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Wednesday, Jul 21, 2004

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Opinion - Water

Water wars and the real message

Sudhirendar Sharma

Punjab farmers at a rally against the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal. The solution may be for them to learn to manage water better.

BY TOSSING up the Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill, 2004, Punjab has taken the federal structure of the Indian state by surprise.

Annulling the very basis on which the Supreme Court had pressured the State to implement the river water-sharing agreement of 1981, the Bill has created an unprecedented Constitutional crisis.

While the legal position with regard to unilateral termination of a tripartite agreement will take time to resolve, the political turmoil may well raise enough dust to prove that, indeed, the next war will be around `water'.

As the existing structure of entries relating to water in the Constitution gets debated in the days ahead, the compelling question is whether or not Punjab is justified in abrogating the existing water-sharing agreement? The State's repeated argument that the availability of Ravi-Beas water has shrunk by 17 per cent ever since the agreement was signed 23 years ago has not yet been challenged, giving credence to the fact that, indeed, there has been a reduction in surplus flow of the Ravi and the Beas, then estimated at 17.17 million acre feet (MAF) based on 1921-60 series.

However, there is more to this unexpected political unanimity on the issue within the State. The self-sufficiency on the irrigation front in the country's granary has long been breached. Of the 138 development blocks, 84 have reportedly been declared dark zone, the level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. Six of the 12 districts in the State have recorded groundwater utilisation rate of over 100 per cent. No wonder, in many parts of Punjad, the watertable is falling by up to one meter per year.

With groundwater resources' having been over-extracted, surface flow assumes critical position in sustaining demand for irrigation water in the State. Should Punjab then share its limited surface flow at the cost of rendering nine lakh acres of its cultivable area dry and barren? Should it compromise the livelihood of 1.5 million of its peasant families to meet its obligation towards its neighbours? Given that the State contributes significantly (53 per cent wheat and 40 per cent paddy) to the country's swelling food reserves, these questions need to be addressed dispassionately.

One is not necessarily suggesting that the irrigation needs of farmers in Haryana and Rajasthan are less significant. Nor is it being suggested that Punjab should have the exclusive right for sustaining the country's food supplies. On the contrary, it is the competing demand for a shrinking natural resource that calls for its most productive utilisation under the prevailing conditions. Conversely, however, some experts have sought to question Punjab's land productivity and its insistence for more water on the ground that the State has lost 200,000 hectares of fertile tract to water-logging and salinity.

But that is true for both Haryana and Rajasthan, which have lost 249,000 and 176,000 hectares of productive land to water-logging respectively. Rajasthan had no record of water-logging till the Indira Gandhi Canal was made to traverse through the desert. It is a matter of time before more area becomes water logged as experts argue that most of the canal's command area of 10 lakh hectares in the desert is potentially vulnerable to water-logging.

Haryana's position is even worse. Statistics indicate that nearly 40 per cent of the surface runoff from as much arable land in the State has no drainage outlet, contributing to undesired accumulation of water in the soil. No surprise, therefore, that an estimated 473,000 hectare area has ground water level within the vicinity of 3 metres from the source, enough to seriously impact crop harvests. Given the fact that one-third of the State's land has saline ground water reserves, continued surface irrigation will compound farmers' woes in the years ahead.

If this be the ground situation, what then is being debated in light of Punjab's unilateral decision? On account of anonymity, farm experts in both the States contend that irrigation demands have populist and political overtones and are often exaggerated. With irrigation having been turned into a dominant electoral issue in the predominant agrarian states, emotions run high on slightest provocation of withdrawal or diversion of irrigation flows. Should then Punjab be the cause for more misery to the unsuspecting farmers in both the neighbouring States?

Not really, if lessons get learnt from the current impasse. Objective analysis indicates that Punjab's action is indeed suggestive of a shift from the current water-intensive cropping pattern. Though such decisions are influenced by a number of economic factors, efforts must be intensified to grow with less water and get the maximum productivity per unit of water. That applies as much to Haryana as to Rajasthan: Economic development in arid zones and desert areas should surely take forms that are not water-intensive.

Punjab is not necessarily excluding itself from this paradigm shift. In fact, it is driving the process after having learnt that in producing food for the nation it has lost heavily on its water resources. The State's ongoing crop diversification plan is pitched around the compelling need to cut down on current water consumption at the farms. It is already encouraging its farmers to switch from paddy-wheat rotation to other water-conserving crops, given the fact that for producing a tonne each of irrigated wheat and paddy, an estimated 1200 and 2700 cu m of water gets consumed.

While the manner in which the State has scuttled the tripartite water-sharing agreement may remain contentious, it is clear that the Chief Minister, Capt Amarinder Singh, is safeguarding the interests of the State till the results of his ambitious crop diversification plan actually start cutting down on the irrigation water requirements in the State. Compulsive though it may seem, the Chief Minister has inadvertently sent signals to the Water Resources Ministry to monitor changing flow-regime in country's rivers before jumping to create additional irrigation potential.

In a more subtle manner, however, Capt Amarinder Singh has warned the protagonists against any move to interlink the country's rivers. The message is clear: Don't ask for more water, learn to manage water better!

(The author, formerly with the World Bank, is a water expert and is attached to the Delhi-based the Ecological Foundation. He can be reached at

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