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The SYL Canal Dispute


The contentious politics over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (SYL) is back in the limelight. With the upcoming Punjab assembly elections in February 2017, the raising of the SYL canal issue at this point is now poised to turn the electoral stakes in favour of whichever party can gain maximum traction out of it. With the immediate support lent to it by the ruling SAD-BJP government in Punjab, they seem to be leading the show, for now. However, the stakes of this historical issue go much deeper than short-term political mileage.

By claiming unlawful ownership of river waters within the Indian territory to keep the farmers lobby appeased sets, not only a dangerous populist precedent which is detrimental to our national development and unity but also becomes a mask for continuing and justifying the unabated greed with which Punjab, and other states, have destroyed their natural resources since the past few decades, and wreaked havoc on the environment. The current crisis wherein Punjab now has no water to spare is of the state’s own making, but given the pervasive culture – across the world – of collective exploitation of natural resources, Punjab has become an exemplar and a victim of circumstances.

History of the Dispute and the Legal Claims

The SYL canal dispute between Punjab and Haryana over the sharing of Sutlej river waters has been going on since Haryana was created as a separate state out of Punjab in 1966. It was raked up again in March this year, as the Punjab Chief Minister began the process of dismantling the canal.

On 10th November, this year, the Supreme Court passed an order stating that the 2004 legislation passed unilaterally and arbitrarily by the Punjab Assembly was illegal. The 2004 legislation basically disregarded all previous agreements between Punjab and Haryana over the sharing of the Sutlej waters and claimed that the entire share belongs to Punjab, since Haryana was not a riparian state, that is, it was neither situated on the banks of the river, nor did the river flow through it.

This was a highly arbitrary position adopted by Punjab, motivated by pure political vote-bank considerations and the Court was right in declaring it illegal. The controversy has been going on since the 1950s and much blood has been shed over it, including Indira Gandhi’s own, by the Khalistanis demanding a separate state. They even gunned down the Chief engineer of the SYL canal when the land was finally acquired for the construction of the project during the 1980s.

The history of the SYL canal dispute has its legal genesis in the larger Indus water sharing treaty between India and Pakistan. After the Partition, with the river Indus and its five tributaries cutting across India and Pakistan, one of the main questions that faced both the countries was how to share the Indus river waters. Subsequently, with the signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, it was decided that upper reaches of the Indus waters would be claimed by India, while the lower reaches would be under the Pakistani government. India’s share of rivers, thus, included Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.

The sharing of the waters of these rivers was to be done through the Bhakra-Nangal multipurpose dams constructed on river Sutlej, and, the Pong or the Beas dam constructed on river Beas, both lying in Himachal Pradesh.

Bhakra dam was part of the larger multipurpose Bhakra Nangal Project whose aims were to prevent floods in the Sutlej-Beas river valley, to provide irrigation to adjoining states and to provide hydro-electricity. Water flows from Bhakra Dam downstream Nangal dam where it is controlled and released into Nangal Hydel Channel that later becomes Bhakra Main Line after Ganguwal and Kotla power plants. The Bhakra main line is a canal that mostly supplies irrigation water to the state of Haryana. On the other hand, the Beas Project is a part of the master plan for the utilisation of the waters of the three eastern rivers viz. the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi for irrigation and power-generation in an integrated manner.

The SYL conflict goes back to the water sharing arrangement arising out of diversion of waters from these dams.

Thus, even as the treaty between India and Pakistan was negotiated, there began water conflicts within India over the sharing of the waters of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. In 1955, the waters of the three rivers were allocated between three states viz. Rajasthan got 8.00 MAF (million acre feet), Kashmir got 0.65 MAF, while Punjab got 7.2 MAF.a

The dispute between Punjab and Haryana arose after the state of Punjab was bifurcated and the new state of Haryana created in 1966. With this division, Haryana now demanded 4.8 MAF out of the total 7.2 MAF of Punjab, while Punjab claimed the entire share as its own.

