6 died in the agitations and demonstration in Ganganagar and Bikaner over water. Even tail end farmers at Jaisalmer started demanding more water allocations. More than 300 people were in jails. Thousands have been injured. But Arminder Singh (CM, Punjab) is firm on his words Im not going to give in. These and other stories have been emerged through various print media outlets in Rajasthan recently. Conflict between the state government and farmers erupted in a number of towns in the state, notably Anupgarh.
Recent disputes with Rajasthan
Despite the rather good rainfall this year, less water is entering Rajasthan because of the unwillingness of Punjab and Haryana to share water. This has placed the Rajasthan government in the highly unenviable position of choosing between two evils. The government knew by 1 September that Rajasthan will receive less water from the Bhakra project.
Farmers in Rajasthan are habituated to a continuous flow of water to irrigate their fields, distributed according to a time-based scheme. To fulfil their irrigation needs, the state's northern farmers claim that they need 5.23 cusec per thousand acres. Realizing that people at the tailend would not get water at all if farmers in northern Rajasthan were given that much water, the state government decided to decrease the released amount of water from the Indira Gandhi canal to 3.25 cusec.
Not surprisingly this decision was not well received by farmers at the headend (northern) of the canal. They had just sown their seeds and needed water for irrigation. They began to agitate and demanded the release of the full share of water (5.23 cusec).
The conflict between farmers and government escalated during the second half of 2004. Farmers, being angry and desperate, resorted to violence after demonstrations failed to move the government. Anupgarh, Gadsana, Rawla, Khajuwala were once peaceful. Now, tension over water has transformed them into a kind of battlefield. Police has tried to maintain law and order, but they have been outnumbered by agitators. There were casualties on 27 October. Policemen fired on farmers, killing some and wounding many. This of course, has not improved the relationship between the government and the farmers, but has resulted in more agitations instead.
People at the tailend of the canal also began agitations because they were getting little water, if at all. It is evident that water is not fairly distributed along the canal. According to the government, law and order crises are mainly caused by illegal and excess use of water. Peace returned on 11 December, when, after negotiation, the state government struck a deal with farmers.* The violence may have ceased for time being; but the wars over water may be about to begin.
The Punjab factor
The Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh has opposed sharing water with Haryana and Rajasthan; he says that Ravi-Beas river water is needed for irrigating its own lands. Punjab needs more water, but does that justify violating river sharing laws and conventions. To understand the disputes going on at the moment, we need to look at the past. Since water has always been considered as precious and scarce, people, states and countries have constantly tried to get as much water as possible.
Rivers dont pay attention to man made borders of countries and states, but simply seek ways of least resistance to flow. To prevent severe damage of nature and to protect the land of countries downstream the river, the Barcelona Convention on interstate river water was held in 1921. This convention prohibited states from stopping or altering the course of a river that flows through its own territories into a neighbouring country and it also forbids the use of river waters in such a way that it imperils the lands in the neighbouring state or impedes lower riparian states in adequate use.
India is a signatory to the Barcelona convention. But India, being the upper riparian of the Indus rivers, was and still is in a position of strength. In 1948, India and Pakistan signed a water sharing agreement that Pakistan was unhappy with. But the intervention of the Word Bank helped settle the dispute peacefully, leading to the Indus Water Treaty. India and Pakistan signed this treaty in 1960. India showed how it proposed to utilize the water and promised to supply waters to Pakistan as well. Politicians, dreaming up pictures of a desert converted to fertile land, assigned more than half of Indias share of Indus water to Rajasthan. Transporting water to Rajasthan was a consequent requirement.
Disputes between three Indian states
Indias internal water distribution plan was made long before 1960. In 1955 the northern states in India signed the interstate water agreement. According to this agreement, 8.0 MAF (million acre feet) was allocated to Rajasthan, 7.2 MAF to Punjab and 0.5 MAF to Kashmir. Soon after the signing India started work on the ambitious project of the Rajasthan canal, which is today called the Indira Gandhi canal. This canal was to guide water from Ravi-Beas river system in Punjab to Rajasthan.
After reorganization of Punjab in 1966, its 7.2 MAF of water was equally divided between Punjab and Haryana (both received 3.5 MAF) leaving 0.2 MAF to meet Delhis needs. Then, In 1978 Punjab and Haryana started to link the Sutlej river in Punjab via a canal to the Yamuna river in Haryana. This link (SYL) was necessary to provide Haryana the allocated 3.5 MAF as it could not be imported from the Ravi-Beas system.
Although constructing canals and linking rivers seem to be good solutions at first sight, those measures were the beginning of a long row of disputes. Haryana completed the construction of its portion of the SYL canal in 1980, but it was not satisfied with Punjabs pace of canal construction and sued Punjab. Punjab had reconsidered the planned amount of water it had to give to Haryana.
