Satluj-Yamuna Canal Project: The Big Policy Battle That Haryana Has Been Losing To Punjab

Arjun Singh Kadian

Jul 06, 2018, 12:11 PM | Updated 12:11 PM IST

Arid and semi-arid Haryana was separated from the Punjab post-Independence. A scene at Sultanpur National Park, Gurugram district, Haryana (GettyImages)
Arid and semi-arid Haryana was separated from the Punjab post-Independence. A scene at Sultanpur National Park, Gurugram district, Haryana (GettyImages)
  • The Satluj-Yamuna Link canal is yet to materialise after decades, as Punjab fiercely guards its interests, while Haryana wages a desperate battle.
  • The Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal is a long-drawn political issue that refuses to face closure. Time and again, leaders of Punjab and Haryana have raked up the topic to stir public sentiments in order to garner votes. Quite recently, it was the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leadership which had launched a campaign of court arrests. The INLD had initiated a Jan Andolan last year, carried out a Sansad Gherao and dug a canal to champion the SYL cause. All in vain, however.

    The SYL Project Timeline

    The timeline of the SYL canal dates back to the days after Partition. At Independence, India was in possession of the upper reaches of the Indus while the lower reaches rested within Pakistan. With the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, India got unrestricted use of water of the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. The treaty agreed that the water was needed in the arid areas that lay within Punjab.

    The Bhakara Nangal project had been initiated while the negotiations for the treaty were still going on. An initial agreement on sharing of waters between Punjab, Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU), Rajasthan, And Jammu and Kashmir had already been reached. After the merger of Punjab and PEPSU, Punjab’s share of river waters was calculated at 7.2 Million Acre Feet (MAF).

    The real dispute over waters began after the state of Haryana was created in 1966, after tumultuous political machinations. A large tract of arid and semi-arid land became part of Haryana, which, accordingly, demanded 4.8 MAF out of Punjab's total 7.2 MAF share of water. But the Punjab government was in no mood to budge. Over the next decade, no agreement could be reached and the Haryana government asked the centre to intervene.

    On the night of 25 June 25, then prime minister Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency. In 1976, she initiated the process of constructing the SYL canal for Haryana to bring its share of water through the Punjab. The carrier channel would run for 121 kilometres in Punjab and cover 91 km in the state of Haryana.

    According to estimates, out of the total availability of 15.2 MAF, Punjab and Haryana were given 3.5 MAF each, Delhi 0.2 MAF and the remaining 8 MAF left to be used by Rajasthan. But this didn't bring anything into action.

    Water had long been a passionate issue for Haryana. Tau Devi Lal was an acknowledged leader of the farmers. India's water sharing treaty with Pakistan stipulated that the waters would be used for arid areas of Punjab, which was now Haryana. When in 1977 Tau Devi Lal became the Chief Minister of Haryana, he released Rs 1 crore to Punjab for the acquisition of land. Prakash Singh Badal's Akali government in Punjab on the contrary was dilly-dallying (he had been most vocal in opposition to the SYL). Almost the entire portion of the SYL canal falling in Haryana had been constructed during the tenures of Bansi Lal, B D Gupta, and Devi Lal. However, Punjab was noticeably reluctant to follow through. The SYL could not be functional unless Punjab constructed the part that fell in its territory. In this situation, the Haryana government moved the Supreme Court in April 1979.

    An important turn of events happened after Indira Gandhi's Lok Sabha win in 1980. Bhajan Lal turned away from the Janata Party and joined the Congress. Interestingly, the shift happened with a bulging suitcase, which he was told to deliver at the house of Maneka Gandhi. Verma writes…

    ‘Making a deep bow he addressed her thus: Respected Madam, permit us to return to our home! Kindly forgive us our trespasses and admit us to your great party to which we had always belonged
    She gave a gracious smile and blessed their Ghar Wapsi'

    And that is how Haryana’s Janata Party government became a Congress party government without any elections.

    Now, Indira Gandhi was at the helm while Congress governments ruled Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan. She asked Punjab and Haryana to withdraw their suits in court and announced a fresh award. The water availability report of 1976 was used to allocate waters and Punjab was now given 4.22 MAF, Rajasthan 8.60 MAF, Haryana 3.50 MAF and Delhi 0.02 MAF. The three chief ministers signed the agreement on 31 December 1981. In order to sway votes in the upcoming elections in Haryana, she even laid the foundation stone for the SYL project at village called Kapuri in Punjab in April 1982.

    The works picked up, but the pace was snail-like. Later, Bansi Lal even sent a Panch and Sarpanch to monitor works in Punjab and Haryana. In 1985, the Rajiv-Longowal Accord was signed, one point of which was the setting up of a tribunal to check the claims of both Haryana and Punjab. A month later, Longowal was killed by militants. The tribunal did give its verdict on 30 January 1986. Punjab felt defeated since its plea of riparian law was rejected and the tribunal upheld the principle of equitable apportionment of Ravi-Beas waters.

