Lahore - Under the pressure from the Supreme Court, the Punjab Irrigation Department (PID) has sprung into action against the water thieves in areas of Bahalawalpur Division. The department officials however have denied the impression that India, as matter of state policy, was stealing water from River Ravi on Pakistani side. They however admitted that some Indian farmers may get water from the river using tube-wells as it enters into their territory at some places, but there is no canal feeding Indian irrigated areas. The PID officials pointed out that under Indus Water Treaty India has the right to use as much water from Ravi as it can, so, there is no question of stealing water from this river. Hearing a case regarding water theft on Sunday (December 30), Chief of Pakistan Mina Saqib Nisar had observed that they will not allow India to steal water from the Pakistani side.

It was also alleged by complainants that influential people, with the connivance of irrigation department, were stealing water from Abbasia Link Canal at the cost of poor farmers. Punjab Irrigation Secretary Ali Murtaza however told the court that water was not being stolen by India.

On the issue of theft from Abbasia Canal, the CJP told the secretary that the court will not allow exploitation of the poor. He ordered to take action and submit progress report on January 4, warning that those in power might be removed in case of inaction. Official sources in the department say that the MRLCS feeds River Ravi from Chenab. The link canal falls into Ravi near Pakistan-India border. The MRLCS was designed from the Marala Head-Works on Chenab near Sialkot to Ravi. The purpose was to meet the water shortage in the river.

As the water flow in the MRLCS is much more than the Ravi River so the falling water spreads into the river even on Indian side, they say. Since the river on some places enters into the Indian border too, the Indian farmers may get water from the river using tube-wells only. However, no canal is constructed to feed Indian farmers from Ravi when it crosses border and enters into Pakistan, PID officials claim. According to the IWT, three eastern rivers including Ravi, Satluj and Beas were given to India while waters from the three western rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab were to irrigate Pakistan. “As per the treaty Pakistan had no right on the water of River Ravi and two others so there was no question of stealing waters from this river,” said an official on anonymity.

About the Abbasia Link Canal, the petitioners had informed the court that mighty mafia and powerful circles in the Bahawalpur Canal Division steal water from it and the department had failed to act against them. The CJP ordered PID Secretary Syed Ali Murtaza to carry out a joint operation with police against the water thieves.

Problems, their possible solution

But department sources revealed that lack of coordination and cooperation between the PID, police and BOR gives space to water thieves. The PID canal magistrates cannot exercise their judicial powers to punish the water thieves. Most of the times when the PID officials catch water thieves, neither the police register cases against them nor the Board of Revenue collects fine from them, they said. And even if police register a case, the accused are granted bails by the courts while the cases remain pending for years in the civil courts, they said. This encourages the water thieves to act fearlessly. Another issue is legal loopholes that allow corrupt officials to go unpunished. In many canal divisions, powerful mafia beat and threaten the dutiful officers who try to restrain them from stealing canal water.

A former PID secretary on anonymity said there was the need to amend The Canal and Drainage Act, 1873. Moreover, the department should have its police on the Pakistan Railways model, own fine collecting system and powers to change Warabandi. The dependence on general police for the arrest of water thieves and registration of FIRs, dependence on BOR for the collection of fine, paves the way for more water theft from irrigation channels, he suggested.

Punishing corrupt officials

A couple of weeks ago on the direction of PID Minster Mohsin Khan Leghari, the special unit officials made inspections on Bahawalpur division canals. Over 2,200 water theft cases were reported at BCC alone during the Kharif season. As some officers of the department were found involved in facilitating the water theft, the irrigation secretary took action and suspended the involved officers. The department also started disciplinary proceedings against them under PEEDA Act 2006. But the accused officers got stay orders from the PST and are enjoying their offices.

The suspended officials included Hakra Canal Division XEN Muhammad Arif, SDO Haroonabad Muhammad Saleem, Sub-engineer Jourkanwala Hamid Mehmood and ex-sub engineer Fortabbas Muhammad Tahir. Moreover, on Fordwah division, XEN Bahawalnagar Rashid Ali, SDO Minchinabad Naeem ul Haq, SDO Chishtian, sub-engineer Chabiana Ramzan Iqbal, sub-engineer Amruka Israr Aslam, Sub engineer Chishtian Mujahid, Takhat Mahal ex-sub engineer Majid Shah and Jalwala sub engineer Khawar Shah were also suspended.

Also, on Sadqia Canal Division SDO Naeem ul Hasnain, Sirajwah Sub Engr Abdul Razzaq, Jalwala Sub Engineer Mustafa Joya and Madhranwala Sub engineer Ali Akbar was also suspended. Irrigation Minister Mohsin Leghari claimed that the department had started a campaign against the water thieves. Earlier, Irrigation Secretary Ali Murtaza had also pledged to curb the crime. He had directed the PMU Director to check water theft in the BCC and even other areas. The team had found huge water theft in each division.

Water theft from Abbasia Link

A couple of days ago the Bahawalpur district administration also took notice of the water theft from Abbasia Link Canal. It complained that by creating breaches from Uch Sharif to Qasimwala Bangla water was being stolen. It was told that thousands of acres of land were dependent on Abbasia Link Canal for irrigation, but very low availability of water in the canal had turned the tail farmers’ fertile lands into barren ones. In the high-level meeting, the officers of civil, police and PID, besides political representatives, had decided that action would be taken against water thieves and employees of the irrigation department involved in the offence. The concerned officers were directed to compile the record of legal and illegal watercourses constructed on the canal.

The department will submit its report on water theft in the Bahawalpur division and update on River Ravi alleged water theft in the apex court on January 4.