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Posted at: Apr 20, 2017, 12:12 AM; last updated: Apr 20, 2017, 12:12 AM (IST)

SYL solution in present reality, not history

K.R. Lakhanpal
The changed ground realities vis-à-vis hydrological, agronomical and ecological conditions of both Punjab and Haryana have rendered old agreements, and the consequent building of the SYL Canal, unfeasible.
It has been widely reported in the media that the Government of India is willing to mediate and is prepared to refer the issue relating to the sharing of Ravi-Beas waters to a new tribunal to be constituted under the amended Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956, provided the government of Punjab gives an undertaking that it would abide by the award of the newly constituted tribunal. Such a condition is sui generis in more than one way. Firstly, why such a condition is being imposed only on the government of Punjab and not on all parties to the dispute? Secondly, how is the government of Punjab expected to give such an undertaking, even before the tribunal is constituted and its terms of reference are known? In fact, even before the proposed amendment to the Act is enacted?

While the proposal of the Centre to refer the entire gamut of issues to a new tribunal for adjucation afresh is welcome, its insistence on a prior undertaking from Punjab bespeaks of an old mindset in which the narrative has been framed, so far. Such a narrative is based on assumptions that have ceased to hold good since long. These are:

  • That Punjab is a culprit and Haryana is a victim of Punjab's intransigence in not implementing various agreements on the subject.
  • That Punjab has requisite water to meet its current requirements and, rather than sharing it with its needy neighbour, is letting it flow to Pakistan.
  • That carrying the non-existing surplus water to Haryana, by constructing  a 214-km-long Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal, will mitigate water scarcity in southern Haryana, without causing any distress to the farmers of Punjab, who are currently utilising this water.
  • That there are no alternative and better ways of meeting the water scarcity of Haryana. 
Unfortunately, none of these assumptions hold good today in the face of changed hydrological, agronomical and ecological conditions. The so-called agreements on sharing of river waters were entered into between warring states. The changed ground realities have rendered such agreements and consequent building of the SYL Canal unfeasible, without causing a grave damage to the farmers of Punjab, which could not be the intention of the Central government, or the government of Haryana or the Supreme Court. It will greatly help develop a national perspective on the issue if we capture the changed ground realities.

Firstly, the total water availability has gone down from 17.17 MAF to 13.38 MAF, as evidenced by the following table:

Flow Series Available Water (in MAF)

1921 - 1960 17.17

1981 - 2002 14.37

1981 - 2013 13.38

(Source: Bhakra-Beas Management Board)

Secondly, in the wake of the Green Revolution, the cropping pattern in Punjab has undergone a sea change, with wheat and paddy becoming the predominant crops (see table).

Thirdly, this radical shift in the cropping pattern of Punjab is in response to the policies pursued by the Central government in the late 1960s and early 1970s to provide much-needed food security to the country, which are even today being continued, despite many other states having caught up with Punjab in the production of wheat and rice. Therefore, in hindsight, wisdom might lie in advising Punjabi farmers to switch over from water-intensive paddy to maize, cotton, pulses and oilseeds, but the switchover is not likely to be painless, cost free and come about in the short term. 

For that to happen, a comprehensive policy to incentivise production of less water-intensive crops with necessary research and development, infrastructure and marketing support needs to be drawn up and implemented over at least 10 years. The cost and pain involved in the process should be mainly borne by the Government of India. For, Punjab has already suffered enough by destruction of its water and soil resources and by exporting heavily subsidised rice and wheat to the deficit states of the country. Now, to deprive the farmers of Punjab of their current usage of water by diverting it to Haryana by building the SYL Canal will, indeed, be a double whammy.

Fourthly, to provide additional about 2 MAF water to Haryana, over and above its current usage, by diversion from its present usage in Punjab is bound to be at a heavy cost to the nation by way of loss of livelihoods and incomes to Punjab, apart from the additional cost of construction of the canal, cost of carrying, and the environmental damage that it is likely to cause. Therefore, giving water to Haryana, by diversion from the current usage in Punjab is bound to be a zero sum game.

Fifthly, more extensive exploitation of ground-water resources is hardly a solution for Punjab's water problem. In the first place, exploitation of these resources in Punjab is already highest in the country at 170 per cent. Resultantly, most of the wells in Punjab are deep tubewells, requiring far more energy to draw underground water. Besides, the ground water in the south-western districts of the state is brackish and these districts are solely dependent on canal water to meet all of their water requirements. However, there is a definite silver lining on an otherwise dark horizon. Even Haryana agrees that the availability of water in the divisible pool has gone down; optimal utilisation of the Yamuna waters by constructing upstream reservoirs is a more viable and lasting solution for mitigating water scarcity in southern Haryana; and the divisible water pool could be enlarged by storing water flowing down to Pakistan during the monsoon period. For that to happen, the SYL imbroglio will need to be reframed in terms of extant ground realities rather than in terms of old agreements on the matter. Failing this, we may end up creating a far bigger problem in Punjab without necessarily solving the water scarcity problem of Haryana.

The writer is a former Chief Secretary, Punjab. The views expressed are personal.

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