LAHORE - Findings of a recent investigation report compiled by the irrigation department indicate that farmers at the tail-ends of irrigation system were being deprived of 60 to 65 per cent of their due share of water owing to water theft by mighty landlords.

As per the report, as many as 123,415 persons were found involved in water theft across Punjab but only 315 could be arrested and 82 imprisoned during 2014. While 28,390 water outlets were reported tempered out of total 58,000, the total number of water theft cases in Punjab stood at 77,970 whereas 25,877 cases of theft involved installation illegal pipes at the canals.

This crime continued in connivance with the department officials and the representatives from farmers’ organisations. The overall mismanagement and lack of interest on part of the irrigation department officials also played key role in this regard.

As per an official report, out of the total water outlets reported as tempered in all zones, Bahawalpur Zone remained on the top with 16,454 outlets tempered, followed by Multan, Faisalabad, DG Khan, Lahore, Lower Bari canal and Sargodha with 2,962, 2,909, 2,403, 2,383, 822 and 457 tempering cases respectively.

Out of total 77,970 cases of water theft, 50,955 were reported to the police, which in turn registered only 6,518 cases and took action against culprits in 3,805 cases. Only 315 arrests were made. The police investigated only 4,665 accused out of total 123,415 persons actually found involved in water theft cases. Only 1,075 cases of water theft were decided as a result of which 82 criminals were jailed and Rs3,414,390 fine was imposed on the culprits. The Revenue officers did not share information about the recovery of the fine excusing they lacked compiled data.

Sources, however, said that over 200 Irrigation and Pida officers and FO office bearers were found involved in water theft but majority of them could not face action as they manoeuvred the things successfully.

The report further says that out of total 56,100 farmers involved in water theft in Bahawalpur Zone, only 19 could be arrested while 13,102 cases were reported to police. In DG Khan Zone, out of 12,974 accused, only 204 were arrested while 5,832 cases were reported to the police. In Faisalabad, out of total 11,264 accused, only 52 were put behind bars while 3,806 cases were reported to police.

In Lahore Zone, out of total 23,380 accused, only 10 were caught while 12,145 cases were reported to police. In LBDC area, out of total 291 thieves, only one person was arrested by police while 181 cases were reported to police. In Multan Zone, out of total 7,979 people involved in water theft, only six could be kept in custody while 4,603 cases were reported. In Sargodha Zone, there were 11,427 accused but the police could approach only 23 people against the 11,286 reported cases.

The number of arrests made speaks volumes of the actions against the culprits and how this inaction would encourage water theft. The Section 430 of PPC and Section 70 of Canal and Drainage Act entails action against those involved in water theft. But police badly failed to take action against those involved in water theft, according to the report.

The mighty farmers pay Rs20,000 to Rs100,000 per outlet to the SDOs (Sub-Divisional Officers) and XENs for tempering, oversizing or installing an illegal pipe in the canal or distributaries and steal irrigated water. In some cases, the bribed money also travels up to Superintendent Engineers and Chief Engineers who turn a blind eye to the crime.

Though about 20,717 tempered outlets were repaired and 25,186 illegal pipes removed, the habitual water thieves blatantly broke the outlets minutes after the officials repaired them, department sources said. They said that only reports of ‘everything fine’ were forwarded to the authorities but on ground there was no change at all.

A former PID Secretary of the Irrigation Department requesting anonymity told that many politicians also back the officials who allow water theft after receiving their shares. He said the rest of the cases reported to the police are concluded with no action as police compromise after accepting bribes. The tail community farmers suffer and neither the Irrigation department, Pida nor Police were ready to focus on the complaints of serious crime.

Lack of interest of FOs, revenue department, police and political pressure all combine to save the skin of those involved in the crime. He said that foreign donors paid billions of rupees to ensure availability of irrigation water to the tail farmers but the authorities badly failed to do so. He said that the tail community could get only 30-40 per cent of total water share that was a ‘big dacoity’ on their rights.

According to the ex-irrigation secretary, the report clarifies that the participatory approach of farming community in water distribution ended at their involvement in facilitating water theft. Pointing towards lacunas in the poor accountability in the department, he said, the police usually registered cases against the whole community instead of a specific farmer involved in theft. The police after receiving bribes from all those involved usually put the cases in the dustbin.

An Anti-Corruption Establishment Officer told this scribe that many affected farmers reported water thefts but no action was taken against the culprits. He said the irrigation department has now approached the ACE to take action. ACE DG Anwer Rasheed said that all those Pid, Pida officials or FOs involved in water theft would face action and nobody will be spared on this account.