Saving Punjab's Waters

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March 3, 2024
Reading Time
12 Minutes

Saving Punjab Waters

How can a large group be unaware of its own civilization being in danger? One answer is plain and simple: power imbalance. Punjab or Punj-Aab (ਪੰਜਾਬ) has been known as the Land of Five (Punj) Rivers (Aab) for as long as we can remember, yet today Punjab struggles with a monumental water crisis. “Final Assault” explores the notion of Indian governmental power and its effect on Punjab’s natural resources.

In India, there is a total of 17.17 million acre-feet (MAF) of water to allocate and Punjab holds about 4.22 MAF. More than 75% of Punjab’s water is distributed to other states and the worst part is that it has been distributed for free, leaving Punjab penniless. The Indian Government has abused Punjab’s water for far too long and has made the state’s water crisis into a major political issue in Punjab.

Over 80% of Punjab’s underground water is in the dark zone. The dark zone is an area where groundwater depletion increases the rate of recharging. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) confirms that Punjab faces high water stress.

The 1947 partition became the destruction of Punjab’s cultural strength. Before 1974, Punjab’s water supply was given out to the State of Bikaner through the Gang Canal. That supply was the only canal taking Punjab’s water and the water was not given out for free. Punjab was receiving compensation for the water, however, after 1974, the government made the water free.

Beas-Satluj Link canal (BSL)

Under the power of Guljari Lal Nanda, the Central Irrigation and Energy Minister, and the Vice President of the Indian Planning Commission, two major projects were started called Bhakra-Nangal and Harike Headworks. The purpose was to concentrate the Beas-Satluj Link canal (BSL) in order to block the Beas River with a dam built near Mandi. The plan led the government to dig a 12 kilometer long tunnel to an open canal to lead the water to the Satluj River, which is before the Gobind Sager Lake. 7.5 MAFs were accumulated, and in 1954, the Bhakra canal was constructed to bring water over to Delhi, Haryana, and Rajasthan. Later on, in 1955, a Ravi-Beas Agreement was signed in order to take the Ravi-Beas Link canal to drain the Ravi’s water into the Beas River.

Many canals and rivers were made to send water to Delhi, Haryana, and Rajasthan mainly. The Indian government focused on the Hindu community’s needs. All these canals were to irrigate the desert of Rajasthan, yet how is this reallocation of water fair to Punjabs’ needs? Nonetheless, Punjab had strong leaders that stood up for their rights. Sikh Scholar and Historian, Sardar Ajmer Singh, states, “Whenever someone challenged [the Punjabi’s] authority and asked for justice, [that] means rights of equality. They had never tolerated this, and they went to the extent.”

The Partition-Era

The conflicts in 1947 (partition-era) show the relationship between the Indian government and the Punjab community. The British controlled divided aspects of Indian cultural aspects. The slogan “Punjabi Suba Zindabad” (Punjab State Forever) was banned by the Indian government. In Time magazine, Nehru said that he would rather face a civil war than accept a Punjabi Suba. Congress’s leadership promised to focus on a linguistic, cultural, and geographic basis after the British left.

The Punjab Reorganization Act

Prime Minister Nehru’s plan in 1959 was to connect Punjab’s water. In 1966, the Punjab Reorganization Act (Bhakra Nangal and Beas Project) was introduced. The government inducted three clauses: 78, 79, and 80. The three clauses led the central government to have control of Punjab’s river waters by making the Punjab water matter from a State subject to letting the Center Government take control. The control of Punjab river water has been unconstitutional and unfair to those in Punjab. Punjab’s river water comes from the Indus water which flows through Pakistan. The river of Punjab merges into the west and east Punjab.

There has never been an official treaty or agreement to obtain Punjab’s water. All was done under Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial order. In 1976, a total of 75% of Punjab’s water was taken control of by the Indian government. Small businesses and Punjabi farmers are struggling at present. Why is Punjab struggling with water needs? Why is 75% of Punjab’s water going for free outside of its own needs? Punjab now uses underground water in order to keep agriculture going and uses 20 billion rupees to pump water. Punjab is forced to buy diesel and coal as its water is being given for free. Punjab is in need of 69 MAF of water for agriculture, domestic, and industrial needs.

“Going by the water situation in Punjab, we will have to adopt crop diversification very seriously. The present water usage model is not going to work anymore. We need to value the importance of water,” states Professor Gian Singh, writer of many books on groundwater depletion in Punjab.

