non-riparian state in regard to Narmada, cannot apply to the Tribunal, because under the act only a co-riparian state can do so; and (ii) the state of Rajasthan is not entitled to any portion of the waters of Narmada basin on the ground that the state of Rajasthan is not a co-riparian state, or that no portion of its territory is situated in the basin of River Narmada.”
On Rajasthan’s plea that it should get water of the Narmada because it was getting water from the Punjab rivers although it was non-riparian to these rivers, the judge remarked:
“Utilization of Ravi and Beas: The aportionment of water was the result of an agreement. It appears from Rajasthan documents Volume VI at pages 26 and 30 that Punjab was prepared to satisfy the needs of Rajasthan, provided its needs as a riparian state were first satisfied.”
When Pakistan was formed in 1947, the Indian Punjab and the Pakistan Punjab became co-riparian states in respect of the Punjab Rivers. A few months after the Partition, India and Pakistan signed a “stand still agreement” which provided for maintaining the water supplies at the level of appropriation/ allocation at the time of Partition. However, within months of this agreement India arbitrarily stopped supplies to the lower riparian Punjab causing harm to the agriculture of the Muslim state. A worried Pakistan approached U.N.O. Negotiations were started between the two countries under the aegis of the World Bank. These continued by fits and starts for many years. At one stage (in 1954), India, at the suggestion of one Mr. Gulati, who presented the Indian case before the Indus Water Commission, devised a ploy to heighten its claim vis-a-vis Pakistan. It was argued before the commission that 8 M.A.F. waters of the Punjab rivers would be used for irrigation in Rajasthan after fulfilling the needs of East Punjab. However, Pakistan did not insist on its share in the three eastern rivers – the Satluj, the Beas, and the Ravi. It had more than enough water in the Chenab, the Jhelum and the mighty Indus. (The Indus did not flow in Punjab, but Punjab fell in its basin. The other five rivers joined the Indus before falling into the Arabian Sea). Pakistan decided to divert the waters of these three western rivers to the area fed by the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi, rather than allow its agriculture to be at the mercies of its upper riparian neighbour, the relations between the two countries being hostile. Indus Basin Rivers Waters Treaty was signed in 1960 by Nehru and Ayub Khan, according to which the total waters of the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi were allotted to Indian Punjab, and the other two rivers (and the Indus) went wholly to its western counterpart. For diverting its waters Pakistan was given aid by the World Bank and some friendly countries. India also made some contribution. In the controversy over the Punjab waters distribution the opponents of the Punjab have developed the argument that, since the Centre had “purchased” water from Pakistan, it can hand it over to any state.
At the time of Partition, the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi had 32.5 M.A.F. of water. Nine M.A.F. of it was being consumed in the areas which later constituted the Punjabi Suba. One M.A.F. was going to the erstwhile state of Bikaner under an agreement signed by Bikaner, Bahawalpur and the British Punjab in 1920. Bikaner was getting this water against payment because it was not a riparian state. The royalty was received by the government of Punjab and not by the Central government, because waters belonged to the state and not to the Centre. The areas which later formed Haryana were not getting any water of the Punjab rivers. The rest of the water of these rivers was either used in the West Punjab (now in Pakistan) or flowed into the sea. Apart from these waters, Punjab was receiving 5.6 M.A.F. of water from the Yamuna, because a part of the Punjab (now Haryana) fell in its basin.
The ploy which was devised to outfox Pakistan came to be used against the Punjab. In 1955 the Centre allotted 8 M.A.F. of water to Rajasthan. The order was passed on a “secret” file, which was later given the shape of an agreement by the Centre by putting pressure on Punjab.
The Project of Rajasthan Canal, with a feeder 292 miles long, was hurriedly undertaken. The necessary studies to determine its feasibility were not made. No well-meaning government could have undertaken such a big project with so little thought. In 1958, when the project was in progress, the Indian government invited a team of the US Bureau of Reclamation to examine the project. The team said in its report, “In order to make a comprehensive study of a project calling for the irrigation of 4.5 million acres of land, it would be necessary for the Bureau of Reclamation to devote years of time making land classification, agricultural economics and settlement studies. The team is of the opinion that further investigations would have been highly desirable prior to initiation of construction.”