Despite legal invocations by both the states and formation of government committees, the issue could not be resolved. Ultimately, it was by an executive order passed by the Indira Gandhi government in 1976 that 3.5 MAF of water was allocated to Haryana and Punjab each, while 0.2 MAF was allocated to Delhi. This allocation was again revised in a 1981 central government order.

Water allocations of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej (in MAF or Million Acre Feet)


To facilitate the sharing of water, it was agreed that the 214-km Sutlej Yamuna Link canal would be built, of which 122 km would be in Punjab. Haryana completed its portion of the canal – 92 km – in June 1980. Punjab started work only after the 1981 agreement.

However, the Akali Dal opposed the tripartite 1981 agreement. The issue was temporarily resolved in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi signed an agreement with Akali’s Harchand Longowal to create the Eradi tribunal to adjudicate on the disputes, with new deadline being set for August 1986. The construction, however, was aborted – even after the SAD government completed 90% of the construction – due to militancy in Punjab and the murder of the project’s chief engineer.

After that the story is the same till now – the Supreme Court’s repeated directives to Punjab in 2002 and 2004 to complete the canal fell on deaf ears, with Punjab’s Congress’s Amarinder Singh government entirely scrapping the project through a legislative bill in 2004, and this year the SAD-BJP government passing a bill to return the land acquired for the canal back to the farmers.

The Legal Arguments

The story continues till date.

The main arguments being given by Punjab are that Haryana is not a riparian state, in that neither of the two rivers flows through it nor is it situated on the banks of any of them, and, that the fact that Haryana gets Yamuna waters, while Punjab has no water to spare, has not been factored in. These arguments are still being advanced by the state. At that time, Punjab also argued that it planned to increase its cropping intensity, since it is majorly an agricultural state and dependent on irrigation, and that it has no water to spare.

There’s also another catch that the Punjab side has on its side viz. that Haryana is already getting 16.2 LAF (Lakh Acre Foot) of water out of the main Bhakra Main Line, since 1976. Out of the total of 35 LAF belonging to Punjab, the SYL dispute is essentially over the remaining 18.8 LAF.1 Since Haryana, being a non-riparian state is already getting water from all sides, it should not target the 18.8 LAF of Punjab’s share. This means that Punjab – given its ongoing water crisis – really has no water to share. And the SYL treaty must be scrapped or revised.

Punjab is also arguing that, already, the canal to share waters with Rajasthan (unfairly, since Rajasthan did not deserve any share, according to Punjab) has caused severe waterlogging in some of Punjab’s districts, without Punjab getting any compensation, and the SYL will do the same.

Haryana, however, on its part, invoked Section 78 of the Punjab Reorganization Act, under which the successor state – Haryana in this case – was entitled to bear both shares and liabilities under the Beas project. It is being argued that if Punjab acts so unreasonably and arbitrarily today, then even other states can follow suit. Tomorrow Himachal Pradesh, in which lies the catchment area of Ravi and Beas, may say that it won’t share the river waters with Punjab anymore.

These positions are being invoked today also.

Politics Over the Issue

In the current scenario, the legal issues are rapidly getting enmeshed in politics. Punjab is currently arguing that the Inter States Water Disputes Act, 1956 applies only to riparian states, so the SYL dispute cannot be settled under it. It is also arguing that the 1976 order was null and void, since it espoused political discrepancies in the way other states were included, with Rajasthan being made a part of it though it was a ‘rank outsider’.2

Punjab is also unilaterally undertaking radical actions. And PM Modi finds his hands tied due to the upcoming assembly elections in Punjab. Although he tried to diffuse the tension with Haryana by holding Pakistan responsible for the dispute and saying that India will reclaim its rightful share for Punjab through the Indus Water Treaty, the issue should not be mixed up with the real problem here. The real culprit in this dispute is, indeed, Punjab itself.

Consider this – if any state were to arbitrarily adopt a resolution stating that the country’s natural resource belonged solely to it, what will happen to the future of the nation?

