At a virtual meeting, Indian Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, while addressing his Haryana counterpart, Manohar Lal Khattar, and Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, warned the Centre that “Punjab will burn” if they completed the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal—and that Haryana and Rajasthan would also suffer the impact.

This is not a metaphor, but reality staring at the face of India’s bread basket; Punjab has been sliding down since past two decades, Punjab ranked first in GDP per capita amongst Indian states in 1981, fourth in 2001, and sixteenth in 2020.

Water shortage in Punjab has been a serious issue since the fragmentation of the state into three states, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal.

Following the Indus Water Treaty 1960 between India and Pakistan, India got the unrestricted right to use the waters of three rivers: Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The waters were shared among Punjab, Delhi with some cosmetic allocation to Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IIOJK). The current dispute can be traced back to the mid-1960s, when the Indian Punjab state was fragmented to check the Sikh majority’s rule in old Punjab.

Bifurcation of Punjab and creation of the state of Haryana was implemented in 1966. Some parts were also transferred to Himachal Pradesh, then a Union territory, and the city of Chandigarh became a Union territory and served as the capital of both the residual Punjab and Haryana.

When the state was bifurcated, the sharing of the river water also became a bone of contention. Being a successor state, Haryana had the eligibility to receive a share of Punjab’s waters. Water distribution hit roadblocks in the 60s and 70s when affected states took the case to the Supreme Court.

The centre of gravity of the water dispute between Punjab and Haryana is Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal or SYL. It is an under-construction 214-kilometer long canal to connect the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers by diverting a major share of Punjab’s water to Haryana.

Extracts from Indian Express, Times of India, The Quint and other Indian media outlets, especially media reports published in 2016, are being reproduced to highlight the intricacies of the water dispute.

Under Indira Gandhi in 1981, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan signed an agreement to share the waters of rivers Ravi, Beas and Satluj, known as Indira Gandhi Award of 1981.

Under this award, 17.17 MAF surplus Ravi Beas water was agreed to be allocated to Punjab 4.22 MAF, Haryana 3.50 MAF, Rajasthan 8.60 MAF, IIOJK, a token 0.65 MAF and Delhi 0.20 MAF. It was further stipulated in the Agreement that Punjab would complete the SYL Canal within a period of 2 years, i.e. up to December 31, 1983. In April 1982, Indira Gandhi formally launched the construction of the canal at Kapoori village of Punjab; no resistance came from Punjab as it had the Congress government. The Akali Dal came to power in Punjab in October 1985 and on 5 November 1985, the newly elected Punjab Legislative Assembly repudiated the 1981 agreement.

Things have not settled down since then.

In 2004, Punjab state legislature passed the ‘Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2004’, whereby it sought to de-notify the land acquired for the project. The Act annulled the 1981 Indira Gandhi Award and also subsequent agreements relating to the distribution of Ravi-Beas waters among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Fast forward to 2016, adding fuel to the fire, the Punjab legislature passed a bill, the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (Rehabilitation and Re-vesting of Proprietary Rights) Bill 2016, which asked to restore the land (around 5376 acres) acquired for the canal, back to the farmers free of cost; thus effectively erecting a roadblock for any more development on SYL. Violating the Supreme Court’s orders, the frenzied land-owners started levelling the canal land to reclaim it, wasting billions already spent on it.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision that the state’s termination of the link canal was unconstitutional, on November 11 2016, Congress MLAs of the Punjab Assembly resigned in protest. Aam Aadmi Party began an indefinite protest on the same day at Kapoori village, blaming both the Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress for SYL. Predicting the law and order problem over the issue, the Punjab Police deployed the Rapid Action Force in parts of Punjab, sealed the border with Haryana and increased patrolling on the National Highways.

A Congress rally was organised on 13 November at Khuian Sarwar village. Captain Amarinder Singh declared that not a single drop of water will go out of Punjab. Captain Amarinder resigned from Lok Sabha on November 23 in protest against the issue. A delegation of Punjab government’s ministers met the President on November 28, urging him not to accept any advice against the riparian water rights. The Akali Dal held a rally at Moga on 8 December regarding the issue. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal stated that the controversy had been resolved after giving back the land meant for the canal to the original owners. He also stated that Punjab didn’t have a single drop of water to spare.

Presently, the Supreme Court has ordered for the status quo to prevail on the Bill. But even after that, the Punjab assembly has unanimously passed a resolution that the SYL canal cannot be allowed to be built. Punjab defends its act, stating that under Article 143, the Supreme Court has only advisory functions, and hence cannot pass an assumptive interim order.

Coming to 2020, the water dispute has erupted again, as reported by ScrollIn magazine, on August 18, the CM of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh stated that ‘Punjab will burn’ if forced to share water with Haryana.

The meeting was convened at the directions of the Supreme Court, which in July had asked the Centre to mediate between Punjab and Haryana to settle the controversial issue of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal.

Indian Punjab, which used to be the bread basket of India is projected to become a desert in 25 years. As underground water falls further, desperate farmers are digging deeper, getting trapped in debt and depleting aquifers.

Punjab’s other challenges include the rise of voices for ab independent Khalistan, drugs in youth and the RSS agenda of Hindutva against minorities.

As reported by BBC in 2017, the biggest issue confronting Punjab is not jobs or corruption, but a drug epidemic that is sweeping the state. Punjab is in danger of losing an entire generation to drug abuse. One estimate says that more than two-thirds of Punjab’s households have at least one addict in the family. Across the state, from villages in the lush green countryside to bustling towns and cities, young men huddle together in cemeteries, abandoned buildings or plain fields, smoking, snorting or shooting up.

As stated by the Caravan Magazine in Oct 2019, Giani Harpreet Singh, the chief of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, called for a ban on the RSS, during an interaction with journalists in Amritsar. Singh’s remark came in the backdrop of a statement by Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, during an annual Sangh event the previous week, stating that “Bharat is Hindustan, a Hindu Rashtra” and that “all Bharatiyas are Hindus.” In response, Singh noted, “The remarks by RSS leaders are not in the interest of the nation. It would hurt and draw a new line of division in the country and destroy it.”

In a nutshell, Indian Punjab is on a brink of revolt against machinations of RSS and BJP, from the Khalistan 2020 campaign for a separate homeland and the Sikh identity, to water wars against Punjab; the youth of Punjab is feeling the heat and rallying against the tide of Hindutva—there is no turning back.