Notwithstanding this, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan came to an agreement in 31st Dec 1981, allotting 4.22 MAF to Punjab, 3.50 MAF to Haryana, 8.60 MAF to Rajasthan 0.20 MAF to Delhi and 0.65 MAF to Jammu and Kashmir. Punjab assured that it would finish the SYL within two years, but again, the state failed to keep its promise. Many disputes followed, agreements were made and repudiated afterwards. But the SYL link has not been finished.
The present Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh has opposed the share of water by both Haryana and Rajasthan, saying that Ravi-Beas river water does not touch those states. Rajasthan's water share from the Ravi-Beas system is 8.6 MAF. Singh says that Punjab needs the water for irrigating its own lands. Singh is right in his last statement, that Punjab already has a water deficit. According to the Helsinki Rules of 1966, adopted by the International Law Association, each basis state is entitled to reasonable and equitable share in the beneficial uses of water. Equitability is determined by past and present utilization, economic and social needs. By this account, Punjab does need more water.
But there is more. Punjabs Chief Minister simply neglects the fact that Punjab mainly grows high water-consuming crops. No wonder there is a water deficit in the state. Water-intensive crops are grown in Rajasthan too, but this mostly where irrigation facilities have been developed. And most of the irrigation in Rajasthan (roughly 66%) is by groundwater.
Singh also glossed over past promises and the Supreme Courts demand that the state restart and complete the remaining portion of the SYL immediately. Apparently, he does not realize that both Rajasthan and Haryana have invested a lot of money in the construction of canal infrastructure within their states, all of which is wasted without water supply from Punjab. Most importantly, he seems not to take into consideration that people in Rajasthan and Haryana have already adjusted their way of lives to the canal driven water supply.
Government water allocation figures also say that Rajasthan is supposed to get water from the Yamuna river as well. But Haryana, the upper riparian state in this case, has refused to sign a memorandum of understanding and to complete a canal that will give Rajasthan its share.
Whats the solution?
At the moment there is a water deficit in Punjab, according to its Chief Minister. Calculations to determine the height of the water need, however, are based on present and future utilization of the land with high water-consuming crops. Switching to less water-consuming crops would be a step in the right direction, since the need for water in Punjab would decrease and more water could be given to other states.
Also, the control of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) should be given to the Central Government for impartial distribution of water. BBMB is regulates water from the Pong dam on the Beas river to several states. Though its board has members from different states, power in effect is wielded by the Punjab government, which leads to impartial distribution of canal water.
Punjab also has to realize that although it has riparian rights, these rights have also been given to Haryana and Rajasthan. Ignoring agreements made in the past, is risking a huge dispute or worse. While the Rajasthan government should put maximum effort in convincing both Punjab and Haryana to complete the construction of canals and to give Rajasthan its share, it must also strive to prevent the conflict from escalating at all costs as the lives of millions is at stake.
For this reason, the state government should minimize the illegal and excess use of water within the state and on the other hand put its cards upon the table to reduce the agitations and foster mutual understanding within the state. People in Rajasthan once lived in peace together, so why not share the water equally?
Farmers should be encouraged to build 'diggis' in their fields and install sprinklers for proper water storage and usage. Diggis are undergroundwater tanks in which water can be collected during distribution and can be used whenever needed. They reduce the dependency of farming on actual canal water regulation.
Likewise the state government must warn farmers in advance about the water availability in Pong which will further be divided between the states, so that farmers can plan about the crop according to the water availability.
Water sharing is a noble idea. Share and share alike! The present situation however proves that sharing water is a sensitive issue, resulting in many disputes. But lets have a look at the root of the problem.
Why are we constructing canals? Their constructions cost a fortune and they are very inefficient as well. Much water is wasted with transportation over long distances and bad infrastructure aggravates this. Besides the failure to deliver enough, the system delivers poor quality water as well, causing several water related diseases.
Still, citizens in Rajasthan have become totally dependent on canal supplied water. In former times, people survived in the Thar without water brought from elsewhere. Our ancestors used rainwater to fulfil their needs, but rainwater-harvesting techniques have almost disappeared in areas where the canals are supposed to deliver water. Ideally, everybody could take care of his or her own water supply.
It is impossible to simply stop the water supply in the canals and expect to shift the responsibility to farmers. Such a measure would be disastrous and could lead to violence. What can and has to be done is stimulating farmers to harvest rainwater in order to decrease their dependence on canal water. Furthermore, less water intensive farming needs to be promoted. The water sharing disputes between the states may itself have no end in sight, but perhaps the suffering of people will be reduced.