Alloys A. Michael, an international authority on river waters, states in “The Indus River – A Study of the Effects of Partition”:
“Viewed realistically the Rajasthan Project in its ultimate form is a dubious one. The idea of extending the Rajasthan Canal parallel to Indo-Pakistan border in the northern portion of the Thar Desert down to a point about opposite Sukkur Barrage was a seductive one: 7.9 million acres could be brought under command and 6.7 million of these are potentially cultivable although the project in its present form is limited to supplying water to only 4.5 million acres, of which only 3.5 million would be cultivated in a given year. Assured by her geographical position and later by the treaty of the full use of the Eastern Rivers, India naturally sought an area to irrigate. Forgotten or overlooked were the fundamental differences between the Punjab, with its convergent streams, tapering doabs and salty soil, and the Thar Desert, hundreds of miles from the Sutlej, with its sand and sand dunes. The cumulative irrigation experience in India, Egypt, the US and the Soviet Union indicates that more food and fibre can be obtained by increasing the water allowance to existing cultivated lands than by spreading water thin over new tracts. But to introduce it into the Thar Desert is economically unjustifiable. The 8.8 MAF of Beas-Sutlej-Ravi waters that are to be diverted from Harike for the Rajasthan Canal could be put to much better use in the East Punjab, north and south of the Sutlej and in the eastern margins of Rajasthan served by the Bikaner Canal and the Sirhind Feeder. Combined with the concentrated application of the limited fertilizers at India’s disposal, yields in the established areas could be doubled or trebled at a saving in cost and pain in Rajasthan. The very experience with the Bhakra project itself, which increased water supplies to 3.3 million acres south of the Sutlej, demonstrates this. Yet even here, out of every 182 cusecs run into the canal, 112 are lost by seepage, evaporation and no beneficial transpiration of plants. (The Bhakra Canal irrigates 16 lakh acres in Haryana, 9 lakh acres in Rajasthan and only 11 lakh acres in the Punjab.) In the Rajasthan Canal, although the lining will reduce seepage in the main canal to a minimum, evaporation alone might reduce supplies by 50 per cent. And the seepage losses in the unlined branch canals, distributaries, minors, sub-minors, water-courses and on the bounded fields themselves will further reduce the share of water that can be used beneficially by plants of economic value.” The consequences of conveying these waters into the infertile desert, at a huge cost, “could be plain frustration in the end.”
The canal was built with utmost haste. (Lest the owner should wake up before goods were stolen away.) The land was acquired and the canal was built while Partap Singh Kairon was the chief minister. A well-informed and shrewd man, he must have been aware of its harmful consequences for Punjab; but Punjab’s interests were not his interests. The Akali leaders, in their crass ignorance, might not have known that it would in the long run spell ruin for their community.
The Rajasthan canal, as it has been dug across the natural flow of water, has caused water logging in large areas of Punjab. Even in Rajasthan, it is proving to be a source of misery for countless people. There lies a stony layer under the soil where a long portion of the canal runs in Rajasthan, which does not allow the water to percolate into the ground, with the result that a vast area has become waterlogged and unfit for cultivation, depriving the people of whatever crops they could get from their unirrigated lands. Besides, it has disturbed the ecological balance of the region.
In 1976 Indira Gandhi, empowered by the Punjab Reorganisation Act (which is patently designed to harm Punjab and is violative of the Indian Constitution), handed down a unilateral award allocating 3.5 M.A.F. of water to Haryana, 3.5 M.A.F. to the Punjab and 8 M.A.F. to Rajasthan. The Sikhs opposed the distribution. Parkash Singh Badal called it a “death sentence” on the farmers of Punjab. Giani Zail Singh, the chief minister of Punjab at that time, felt perturbed, not because the award was harmful for Punjab but because it might turn the agriculturist voters of the state against him. But afraid of the displeasure of Indira Gandhi, he made no protest. He accepted Rs. two crores from Haryana as “advance payment for the S.Y.L. construction”. Another instalment was later accepted by Parkash Singh Badal when he became chief minister. Next, the matter was brought before Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who had replaced Indira Gandhi in the 1977 election. Desai, known for his straightforwardness, after discerning the riparian position of the states, told Haryana and Rajasthan bluntly that they had no right to the Punjab waters. Thereupon Haryana filed a suit in the Supreme Court. Punjab too filed a counter suit. Advocate Hardev Singh suggested to Badal to challenge all the water, including the portion transferred to Rajasthan. But Badal rejected the idea by saying, “There is no need for such a drastic action”. It was clear that the award and the Reorganisation Act, under which it was given, being violative of the constitution, would not stand in the court. In the mean time Indira Gandhi returned to power. She coerced the chief minister of Punjab to sign an agreement with Haryana and Rajasthan so that the award was legitimised and the case was withdrawn from the Supreme Court. Darbara Singh, the chief minister in question, was really unwilling and said that he was being compelled to sign “at the point of gun.” But when she threatened to remove him from chief minister ship, he gave in and signed on the dotted line. The case was withdrawn from the Supreme Court.
In fact no chief minister, whatever his party, would oppose the Central dictate, however harmful it might be for the state. They know that they cannot sit comfortably in the chief minister’s chair after antagonising the Centre. And., their own interests are always dearer to them than the interests of Punjab. The long and short of the of the story is that about 60% of total water of the rivers of Punjab has been given to Rajasthan and Haryana. (Total water in the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi was originally assessed at 32.5 M.A.F. but now it has been reduced to 28.5 M.A.F. due to natural changes.) Rajasthan takes away 11.2 M.A.F. of the Punjab river waters (8.6 M.A.F. through the Rajasthan Canal, 1.5 M.A.F. through the Bhakra Canal and 1.1 M.A.F. through the Bikaner Canal). And, Haryana draws 6 M.A.F. (4.33 M.A.F. goes from the Satluj through the Bhakra Canal. Besides this, 1.62 M.A.F. out of 3.5 M.A.F. alloted from the Ravi-Beas system also runs through the Bhakra canal. The remaining 1.9 M.A.F. is a bone of contention.) Thus Punjab is left mere 11.3 M.A.F. To add insult to injury, sermons are given, day in and day out, to the Punjab farmers to adopt dry farming or to sow such crops as need less water. It is like a robber advising his victim to make an economical use of what is left with him.
