When Harinder Harry discusss the elections in Punjab, he talks about unemployment, drugs and several other issues, but makes no mention of the one thing that his village is famous for. It is here that the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal, unpopular in Punjab, enters Haryana. In recent months, the ruling Shormani Akali Dal sought to steal a march over its political rivals by denotifying the land acquired for the canal, and in defiance of a Supreme Court, announced that land would be transferred back to those from whom it had been acquired. The Congress for its part has claimed that it was the one that “saved” Punjab’s water as it had cancelled the SYL agreement with Haryana during its 2002-2007 term in office, when Amarinder Singh was chief minister.
Harry, a B Com from a private college in Patiala, said that after failing to get a job, he started growing vegetables in his fields around two years ago. “Initially, I made good money, but there is no place for small farmers in this system,” he said.
Asked about SYL and claims by parties on how they have prevented water from going to Haryana, he said: “All this is not going to bring employment to anyone. It’s a waste of time to talk about it.” Over 3,900 acres was acquired for the canal by the Punjab government: 734 acres in Mohali district, 1,508 in Patiala, 1,250 in Ropar and around 500 in Fatehgarh Sahib.
In their manifestos, the Congress has said the party will not release water to Haryana and AAP has promised said re-registration of the acquired land in the name of original owners, while SAD has claimed it has already given back the land to its original owners.
Around 2 km from Kapoori, in Kamalpur village, where late prime minister Indira Gandhi laid the foundation stone of the canal in 1982, it is the same story — the absence of government jobs and prevalence of drugs are what residents feel most strongly about.
Ask them what it feels like to have got back the land acquired for the canal, and they say the government has tried to make a “fool” of farmers. Farmers in Himmatpur village, around 10 km from Ropar, the starting point of the canal in Punjab, also felt that denotifying the SYL land was only “a political stunt” by the ruling party.
From Kapoori to Lohund Khud in Kiratpur Sahib in Ropar from where the water was to be released into the canal, farmers share the same sentiment: SYL is an issue that all political parties rake up at election time and then forget about.
“The canal was built in the 1980s. Since then, it has been a political stunt. Every leader claims that they are protectors of waters of Punjab but my question is that so much land and blood was wasted for the canal, why are political parties not afraid to repeat the same thing again,” said 69-year-old Jaipal, at Gardhi Nagar village near Rajpur, which gave 200 acres of the land.
After the recent announcement that the original owners would get the land back in their names, Jaipal, who had given 40 acres for the canal, obtained a mutation from the district administration in the names of his family members. But he did not take physical possession of land as he feared getting into a legal tangle. “Nobody from our family has taken possession. We came to know from our friends in neighbouring villages that we could be booked by the police,” said Jaipal.
At a dhaba on the Ropar-Manali road, Didar Singh, 77, a retired forest department employee, said that though the government has denotified the land, no farmer in Bharatgarh, Alowal, Himmatpur, Bada Pind and Kharota villages has taken physical possession yet as they are aware of the legal implications, and know that the matter is still pending before the Supreme Court. “We all know that the land is not ours. Both the Congress and APP tried to rake up the issue, and SAD went one step ahead by denotifying the land. But it is a political gimmick,” said Didar.
Kuldeep Singh, sarpanch of Kamaalpur village near Kapoori, said around 16 acres of land was acquired from their village, but nobody from the village wants to take the possession despite assurances by the ruling party that they will not face problems.
“Revenue Minister Bikram Majithia came to Sarala village where he distributed copies of the mutation. SAD leaders assured the farmers that they can take back their land but nobody did it. The SAD candidate from our area highlighted the issue at that time but now she is silent about it,” said Kuldeep Singh.
SAD’s Ropar district president Paramjeet Singh Makkar said what SAD had done for farmers in Punjab along the SYL canal, “despite all the odds”, was a big achievement for the party. People knew about it.
The party’s Mohali district president Ujaggar Singh Badali also called it SAD’s achievement for farmers, but declined to comment when asked why farmers were wary about taking possession of the land.