Yes, Punjab may have utilized the full armoury of law at its disposal and invoked all kinds of riparian principles to retrospectively justify its actions, yet the fact remains that it openly – and this includes all political parties in Punjab – disregarded decisions taken by the national government and went its own way. Not only did it refuse to engage in any negotiations, but it also went ahead and returned the farmers’ land acquired for the construction of the canal, declaring the issue as settled, in an open defiance of all rational and national-collective logic, and in a dangerous show of muscle power. Should any state be allowed to exercise that kind of power – and, that too, on the whim of political parties that simply want to win the next election? What is happening right now in Punjab is a dangerous thing.

While ‘water wars’ have been going on in India for some time now – consider the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu conflict over Cauvery, or, the Odisha-Chhattisgarh conflict over Mahanadi – but none of them has been wholly and solely determined by the next elections alone. The latter was a supplementary, though, an important calculation. And none of these states openly defied the Indian Union and openly exhorted their populations to commit violence as is being done now.

Admittedly, Punjab is a different case altogether. Still, is not it ironical that a state that was the epitome of Green Revolution, the ‘granary’ of India and led the country in the use of harmful chemicals and fertilizers in agriculture and mercilessly extracted groundwater for irrigation purposes, is now complaining that it has no water left to irrigate its fields. It has also been encouraging the production of water-intensive crops, and, also giving subsidies to farmers which lead to further groundwater extraction through tube-wells. Punjab is on the verge of becoming a desert – a barren state in the next 15 years.

And, all the causal factors are interlinked. The SYL controversy must be seen in the light of not just Punjab’s defiance of national unity, its unmitigated wastage of water and leading a harmful agrarian revolution, but also its status as, perhaps, the worst state in India in terms of corruption, drug abuse, highest levels of youth unemployment and a highly vitiated political scene – now it is also becoming vulnerable to terrorist attacks from Pakistan (as Pathankot proved) due to its illegal cross-border drug trade.


In the SYL canal case, specifically, the fault may outwardly lie with Punjab. However, the deeper reality is that it reflects on the degradation of our national character. The unfairness of the situation is that first everyone lauded Punjab when it became the leader of Green Revolution and exploited its natural resources. What more – other states even tried to follow suit and they have also used excessive chemicals in their soil and contaminated and depleted their groundwater.

The national government, for so many decades, gave subsidies for such a policy – subsidies to use fertilizers, power subsidies leading to extraction of groundwater, incentives to appease powerful farmers for vote-bank purposes. It was a part of the whole national culture for so many decades. And Punjab was simply a part of that culture. Everyone was equally culpable. The only difference now is that Punjab has become an example of the future suffering that the country may be poised on, and nobody is willing to take responsibility for it, though the crisis is of collective making.

Another problem is that people are allowing such vitiated and violent discourses to continue. Agreed that the people of Punjab may be looking for an alternative government to deliver the state from its multiple diseases, but, at the same time, they are allowing political parties to use them and incite them to violence over issues that are purely constructed for political convenience – issues that serve short-term vote-banks and further damage the national character. At this rate, it will not matter which political party – AAP is certainly not an alternative, given its hopeless national and Delhi-level track record – forms the government in Punjab’s upcoming assembly elections. When in power, they will all be of the same colour in exploiting the weaknesses of the people.

Just like in the past, the Congress and SAD (with BJP as a supporting alliance partner) will take turns to rule the state through the same iron hands and apathy, which they have both shown in the case of the SYL canal controversy. Unless the people begin to decisively stand against the harmful poison being spread by the state’s political parties, there will be no deliverance on this or any other issue in a foreseeable future.


  1. Sikh Siyasat News. (2016, December 11). Retrieved from http://sikhsiyasat.net/2016/12/11/haryana-is-already-getting-16-2-laf-out-of-syls-35-laf-water/
  2. The Indian Express. (2016, November 16). Retrieved from http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/syl-canal-being-non-riparian-state-haryana-cannot-figure-in-inter-state-water-dispute-expert-told-prakash-singh-badal-4377824/
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