Rajasthan was never riparian to the Punjab Rivers and therefore had no right to their waters. Haryana had become non-riparian to the Satluj, the Beas and the Ravi, after reorganisation, just as Punjab had become non-riparian to the Yamuna. When Punjab argued that if Haryana got water from the Punjab rivers, it should get a share from the water of Yamuna, it was told that it could not lay a claim to the Yamuna water because it had become non-riparian after reorganisation. In this respect there is a significant precedent. When the state of Madras was bifurcated, it lost all rights to the water of the Krishna and Pannar rivers because Madras became non-riparian in regard to these rivers which, after bifurcation, belong to the Andhra state alone. In fact no province in India gives its river water to a non-riparian state. But Punjab is an exception.
Another attempt at judicial redress was made in 1983. An organisation of farmers filed a writ petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Chief Justice S.S. Sandhawalia admitted the petition and fixed it to be heard two days later, on November 25,1983, by a full bench headed by himself. But the chief justice was transferred in the intervening two days to the High Court of Bihar and the case, under the plea that it was of great public importance, was shifted to Supreme Court in an illegal manner.
After enormous destruction and bloodshed, the Rajiv-Longowal accord was signed in 1985, which stipulated the setting up of a tribunal to decide the shares of Rajasthan and Haryana in the waters of Punjab and the completion of S.Y.L. canal by Punjab. (The “Dharm Yudh Morcha” was initially launched to stop this canal). Whatever his political motive, Longowal did not show any interest in saving the the waters of Punjab; he rather lent legitimacy to the unconstitutional claims of Rajasthan and Haryana. Surjit Singh Barnala, when he became chief minister, did his utmost, in pursuance of this Accord, to complete the S.Y.L. canal. He had constructed 90 per cent of its built portion in the Punjab when the Sikh militants stopped work on it by killing a number of engineers and workers.
Later, when Captain Amarinder Singh was the chief minister, the Supreme Court, on a petition of Haryana, ordered the Punjab government to complete the SYL canal in its territory. This landed Captain in a difficult situation. He, abrogated, with the collaboration of Akalis and other parties, all past agreements on river waters by passing a resolution in the legislative assembly; but the existing flow of water to Haryana and Rajasthan was protected under article 5 of the Resolution. The purpose was merely to avoid the construction of the canal, and not to retrieve any loss suffered by the Punjab. It should not be forgotten that Amarinder Singh had welcomed Indira Gandhi at village Kapuri when she came there to inaugurate the SYL canal.
Whenever the leaders and officers of Punjab raise the issue of Punjab waters or present their case before a tribunal or court, they never assert that Rajasthan and Haryana have no right to the Punjab rivers and, therefore, they must not get any water from these rivers. Rather, they start with the assumption that the waters of Punjab are sharable. They commit the blunder of making their case need-based in stead of right-based. They only demand that Haryana should be given less water. This is because, if the whole water allocated to Haryana has to be carried to that state, the SYL canal has to be built. And to build this canal in the present circumstances will be a suicidal job for the Punjab leaders. If this canal is not built, 1.9 MAF of water is retained with the Punjab. All the three or four cases, which are pending with the Supreme Court, are about the Ravi and Beas waters, and they are against Haryana. There s no mention of Rajasthan. If all these cases are decided in favour of Punjab, it is exempted from giving 1.9 MAF water to Haryana. It gains nothing more than this. No claim is made on 11 MAF water which has been given to Rajasthan and which forms about 40% of the total water of the three rivers of Punjab.
Rajasthan and Haryana are robbing Punjab of 18200 crore rupees every year by taking away 18200 cusecs of its water free of cost (Rajasthan 11500 cusecs and Haryana 6700 cusecs). According to the Central Water and Power Commission, the price of one cusec of water for a year these days is one crore rupees.
This water, in the real sense, is the life-blood of Punjab which is being drained away generation after generation. Two centuries ago, the brave sons of Punjab secured their land against age long aggressions and robberies from the north; now they are faced with plundering from the south which is more subtle and more lethal. If it is not ended, Punjab is sure to be ruined. Its people will go in search of bread to other regions where their sons will do humiliating jobs and their daughters will work as house maids and face all types of ill-treatment.
If the stolen water of Punjab is recovered, tube-wells will not have to be sunk, the ground water will not be depleted, enormous amounts of diesel and electricity will be saved, thermal plants will not have to be installed and concomitant pollution and diseases will not afflict people. Punjab’s own electricity will be sufficient for its industry. And Punjab will become a very rich state.
The question arises why the Centre has this type of attitude towards Punjab alone.
Note: The essay is broadly based on the author’s book ‘A Story of the Sikhs’ available from Singh Brothers, Bazar Mai Sewan, Amritsar.
Institute of Sikh Studies, 2010, All rights reserved.