The Dark Zone

Subsurface water has been used up in Punjab and even if mother nature offers the water back, it is useless due to the chemicals being used in farming. Farmers have to rely on its groundwater yet it is impacting their lands to become infertile. Punjab is one of the few places in the world with natural and clean groundwater reserves. The river water underground is full of organic nutrients. After the lack of river water in the ground, farmers have to rely on chemicals and fertilizers to offer nutrients back into the ground. Punjab used drilling in order to get water within the second layer of groundwater which is a confined aquifer. The aquifer cannot be recharged with surface water. Currently, Punjab is using the last layer of groundwater to fulfill its needs. There is no clear indication of how much more water is still left for usage.

The SYL project

In 1981, Indira Gandhi signed an agreement to start the SYL project. During the 1984 Genocide, Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal was still being constructed. However, Punjab protested to stop the SYL which was meant to take 3.5 MAF of Punjab water. Akali Dal (Political Party in Punjab) shifted the protests from Kapuri to Amritsar in 1982. The protest at the border of Haryana wasn’t easy and later the Anandpur Resolution was drafted to reclaim Punjab and request autonomous rights for all states and to stop labeling them as a separatist.

The protests in Kapoori started an attack on Harimandar Sahib. Indira Gandhi tried to divert the issue into a law and order issue. The Arya Samaji Press played a huge role as well. The free press has always been a part of the parliamentary system and is focused on the state’s agenda. The attack on the Darbar Sahib was started in 1982 by the government. The government chose the martyrdom day of Shri Guru Arjan Dev Ji so a huge population of Sikhs could be killed. After the 1984 Darbar Sahib attack, more attacks were made on Sikhs on the streets of Delhi. 1984 could be seen as a distraction in order to advance the SYL project.

Present Issues

Water is the bloodline of Punjab and without water, the future generations of Punjab will suffer. No justice has been given to Punjab throughout history and the attack on Darbar Sahib emphasizes the imbalance of governmental power there in India. Sardar Ajmer Singh, states “[The government] can do anything under the name of the integrity and unity of the country. Only it has to be established that the country is in danger. To do that one needs to lie and the government] possess the art of lying. The media was [on the government’s] side. They know how to spin and concoct the facts. They drag the things up to the end of the logic. They know how to demonize others. When one demonizes a community and showed this to the people. They are successful in doing this; convincing the entire [Hindu] population on their agenda.”

Then, SYL topic came up again in 2004, when a legislative bill terminated all water-sharing agreements between Punjab and its neighboring states. The legislation was passed unanimously by Akali Dal, BJP, and Congress. The Act however has a controversial clause: Clause No. 5, which states that non-riparian states can continue to take Punjab’s water. If the transfer of river water continues, Punjab will soon turn into a desert.

The Indian Government has disregarded the Constitutional right of the Punjabi population to take control of its water. This map displays the water transfer taking place currently. Since the Constitution of India declares water as a State matter, not a National one. It’s important to question the Government!

What do we need to do now?

Social Activist, Sunil Kumar, says, “If we don’t speak up now, they will take away the water, and we will experience historically unparalleled losses and destruction.” We must stand together in order to fight against the desertification of Punjab. Today Punjab relies on the last water layer to fulfill its needs and it continues to be a limited and unpredictable resource. The late Sidhu Moose Wala released a song, “SYL,” in which he talks about the importance of receiving Punjab’s river water back. The song “SYL” has lyrics that say “We will not share a single drop of water from our rivers” and “You could join us, but don’t even think about controlling us.” Moose Wala seems to talk to the Indian government through his song and telling the Indian government to stop taking water from Punjab. As more artists speak out, more people will know about Punjab’s water issues and will spread the word more to others. Ranjit Singh Ghuman, Professor of Eminence (Economics), GNDU, Amritsar states, “Shifting a substantial area from under paddy would require a compatible policy intervention both by the Central and state governments. For optimum and sustainable use of water, Punjab must have comprehensive agricultural, industrial, and water policies and effective and result-oriented implementation thereof.” As a community, we must continue to speak about our community to build awareness about Punjab desertification. #SavePunjabWaters

Akampreet Kaur

Akampreet Kaur is a graduate from Queens College with bachelors in Elementary Education and English. Akampreet speaks two languages, English and Punjabi and enjoys learning about other cultures. Akampreet enjoys writing poetry, fiction/non-fiction short stories, and articles to share her personal experiences of being Asian American.


Akampreet Kaur

Akampreet Kaur is a graduate from Queens College with bachelors in Elementary Education and English. Akampreet speaks two languages, English and Punjabi and enjoys learning about other cultures. Akampreet enjoys writing poetry, fiction/non-fiction short stories, and articles to share her personal experiences of being Asian American.

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