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Explained: Why the Punjab CM has warned against restarting SYL canal work

Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal project: Here is a look at the decades-old issue and why it has come up again now

Written by Kanchan Vasdev , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: August 20, 2020 9:54:57 am
Work on the SYL started in the 1980s. This picture of the link under construction was taken on December 5, 1991. (Express Archive)

Opposing the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal project and staking claim to Yamuna’s waters, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh Tuesday warned the Centre that his state will burn if forced to go ahead with the project. Reiterating the need for a tribunal, Amarinder said the SYL issue had the “potential to disturb nation’s security”. Here is a look at the decades-old issue and why it has come up again now.

What is the SYL canal issue?

At the time of reorganisation of Punjab in 1966, the issue of sharing of river waters between both the states emerged. Punjab refused to share waters of Ravi and Beas with Haryana stating it was against the riparian principle. Before the reorganisation, in 1955, out of 15.85 MAF of Ravi and Beas, the Centre had allocated 8 MAF to Rajasthan, 7.20 MAF to undivided Punjab, 0.65MAF to Jammu and Kashmir. Out of 7.20 MAF allocated, Punjab did not want to share any water with Haryana. In March 1976, when Punjab Reorganisation Act was implemented, the Centre notified fresh allocations, providing 3.5 MAF To Haryana. Later, in 1981, the water flowing down Beas and Ravi was revised and pegged at 17.17 MAF, out of which 4.22 MAF was allocated to Punjab, 3.5 MAF to Haryana, and 8.6 MAF to Rajasthan. Finally, to provide this allocated share of water to southern parts of Haryana, a canal linking the Sutlej with the Yamuna, cutting across the state, was planned. Finally, the construction of 214-km SYL was started in April 1982, 122 km of which was to run through Punjab and the rest through Haryana. Haryana has completed its side of the canal, but work in Punjab has been hanging fire for over three decades.

In July 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the then SAD chief Harchand Singh Longowal signed an accord for a new tribunal. A few days later, on August 20, 1985, Longowal was assassinated by militants. (Express Archive)

Why has the SYL canal come up again now?

The issue is back on centrestage after the Supreme Court directed the chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana on July 28 to negotiate and settle the SYL canal issue. Earlier, the meetings were taking place between the chief secretaries of both the states. The apex court asked for a meeting at the highest political level to be mediated by the Centre so that the states reach a consensus over the completion of SYL canal. Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat organised the meeting between both the chief ministers on Tuesday. The meeting remained inconclusive with Shekhawat expressing the view that the construction of the SYL carajivnal should be completed. But Amarinder refused categorically. Now, another meeting will be held soon to take up the issue.

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Why has Amarinder warned of violence in Punjab if the project is restarted?

Amarinder’s warning is based on the bloody history around the SYL canal. The trouble-torn days of terrorism in Punjab started in the early 1980s when work on the SYL started. When Indira Gandhi launched the construction of SYL in Kapoori village in April 1982, Akalis launched an agitation in the form of Kapoori Morcha to protest against the proposed sharing of waters.

In July 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the then SAD chief Harchand Singh Longowal signed an accord for a new tribunal. A few days later, on August 20, 1985, Longowal was assassinated by militants. Five years later, a chief engineer ML Sekhri and a superintending engineer Avtar Singh Aulakh were killed by militants.

Punjab feels it utilised its precious groundwater resources to grow crop for the entire country and should not be forced to share its waters as it faces desertification. It is feared that once the construction of the canal restarts, the youth may start feeling that the state has been discriminated against. The chief minister fears Pakistan and secessionist organisations like Sikh For Justice could exploit this and foment trouble in the state.

SYL canal, SYL canal issue, Sutlej-Yamuna Link, Amarinder Singh, Haryana, Punjab Haryana canal, Indian Express Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (SYL) suffers neglect as it becomes bone of contention between Punjab and Haryana. Picture taken on August 30, 1994. (Express Archive)

Why does Punjab want a new tribunal to look at water sharing among the many states?

The state wants a tribunal seeking a fresh time-bound assessment of the water availability. The state has been saying that till date there has been no adjudication or scientific assessment of Punjab river waters. The BBMB had reported that availability of Ravi-Beas water had come down from the estimated 17.17 MAF in 1981 to 13.38 MAF in 2013. A fresh Tribunal could ascertain all this, Punjab believes.

Why is Punjab not willing to share water?

Punjab is facing severe water crisis due to over-exploitation of its underground aquifers for the wheat/paddy monocycle. According to the Central Underground Water Authority’s report, its underground water is over-exploited to meet the agriculture requirements in about 79 per cent area of the state. Out of 138 blocks, 109 are “over-exploited”, two are “critical” five are “semi-critical” and only 22 blocks are in “safe” category.

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