A TIME FOR ACTION ON S.Y.L
Sukhdev Singh Journalist
The erstwhile Council of Sikh Affairs brought out a series of publications in 1978- 82 on Punjab’s water and power issues. It truly did a pioneering job in this field. The enterprise was carried forward by Dr. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, who in his painstaking work, “India Commits Suicide”, came out in 1992 with comprehensive formulations on the water and power issues in general and the SYL in particular. The Institute of Sikh Studies, too, updated these efforts through a recent booklet. There is, therefore, little point in replicating all these endeavours. I propose to concentrate on certain uncovered areas with bearing on the above mentioned problems.
The first major assault on Punjab’s rights was mounted during the mid fifties when work on the Bhakra and Pong Dam projects was underway. Under cover of multi-purpose projects requiring big investments by the then prevailing standards, not only Punjab’s hydro-power resources were gifted to Rajasthan but its water, too, was transferred to the sandy neighbour in flagrant violation of the provisions of the Constitution. Lands were acquired for the Bhakra Mainline canal as well as the Rajasthan canal in Punjab when Partap Singh Kairon was its Chief Minister and Ajmer Singh Revenue Minister. Ajmer Singh wrote in a booklet written for the benefit of his family successors that Prime Minister Nehru acknowledged his contribution by writing him a letter of thanks for the land acquisition and described him as an “Honest Minister.” Ajmer Singh was an Akali who had joined the Congress under a pact. Ajmer Singh was a reputed lawyer, too, but he refrained from putting his foot down on the land acquisition project. But thankfully he helped the Council of Sikh Affairs as its secretary two decades later to produce several documents, referred to above, exposing how Punjab was deprived of its water wealth by the wily Centre. In addition, the then Revenue Minister also ensured that a small carrier channel was taken out from the Bhakra Mainline canal to irrigate his Samrala constituency which returned him comfortably to the state Assembly. The Akali leadership was, of course, blissfully ignorant of the goings on. Its knowledge of law never went beyond article 25 of the Constitution.
As is evident, Punjab’s politicians handled the assault on state’s wealth in a most casual manner. The Central leadership was far better informed and they ensured that the canal projects were finished at a record speed before the people of Punjab woke up. No wonder, the work on the Rajasthan canal, for instance, was carried out with three shifts functioning round-the-clock.
Even today when over the decades much blood has flown downstream, the ruling politicians and bureaucrats in the Punjab secretariat believe that the best expert they can depend on for advice is the executive engineer. The water file is handled by an irrigation engineer and not an advocate. No wonder, the former’s overwhelming concern is for his department to proliferate irrespective of whether Punjab is left with any water or not. No wonder, again, when the Haryana government sent in a Rs. 2 crore cheque in early 1977 tor the so-called S. Y.L. canal project, the Irrigation and Finance Departments of Punjab lapped it up. All the learned Punjab engineers who contributed to the water debate over the decades started with the atrocious premise that Punjab’s river water is divisible. They may have disagreed among themselves only on the quantum and nothing else. Even the most celebrated one, the late R.S. Gill, was confronted point-blank by a few of us in 1985 to reconcile his stand as a leading member of the Council of Sikh Affairs on the S.Y.L. issue with his new government assignment on what the course of the link canal should be, his reply was unabashedly absurd: “What we said in the C.S.A. document was rhetorical”. The document he himself had released to the media had said that 20 lakh acres of Punjab would go out of irrigation if the S.Y.L. is built.
Not that engineers have been without a company in this shady enterprise. When the scandalously illegal provisions 78,79 and 80 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act mentioned the Nangal Hydel Channel by its innocent name repeat Nanga! Hydel Channel, R.P. Ojha, the then Finance Secratary in the Badal government had started describing the channel by it new name “the upper portion of the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal”. Who tutored him to so describe the channel when not a brick was laid for the link canal nor was there a hint of decision on it? And no one in the government applied a check on Ojha as to where from the concept had come to him.
