Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Water: While North East reels under flood, Punjab faces a major crisis

News from The Hindu

North Eastern states including Bihar, Assam, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh are reeling under a bad flood situation. Several human lives are lost; Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary is apparently 90% under water. As of now, the Central Government has sanctioned 212 crores to Assam and Bihar. Army helicopters are pressed into service in Bihar to save lives and distribute food packets in regions cut off from the mainland. West Bengal also has serious problems. Two of its districts are under water. Arunachal Pradesh rivers are touching the danger mark.

In neighbouring country Bangladesh, floods have taken a serious toll as well.

In the Northern Front, Punjab state legislature has forced a major crisis, by revoking a water sharing accord signed between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in 1983. The story is very similar to the Kaveri water sharing problem between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. A detailed presentation of the problem is available in a Frontline story written in 2002. In short, India and Pakistan entered into an agreement for sharing water in the Sind rivers, in 1960. Despite three wars subsequently between the two countries and constant problems across-the-border, the two countries have abide by the agreement properly. There are some unresolved disputes here too, but they pale in comparison to the ugly way in which the states within the Indian Union fight with each other. Subsequent to the India-Pakistan river water sharing accord, the unified Punjab province received a certain quantity of water. When Punjab was split into Punjab and Haryana, the central government determined in 1976 that both states will receive equal amounts of water. Punjab went to court against this in 1978. However, in 1983, with both the states Punjab and Haryana ruled by Congress (I), the chief ministers worked out a reasonable formula sharing the water between the two states as well as giving some to Rajasthan, Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir.

Then Punjab went through insurgency problems, because of perceived (and possibly real) issues relating to Hindu-Sikh, Hindi-Gurmukhi conflicts. Rajiv Gandhi-Longowal (Longowal was killed by Sikh militants, while Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE suicide bomber) accord in 1985 allowed for construction of Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal and through this water was to go to Haryana. However because of intractable stance of Punjab, whose job it was to construct the canal, work on SYL canal was stalled. Haryana had gone to court against this, and the Supreme Court handed an order last month asking Punjab to hand over the construction of the canal to the central government. So, Punjab legislature came up with an innovative model - to convene a special session of the assembly to nullify the 1983 accord signed by the chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana. It is unclear to me whether the subsequent legislatures have the power to nullify the agreement signed by head of two states.

Capt. Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab nonchalantly says "Every State has to protect its interests. If others are not happy, they can go to court. The Supreme Court can strike down the Act. The final decision is a judicial review. I have to hand over the SYL site to the Centre the day after tomorrow. We were legally advised to take this course.". Chautala correctly responds that "Then, different States would enact their own laws to terminate all water agreements and projects." The result will be chaos. Even when the courts have ruled on water sharing, states such as Karnataka have not followed them. Already politicians in Punjab are demanding the same.

The central government, to avoid problems such as this, should nationalise the rivers and take complete ownership of them and should be the final arbiter of who should get how much of water. This may also be abused by unscrupulous elements in the central government, but at least in such cases judiciary can step in to correct the injustice. In the current case, the states have shown that they are unstable and devoid of thinking clearly and show scant regard for judicial process and hence should be stripped of powers to manage such a crucial resource as water.

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