The acre-feet fuss

But Punjab and Haryana farmers depend on groundwater!

By Sumita Dasgupta
Published: Sunday 15 August 2004

The acre-feet fuss

in passing the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has defied the law of the land and taken on the Supreme Court and the Union government. The Act renders null and void all legal agreements and treaties forged till date regarding sharing the water of the rivers Ravi and Beas with neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan. Singh heads a Congress government. This move is like a political boomerang to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (upa) at the Centre. Why has the seasoned politician opted for collision, with party bosses and the apex court?

"No part of Haryana or Rajasthan falls within the basin of Ravi and Beas and none of these flows through these States," complains the Act. Yet both use the rivers, and Punjab, "a good neighbour", "has accepted this by sufferance". But it can no longer play good Samaritan. As per the tripartite agreement signed on December 31, 1981, by the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, once the construction of the Satluj-Yamuna link canal (syl) is completed, the amount of water allotted to Haryana will jump from its current share of 1.62 million acre feet (maf) to 3.5 maf. But Punjab cannot allow such large-scale inter-basin transfer. Realities have undergone a sweeping change in the interim. In 1981, the total amount of water available in the river basins was assumed to be 17.17 maf. But now, as per the flow series of 1981-2002, it has dropped to 14.37 maf. Therefore, diversion of water will have "permanent adverse impact" on the state's irrigation and render about 9,00,000 acres (about 3,64,218 hectares) of basin area "dry and barren".

There is no longer enough water to share.

"Punjab argues that the Ravi-Beas basins are water-deficit. To gauge how legitimate its claim is one must know how much water is actually available for distribution. That is, in fact, the crux of the entire debate," says A Vaidynathan, professor emeritus at the Chennai-based Madras Institute of Development Studies. The bone of contention is the surplus flow of Ravi and Beas. It has been doled out to the states at various times in various proportions. In 1955, Punjab and the then undivided Patiala and East Punjab States Union (pepsu) were allocated 7.2 maf. Later, in 1966, this region was reorganised into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Punjab and Haryana were asked to work out a mutually acceptable settlement of the 7.2 maf jointly allotted to them. The two states could not agree on a figure; so began a bickering that's turned into a pitched battle. In 1976, the Union government stepped in (see: Raging inter-state war).
How much? And who tells? If the proportion of the water available in the basins is so hot an issue, how is this amount measured? It is calculated on the basis of the volume of water available in the reservoir sites -- the Madhopur headworks help gauge the Ravi; the Mandi Plain provides a raincheck on the volume of water in the Beas. The source of this water is seasonal rainfall and non-monsoonal flow, the official term for snow melt. The amount of water is calculated on the basis of river flow -- monitored and documented through a chain of observation sites. Who does the monitoring? The Punjab Irrigation Department and the Bhakra Beas Management Board (bbmb), a wing of the Union ministry of water resources (mwr) in charge of the administration and operation of the projects on the two rivers.

The agencies work out the actual amount of river flow by taking the average flows recorded over a period of time, usually 20 years or more. The Central Water Commission (cwc) is the third party here. It lays down the guidelines for monitoring flow data. The 1966 Punjab Reorganisation Act required Punjab to hand over the charge of the Harike, Ropar and Ferozepur headworks -- critical sites for gauging the flows -- to the bbmb. The board would then have been the sole monitoring agency, as was originally envisaged by the policymakers. But Punjab has refused to comply, and continues to hold sway over the sites.

The present data on water availability challenges previous calculations. Can we believe these figures? Will bbmb clarify? Rakesh Nath, bbmb chairperson, was unavailable for comment. "We have prepared a detailed report on water availability and submitted it to mwr. But we cannot reveal the data because it is confidential," says H C Chawla, the board's superintending engineer in Delhi.

bbmb's silence raises suspicion about government data on river flow. Over the past 25 years, the water available was revised every time a new inter-state agreement was forged. Which is why experts question the authenticity of these figures. Each time the states complained about their share, the Centre announced new flow data, allotting larger portions to all (see box: Visions and revisions). Haryana is also playing its part in this war of attrition. Its chief minister Om Prakash Chautala has talked of nullifying the Yamuna Water Agreement with Delhi. Like Amarinder Singh, Chautala also sounds desperate. Because the water requirement of the farm sector in Punjab and Haryana has been growing phenomenally over the past two decades.

It's the groundwater, stupid
Driven by incentives and subsidies, farmers in the two states have taken to water-intensive crops like rice. "The root of all the water sharing disputes lies in the desperate bid made by every ruling party to acquire larger and larger volumes of water for the farmers," says Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary to the Union ministry of water resources. So, how crucial is the volume of irrigation waters through canals for the farmers in Haryana and Punjab? Not any more, say experts.

A vast network of canals crisscrosses Punjab, reportedly covering about 90 per cent of its cultivated area. Yet, a battery of 9,00,000 tubewells pump out groundwater to irrigate more than 67 per cent of Punjab's net irrigated land. Only 32 per cent rely on canals. According to the Punjab Development Report, 2002, the efficiency rate of Punjab's canal network is less than 40 per cent; it obviously fails to cater to growing farmer needs. The affluent farming community invests heavily in digging deeper into the earth's surface. As the Central Groundwater Board (cgwb) shows, the state has experienced 98.34 per cent increase in rate of groundwater extraction in the past two decades. Out of 138 blocks in the state, 84 are labelled dark; they have u0sed 85-100 per cent of groundwater potential.

Haryana follows closely -- a 23 per cent jump in net irrigated area between 1986 and 1996, but 60 per cent of this groundwater-fed. Wells and tubewells increased from 35,724 in 1967 to 7,92,697 in 1997. As many as 40 out of 107 blocks in the state fall under the dark zone. Groundwater has fallen more than four metres in all the 17 districts in the past two decades.

The farmers in Punjab and Haryana have weaned off canals. Whether the water stays in Punjab or goes to Haryana hardly matters.

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