Contrast this internal sabotage with the single-minded dedication with which the Central government leadership worked its way from inception on how to rob Punjab. When no one had heard the idea even in its haziest form Bansi Lal, the then Haryana Chief Minister, sent a team of surveyers in 1967 to Punjab’s Ropar district to carryon a survey of the proposed S.Y.L. project. To the then Punjab Chief Minister Gurnam Singh’s credit, the Haryana intruders were driven away on pain of arrest, but the incident did nothing to awaken Punjab. I wonder if even Gurnam Singh sent a protest letter to his Haryana counterpart or his guide at the Delhi end. Despite the early rebuff, Haryana (and the Central government) were not to be discouraged. Working his way in the oppressive political atmosphere, Bansi Lal, now lndias’s Defence Minister, prevailed upon “Bhenji” to issue directions to Punjab in terms of the Punjab Reorganisation Act. This is how the 1976 decision on apportionment of Punjab water was arrived at, according to reliable sources. The main agenda for the Cabinet meeting had no such proposal. But a “Supplementary agenda” was circulated almost an hour before the crucial morning meeting. A copy was delivered at the residence of the then Union Minister from Punjab, the late Gurdial Singh Dhillon. He was then in his bathroom. He was totally unaware of the supplementary item when he reached for the meeting. It was announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Prime Minister had some other schedule and that there was no time left for the main agenda to be taken up. However, Bansi Lal said during the short duration of the meeting that the supplementary agenda could be disposed of Dhillon presumably had not read the brief and he was still unaware of what Bansi Lal was talking about when Jagjiwan Ram intervened to say that the supplementary agenda being important it, too, could be taken up later. Bansi Lal intervened to rebuff Jagjiwan Ram that the issue did not pertain to him. Therefore, he ought to have no concern. That is how the 1976 decision was arrived at !
The decision stunned Gyani Zail Singh. What bothered him was not water and its effect on Punjab’s economy. He was shocked by the fact that Bansi Lal had scored over him and that he would be seen as playing second fiddle to him in Delhi’s power structure. Equally, he was disturbed by the impact it would have on Punjab’s caste constellation. Gyani Zail Singh was smarting under the thought that Punjab’s jats would view him as a sworn enemy of the community when he really had no hand in the decision making process. Knowing as we did about his sensibilities, a small group of journalists joined hands to write a wholly castiest article aimed at teasing the Punjab Chief Minsiter on his alleged sell out. The articles appeared in Sarpanch and Dharkan, small newspapers of Chandigarh. The pieces were sent to him and he read them. He was later known to have begged of P.N. Haksar to save him. Haksar was no longer on Prime Minister’s staff but his advice was still listened to by Mrs Gandhi. The way out suggested was that Gyani Zail Singh would write to the Prime Minister seeking a review of the decision. Gyani Zail Singh was those days mortally afraid of even writing to Mrs Gandhi seeking a review of any decision without her prior consent. Thus the Punjab Chief Minister was content to unburden his conscience and left the matter hanging afire. We felt our purpose had been served: the issue remains disputed to be sorted out by future generations. But that was not to be. A cheque, presumably of Rs 2 crore, was despatched to Punjab by the Haryana Irrigation Department as “advance payment for the SYL construction” which was promptly accepted by Punjab engineers and the finance department. Another instalment came soon thereafter when Badal took over as Chief Minister. In Haryana, the thread was taken up by Devi Lal from where Bansi Lal and his successor had left off. Availing of his friendly relations with Badal, Devi Lal persuaded the Punjab Chief Minister to lay the foundation stone of the S. Y. L. canal near Rajpura to which Badal gave his consent. When the information reached Gurcharn Singh Tohra, he advised Badal not to proceed with the idea. Badal accepted the advice and the function was called off.
Cancellation of the big event did not mean end of the road for Haryana. It approached the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai for his intervention. He called the Chief Ministers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to his office. Desai sought the Haryana Chief Minister’s help to show him the course of the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi. On learning that none of the three rivers entered into or passed through Haryana and Rajasthan, the Prime Minister told their Chief Ministers bluntly that they had no claim to any water from Punjab. Stunned, the Haryana government then filed a suit in the Supreme Court. Punjab, too, responded by filing a counter suit. Punjab’s very able senior advocate, Hardev Singh, told me a few years later that he had suggested to Badal to challenge all water transferred to Rajasthan in the past but Badal put his foot down on the idea saying “There is no need for such a drastic action.”
