When Hope Runs Dry
- Manohar Singh Gill
When Hope Runs Dry

I joined the Punjab IAS in 1958. In 1960, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru signed the World Bank-sponsored agreement with Pakistan PM Liaquat Ali Khan to divide the river waters of the old Punjab. East Punjab was allotted 15.2 million acre feet (MAF) and the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, while West Punjab got the Chenab, Jhelum and Sindhu with about 30 MAF. In our Constitution, water as a subject, along with agriculture, education, etc, belongs to the states. Globally accepted riparian law applies in India too.
The 1947 Partition was essentially that of Punjab, with large-scale massacres and a total transfer of population. Sikhs suffered the most. They left their religious shrines and the canal colonies they had developed. Land in East Punjab was sandy and poor, and the Muslim population, mainly artisans, left very little for refugees to occupy. They struggled to make a living.
Lahore was lost to us. Nehru started building Chandigarh and the Bhakra Dam to put our shattered Punjab on its feet. He would come regularly to see these "new temples” coming up. In 1955, by an administrative decision of the Centre, eight of Punjab’s 15.2 MAF were given to Rajasthan, which had no legal right to Punjab’s waters. Punjab was left with 7.2 MAF. In 1966, Punjab was trifurcated to create Haryana and a larger Himachal. Both Chandigarh and the Bhakra Dam were taken away and put under Central control. It was even argued that the Ropar and Ferozepur headworks should be taken under Central control. Punjab’s pride and self-esteem took a great knock.
Water disputes started. The press portrayed Punjab as a bully. In 1976, the PM, pressured by the defence minister, divided Punjab’s seven MAF between Punjab and Haryana. Punjab, the owner of the river waters, was left with only 3.5 out of 15.2 MAF. In joint Punjab, the Yamuna was the boundary with UP, and it had a right on a share of the waters. Much later, the Yamuna was shared between Haryana, UP and Rajasthan by a sudden secret Delhi decision. Punjab was kept in the dark and ignored. The Rajasthan canal, carrying 10,000 cusecs a day, caused severe waterlogging in Ferozepur and Muktsar. Rajasthan refused to give a penny in compensation. The same waterlogging damage will happen with the Satlej Yamuna link canal (SYL), if built across northern and eastern Punjab.
The SYL dispute has a bitter history. A foundation was laid by the PM in 1982 in the face of protests, and work initiated. I think some engineers and labour were shot. Political turmoil began and the work was stopped. The push and pull continues. I spoke twice on this issue in the Rajya Sabha in the last 10 days. The case is so old that I realised most of today’s MPs have no knowledge of the history, and of the wrongs done. Even my opponents came to me in the central hall and wanted briefings.
What is the situation today? I was a part of the Punjab Green Revolution starting in 1967-68, and running up to the 1980s. The new Borlaug wheat seeds, supported by chemical fertilisers and lots of water, made production jump. By the time I left Punjab in 1988, we had 12 lakh shallow tubewells built with cooperative loans. More than half of the irrigation was done by tubewells and not canals. Today, there are more than 14 lakh tubewells, and they contribute to 74 per cent of Punjab’s irrigation. People think we live off the canals. Not so. Due to heavy pumping of groundwater, of Punjab’s 144 development blocks, only 23 pump out adequate water now. The rest are all in the dark and grey areas, of serious concern. In the 1960s, our tubewells were at a depth of 100 feet or less. Today, well-to-do farmers who can afford the expense are putting submersible pumps at a depth of 300-400 feet. But this is drying out the shallow tubewells of poor farmers in a large radius. This will lead to conflict. Since about 1978-79, Punjab has been giving free electricity to farmers, big and small. By this senseless act, the state government is actually subsidising the wheat/ rice that goes into the central pool to feed the rest of India at the cost of Punjab. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices does not compensate the state in any way. For long years, Punjab prided itself on making the country independent of American begging. President Lyndon Johnson’s remarks to PM Indira Gandhi are well-known.
In the recent past, grain production has come up in many states. I read with great sadness when Sharad Pawar, the UPA agriculture minister, said in Chandigarh, words to the effect that Punjab better look to alternative crops, as the Centre no longer needed its grain.
Apart from production elsewhere, they had the newfound arrogance of the foreign exchange surplus that had been built up. They could import, having the dollars. As the development commissioner, I had sat in a meeting with the Planning Commission’s agriculture member in Chandigarh, when he chided us for wanting to grow cotton in the south, as it gave the farmer better income. He more or less directed us not to do so, but grow grain as this was Delhi’s priority.
In 1992-93, as the agriculture secretary of India, I gave an address in Punjab Agriculture University, where I said I did not agree that Punjab was a great agricultural state, as our local politicians used to tom-tom. I said "Punjab is only a grain-growing factory. Factories can have a lockout, and Punjab could be facing one”. Now that time has come, and we don’t know which way to go. We have a nominal share in our own rivers. Rajasthan really has the lion’s share of Punjab’s waters, much of which it wastes. Unlike other states, Punjab has no minerals, or heavy or other industry, due to many reasons. Our farmers’ average holding is less than two acres. Off the land, there is hardly any employment. The armed forces overlook Punjab boys. So what is the future hope for Punjab?
With little knowledge, people drum the formula, "obey the court”. I have said in the Rajya Sabha that it would be dangerous to think court orders can solve the issue. We see this situation in all the southern states. In this century, water will be a growing crisis in the world and India. Think calmly and think hard.
The writer, a Congress Rajya Sabha MP, is a former development commissioner, Punjab, and Union agriculture secretary
(Courtesy : The Indian Express)


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