The ‘pakodas’ on the table at Bhure Da Dhaba are piping hot, but the discussion taking place in a corner of the roadside eatery on the controversial Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal is far more heated.
Forty-five-year old Makhan Singh is agitated like many other farmers in poll-bound Punjab. The SYL canal – a long-pending project to carry Punjab river water to Haryana – is back in the headlines following a Supreme Court intervention and has infused further bitterness into already testy ties between the two neighbouring states.
For farmers like Makhan, it has brought to the fore their own water woes. “We don’t want Haryana to get Punjab’s water because we don’t have enough for ourselves,” the tall farmer says. “Leaders should set politics aside and find a solution to our problems,” he adds.
The thirst for water
Elections to the state assembly are just months away and the contentious issue of SYL has shone a light on the plight of Punjab’s farming community. SYL is nowhere near taking off, but it has forced parties to stress their pro-farmer credentials.
Successive Punjab governments have successfully stalled the canal – projecting themselves as the flag-bearers of farmers’ interests.
The ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP dispensation has taken a defiant stand against the Supreme Court, which has held as unconstitutional a 2004 law that annulled water-sharing agreements with neighbouring states.
Punjab’s approach – cutting across the government and the Opposition – stems from the argument that “there’s not a drop to spare”.
Politics of a canal
Sitting beside Makhan at the dhaba, 28 kilometres west of Chandigarh, his uncle, Amrik Singh, says the parties are only providing lip-service. With or without SYL, farms in the state are not getting canal water and tubewells too have to be progressively dug deeper to reach the depleting water table.
The state government has ordered the land for SYL to be restored to farmers. But many in the nearby Chunni village, through which the canal was to pass, are not mollified.
“We don’t want the land back. We want water,” Amrik says.
As a bright afternoon fades into a chilly dusk, Fatehgarh Sahib legislator Kuljit Nagra of the Congress, SAD district president Ranjit Singh Libra and advocate Amardeep Singh listen in across the table. Gurpreet Bhatti, the 43-year-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate for Amloh constituency in Fatehgarh Sahib, also joins the conversation.
“Our agenda is to save Punjab’s farmers,” assures Libra, sporting a “Proud Akali” badge.
Nagra agrees on the water scarcity, but not before taking a jab at the SAD for lacking “sincerity” and not making “sacrifices” on the SYL issue.
“The party that has made sacrifices will be benefited (in the election),” says the 51-year-old leader, referring to the resignations of Congress’s Amarinder Singh from the Lok Sabha and 42 party legislators from the assembly in November after the top court stayed the restoration of the canal land.
The AAP’s Bhatti, however, blames both the SAD and the Congress for “politicising an emotive issue”.
“Amarinder Singh (as Patiala MP in 1982) sent an invitation to (former prime minister) Indira Gandhi to start the digging of the canal. (Incumbent CM Parkash Singh) Badal acquired land in Punjab and took money from Haryana (for the construction work three decades ago),” he says.
As the din over the SYL debate grows, lawyer Amardeep raises his voice to be heard amid the noise made by vehicles whizzing past. “Parties are trying to gain mileage out of the issue,” he says. “There is no solution in sight,” he adds, pointing out that the apex court has ordered a status quo on the land acquired for SYL after the government decided to give it back to farmers.
The fate of SYL would ultimately be known after a protracted legal battle. For the moment, politicians are locking horns over it in the run-up to the elections. Both Akalis and the Congress insist they have done their bit to block the project to safeguard the state’s farmers’ interests.
Though somewhat on the back foot since party chief Arvind Kejriwal hails from Haryana, the AAP — seeking to wrest power in the state — argues it is best suited to help farmers in Punjab.
Five kilometers from Bhure Da Dhaba, the site through which the SYL canal was to pass lie covered in dried leaves. Impending elections have resurrected an almost-abandoned project pending since 1970s and added to the decibel levels.
- 1966: In November, Haryana carved out of Punjab. Leaders start bickering over Ravi-Beas water.
- 1968: The Centre decides to share Ravi-Beas water among Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana.
- 1976: Stakeholders agree to build the SYL canal. Punjab gets Rs 1 crore from Haryana to begin work.
- 1980: Haryana completes work on its side in June, spending Rs 250 crore for the distribution network and Rs 55.81 crore for the canal. Punjab yet to begin.
- 1982: On April 8, then PM Indira Gandhi breaks ground to mark the start of construction for the canal in Punjab.
In August, the Akali Dal leads statewide protests against the canal.
- 1985: On July 24, PM Rajiv Gandhi and Akali Dal chief Sant Harchand Singh Longowal sign an agreement to end agitation.
- 1990: In June, Punjab completes more than 114km of the 121-km-long portion in its territory. Government abandons work after militants kill 35 labourers and two engineers engaged in the construction.
- 1996: Haryana moves the Supreme Court against Punjab, seeking resumption of canal construction.
- 2004: On July 12, Punjab CM Amarinder Singh gets the assembly to pass the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004, annulling the 1981 agreement and all subsequent ones.
- 2016: In March, Punjab farmers start filling the canal after the cabinet’s approval to return 5,376 acres of land acquired from farmers. Supreme Court instructs Punjab to stop returning the SYL land and orders status quo.
On November 10, the SC rules that the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act is invalid.
(With inputs from Atul Nagpal)
This is the third of the five-part series ‘Dhaba Bites’ ahead of the assembly elections.