When the case was about to be taken up for arguments by the Supreme Court, Haryana panicked presumably because its lawyers were not much hopeful of the outcome. To Haryana’s relief, Indira Gandhi had returned to power. She herself was keen on teaching Sikhs a lesson for their resistence to the Emergency. She directed the Central Irrigation Minister to persuade Darbara Singh for-an “out-of-court settlement.” The then Chief Minister was unwilling initially. Darbara Singh told me in an interview held at Punjab House that he was under tremendous pressure to withdraw the case. It is being done at “gun point,” he said. The Tribune carried the “gun point” news. Darbara Singh was in Delhi on the day the news appeared. Promptly at the P.M.O.’s initiative, a denial on behalf of Darbara Singh was put out saying that he had made no such observation against the Centre. Darbara Singh, however, evaded a meeting with the Union Minister for a few weeks, and in fact, made it a point to leave for Birmingham (where racial riots had taken place) for that reason alone. But the Central Minister kept waiting for him. A Chief Ministers’ meeting was again scheduled for mid July 1981, after a gap of 10-12 days at Prime Minister’s house. Darbara Singh came directly from the airport. After a protracted meeting, the Central Minister went to the adjoining room where Prime Minister was present. Soon after, Mrs Gandhi came out of her room and to the bewilderment of officials, clerks, drivers and other staff of the Chief Ministers’ present there, she shrieked quivering with rage, according to G.S. Chawla of Indian Express: “Darbara Singh kahan hain, unhen boliye astifa dein”. (“Where is Darbara Singh, ask him to resign”). Obviously, Darbara Singh was not hiding in one of the staff cars. The drama was intentional. The aim was to frighten Darbara Singh into submission. “Otherwise...” Darbara Singh did fall in line. He said “yes” in no time. And by the evening, Mrs Gandhi in a bid to delink her threat from the water issue, asked Darbara Singh to resign as Punjab P.C.C. President, which he did with a sense of relief. The case was withdrawn to pave way for the inter-state agreement of December 31, 1981.
With the inter-state agreement in her kitty and prospect of any judicial adjudication out of the way, Mrs Gandhi proceeded to lay the foundation stone of the S. Y.L. canal at Kapuri village (in Patiala district) on April 8, 1982. She made a long speech. At the end of the day, when I was writing the Kapuri story, The Tribune editor called me to state that the Chief Minister had sent his Information Secretary (Manmohan Singh) with a suggestion that we might play up the Thein Dam clearance theme of Mrs Gandhi’s speech. I read out to Prem Bhatia my notes and said there was no such clearance. Mrs Gandhi had just in passing said that the Thein dam project, too, had to be looked into. After hearing me Bhatia asked me to go ahead in keeping with my notes. That is how Mrs Gandhi did everything to manipulate public opinion to show to the people that she had not come to take away anything from Punjab but had come only to give some thing to Punjab! This art was later perfected by Rajiv Gandhi most dexterously when almost the entire Punjab, including the better part of Sikh intelligentsia, sang paeans for the Rajiv-Longowal accord whose one-point theme truly was construction of SYL canal, though. ‘Dignity’, the only Sikh paper which comprehensively and uncompromisingly condemned the accord as a sell out was virtually banned while dubbed as a supporter of Khalistani terrorist, I being Consultant Editor was arrested.
In the meanwhile, Kapuri morcha got under way and was sought to be shifted to Amritsar and repackaged as a Dharmyudh Morcha by the Shiromani Akali Dal, Mrs Gandhi came to Punjab again and on a hot summer day addressed public meetings at Nabha, Ludhiana and Gurdaspur to lecture Punjab on how to save water, it is required for the nation (namely Haryana and Rajasthan) and Punjab better practise dry farming. Incidentally, this happens to be Delhi’s recurring and enduring theme vis-a-vis Punjab even today. Read carefully the approach of the Johl Committee on Diversification backed strongly not only by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh but also a member of the planning commission. While you are discussing Punjab’s agriculture, you do not utter a word on the right to your own water.
Why was it necessary to sign Rajiv-Longowal accord after the December 31, 1981, inter-state agreement? It was necessary to remind Akalis that they were a vanquished party as they would not only have to withdraw their opposition to S. Y.L. canal issue but would have to build it with their own hands. Secondly, the aim was to seek political endorsement of the 1981 agreement and consent to let Haryana and Rajasthan run away with the booty and thirdly, they were required to help overcome certain impediments in the implementation of the 1981 agreement by amending the 1956 Inter-State River Water Disputes Act in Parliament to provide for constitution of a Tribunal.