    On 23 July 1990, SYL chief engineer M L Sikri was killed, followed by the killing of superintending engineer A S Aulakh by Babbar Khalsa International militants. Thirty-two labourers working on the project were put to death too. The work on the project never really started again. In the 90s, and after these deaths, the project seemingly went silent. With other pressing issues at the Centre, the Indian government did not meddle much in the affairs of the two states. In 2004, Amarinder Singh, with some political inspiration, annulled the interstate water-sharing agreement. He brought the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act before the Assembly, which unanimously ended the project. The Government of India preferred a presidential reference before the Supreme Court.

    Says Verma, “The Supreme Court had not found time to respond to it for 12 years”.

    With a Bharatiya Janata Party government in office, in 2016, a Constitutional bench invalidated the 2004 Act. But the saga doesn't stop there.

    The SYL still faces a deadlock while Punjab and Haryana simmer with passion. People have given up lives on both sides for the SYL and emotions now run many decades deep.

    It is interesting how the Delhi government challenged Haryana a few days ago for not delivering on the water promises. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been strangely quiet on the SYL, however. His Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lost badly in Punjab and now wants to try its hand in Haryana, in 2019. Well, with this stand, it is doubtful whether people will even care.

    The Politics Surrounding SYL Project

    In the first part, the historical details of the SYL project were discussed. Here, an attempt will be made to highlight the politics that surround it.

    Since large tracts of Haryana are essentially semi-arid, there is nothing that can discount the importance of water from the SYL canal. At the time of formation, Haryana needed large amounts of water to satisfy its agricultural needs. In order to work through the disappointing delays created by Punjab, successive Haryana governments took measures to fulfil the water needs of its people. Right after the formation of Haryana, the Jui Lift irrigation project was piloted on the lines of water lifting techniques used by the Tennessee Valley Authority in USA. Owing to this success, a network of lift irrigation systems came up in Loharu, Dadri, Siwani and other places to irrigate the entire South of Haryana. Other needs of potable water were met through tapping of freshwater lenses deep in the earth. It is not surprising that the overexploitation of these resources has created havoc. Gurugram, for example, often faces water shortage in different sectors.

    Punjab's stance on the SYL is seen by Haryana as a breach of trust. It has been over five decades and a long list of leaders and even sad deaths, but the SYL issue seems to be only a point of discussion rather action.

    In 2004, the Amarinder Singh government annulled the interstate agreement that was signed with Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. The agreement was duly ratified by the Indian government. The Punjab Termination of Agreements Act was passed unanimously in the Punjab Assembly.

    Says Ram Verma ,"With one stroke, he apparently butchered the SYL project, non-violently!”

    The annulment was then passed on to the Supreme Court by the Government of India for an opinion. For as many as 12 years, the SC sat on the issue.

    While the Congress sat on it silently all these years, the INLD leadership was so engrossed in its problems that now, the pressure is on the Manohar Lal Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana to take up the war.

    In 2016, Khattar's government sent an application to the Supreme Court to tender its opinion on the Presidential reference. A Constitutional bench of the apex court on 10 November 2016 invalidated the 2004 Act passed by the Punjab Vidhan Sabha.

    Current Dynamics In Haryana

    The INLD is a prominent state party. It has given chief ministers to Haryana and a deputy prime minister to India. Late Tau Devi Lal was a champion of the cause of farmers and had maintained an agriculturist image. As CM, he had brought in many measures to improve irrigation and electricity. It was only natural that he would champion the cause of the SYL too. After 1977, he came forward to give Rs 1 crore to Punjab in the hope that it would hasten the process of SYL construction. However, the move was in vain.

    The young Member of Parliament, Dushyant Chautala, is now the face of the INLD in Parliament and is taking up the SYL issue on a war footing. Senior INLD leader and MLA Abhay Chautala leads the charge and takes the battle from the people to the government.

    INLD initiated a campaign called Jail Bharo Andolan and announced a series of programmes in April. The INLD workers also tried to court arrest at various places last month. Interestingly, support came in from the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is trying to make strong inroads into Haryana politics. The increasing association between the two parties has been witnessed on television quite a few times in the last couple of months.

    On this table of power traders now joins the Aam Aadmi Party. AAP fought elections for the Punjab Assembly but was routed. Kejriwal was at the receiving end of Badal's highly charged accusations. The Badals of Punjab have vehemently opposed the SYL canal. Quite recently, AAP announced that it will fight the elections for the Haryana Legislative Assembly which are due in 2019. While AAP has accused INLD and SAD of playing politics in the name of water and SYL, its own stand has been anything but certain. Kejriwal has often sounded opportunistic in the SYL debate and has failed to make his stand on the matter clear.

    Both Haryana and Punjab have a large number of agriculturists. Although new systems are in place, farmers are many a time dependent on the monsoon. Apart from that, it is the extensive network of rivers and canals that serve the interests of farmers. These farmers form a huge vote bank and have rallied in favour of parties that support their water concerns.

    Of course, traditional voting patterns exist, but for the large population of the state, SYL is a big policy battle in which Haryana has successively lost to Punjab. Whoever wins the water for Haryana, will win the hearts of Haryanvis for generations to come.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.