Look at the interpretations put out for the consumption of politically illiterate masses: The accord was a great triumph, it was as good as the one the British signed with Punjab’s sovereign, Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Punjab has wrested great concessions. Look Punjab has been given this and that MAF water! And wonder of wonders: these interpretations went down well not only with the masses but also with vast sections of the Sikh intelligentsia. Truly, modem propaganda techniques can drive you mad. Even today some one from Delhi asks certain Punjab parties to sing the Longowal tune. They rush head-on to Longowal to oblige and create an atmosphere conducive to the construction of the SYL canal.
With the Supreme Court pushing hard with its extra-constitutional approach and the state’s Chief Minister being far from clear on how to retrieve the situation, the prospects are truly dismal. Supreme Court is supreme in the sphere allotted to it by the constitution. The constitution is suprior to the Supreme Court. It cannot violate the provisions of the constitution and set its own law. It also cannot pass an order of political nature. Even otherwise, Amarinder Singh is no revolutionary. He lacks nerve and guts. He is advised by advocates who are emotionally in tune with Haryana. No wonder, his public stand revolves round the need-based, rather than the right-based, supply of water, a stand that ought to endear him to Haryana for that state’s 1978 petition to the Supreme Court was all about the need-based thesis. He is guided ultimately by someone who has long traditions and commitments against Punjab. On top of it all, the Chief Minister, to say the least, is under no pressure from the main opposition party to lock himself up in struggle against Haryana. For Rajasthan in any case, he has a special weakness.
Then, where do we go from here?
Firstly, one should be clear about one’s formulations.
- The Punjab Council of Ministers as well as the Punjab Assembly should pass a resolution renouncing the December 31,1981 agreement as mala fide, entered into under coercion and without any consideration.
- Denounce the Rajiv-Longowal accord as neither Rajiv Gandhi nor Longowal had any locus standi to decide about water of Punjab rivers.
- Challenge the amendment to the Inter-State River water Disputes Act as inconsistent and violative of its Constitution. Consequently, the constitution and actions of the Tribunal as ultra vires of the constitution and law.
- Challenge sections 78,79 and 80 of the Punjab Reorganisation Act.
Secondly, all members of the Sikh intelligentsia are requested to understand the full implications of the issue at stake. They should regularly write to the central government authorities to newspapers, appear at television channels to explain the issues to the public and to do all in their power to influence and lobby with the public opinion as well as the judiciary.
Thirdly, they should put pressure on the state government and the opposition parties to take a principled stand on the water and power issues of Punjab and not be influenced by short-term games of politicians.
A myth has been spread by people with communal mindsets that the British gave the canal system to Punjab by investing heavily in Punjab at the cost of the rest of patriotic India. Punjab’s canal system has been operating for thousands of years. Babar in his “Tozke Babri” testifies to the existence of a network of canals in Punjab in 1526-30. Al Beiruni in “Al-Hind” about a thousand years ago also confirms the existence of the canal irrigation system in Punjab. Guru Nanak accords water primacy in gurbani. The Guru even conceives a prospect of the Ganga river water being transferred to the Majha areas of Punjab for irrigation. The Sirhind canal must have been passing at some point in time by Sirhind town. The British only reconditioned Punjab’s canal system and took away its investments many times over. The system has well paid off its capital cost. The system is being burdened and mismanaged by a proliferating and corrupt technocracy while the people are asked to pay for the cost of running the canal system. A sermon from Delhi via Chandigarh is delivered every now and then that farmers of Punjab should pay for the canal irrigation facility. Punjab has a right to its own irrigation system. The only problem with the system is that its exploitative administration needs to be heavily pruned if not disbanded.
Punjab has been a target of robbers and aggressors from the West for thousands of years precisely for the reason that it accumulated certain surplus every 15-20 years thanks to its canal irrigation system. The Sikh might succeeded in putting an end to the robberies and aggressions from the West. But the transfer of Punjab’s water to the East constitutes in its essence the aggregation of thousands robberies and aggressions in one go and for ever and their continuance as it were through a pipeline. When and how will the Sikh might reemerge to stop this aggression from the East? Only history will reply to this question.