By M.V. Kamath
WHAT on earth is happening to this country? Have we lost all sense of right and wrong? Can inter-state agreements be unilaterally broken by one of the signatories without so much as a common understanding to work out a new agreement?
Punjab´s Chief Minister Amarinder Singh unilaterally annuls a 1981 Ravi-Beas-Sutlej water-sharing agreement with Rajasthan and Haryana and not a dog barks. Has anyone told Amarinder Singh that rivers and mountains, not to mention skies, are not the private properties of individual states and that they are, above all, the common heritage of the nation as a whole? One understands that Amarinder Singh did not even have the courtesy to take Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into confidence but got the 1981 agreement annulled all on his own. This is a shocking development. Would the Punjab Chief Minister dare to deny water to Haryana if it were part of Punjab state as once it was? Does the creation of Haryana as a separate state automatically deprive it of a right to share the waters of those rivers which pass through present-day Punjab? The Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill 2004 passed by the Punjab Vidhan Sabha at its special session on July 12 is an affront to the unity and integrity of India and should be scrapped.
The Act, as it now stands, proposes to annul the 1981 Indira Gandhi Award as well as all other agreements on the sharing of river waters among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan as a measure to circumvent the Supreme Court orders on the construction of the Sarda-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal. This is not only anti-democratic, worse still, it cuts at the very root of our national integrity. The time has come for all parties to put their heads together and arrive at a clear-cut understanding of how the waters of all rivers?not just the three flowing through Punjab?should be treated as national property and NOT state property. State boundaries, by their very nature, are artificial; they are not God-ordained. No single state can, on its own, command the waters of a river?be it the Narmada or the Cauvery?and claim total rights over it. This is not a matter of politics: it concerns the lives and prosperity of the people. When it comes to water sharing there are no Punjabis or Haryanvis, Rajasthanis or Tamilians or Kannadigas; they are only Indians. This point should be constantly stressed and it is shocking to see the Prime Minister´s silence on this score. No state should have riparian rights. No state is sovereign.
Amarinder Singh says that ?non-riparian and non-basin states of Haryana and Rajasthan are not only NOT entitled to any Ravi-Beas waters, even the waters currently allocated to them are totally disproportionate to the areas alleged to be falling in the Indus Basin.? If the waters they are now getting are to be denied to them, where are Haryana and Rajasthan to go? Are their farmers expected to starve? This is too serious a matter to be left to the Punjab state assembly.
The Punjab Chief Minister argues that the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act 2004 fully protects current utilisation of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej waters by the neighbouring states and Section 5 of the Act clearly stipulates that all existing and actual utilisations through the existing systems shall remain protected and unaffected. Fair enough. He also claims that ?no reliable and scientific study of hydrological, ecological and sociological impact of large-scale trans-basin diversion from Punjab to Haryana and Rajasthan was undertaken when the three states entered into an agreement in December 1981.? Isn´t it logical now for such a scientific study to be undertaken so that justice is not only done but is seen to be done?
India is like a large joint family. In a joint family it is the karta (the head) who decides how each family member is treated irrespective of how much each earns. It is the welfare of the entire family that, in the end, matters. Punjab cannot opt out of India on the grounds that if it is compelled to share the Ravi and Beas waters with neighbouring states, its own land will get dry. The digging of the Sarda Yamuna Link (SYL) is not meant to denude Punjab. It is meant as an insurance against suffering being inflicted on Rajasthan and Haryana farmers, because of drought and other factors. The passing of the Termination of Agreements Act 2004 is a thoughtless and ill-considered act. Before it is implemented, a thorough scientific study of the entire area´s needs and concerns is called for. That calls for good faith. What holds good for the problems facing Punjab and its neighbouring states holds good for the problems confronting Maharashtra and Karnataka in the matter of the waters of the Narmada and the Cauvery. What should determine the policy is fairness above everything also. Surely that is not too much to ask?
This is not a party issue; it is not even a political issue. It is an intensely human issue and should be treated as such. River water is a national, not state, wealth, just as coal is or iron ore or natural gas. Its geographical location is immaterial. That, indeed, is the first principle of nationhood. The fact that oil is available in the north-east does not entitle the states the right to demand an exorbitant price any more than Mumbai´s citizens can demand more allotments from the Centre on the grounds that per capita they pay more income-tax than anyone else anywhere. The natural laws of a joint family apply as much to states within a federation as to individuals in such a family. These matters need to be cleared once and for all. There is no place here for partisanship. Admittedly some sections of people will have to make a small sacrifice; that is part of the growing up as a nation.
The Constitution permits free movement of people from one state to another. Under Article 19, all citizens of India have the right to move freely throughout the territory of India, to reside and settle in any part and to acquire, hold and dispose of property. It is in that same spirit that one must treat the use of riverine waters. Nature´s boundary is the heritage of all people and this principle must be etched deep in the hearts of all Indian citizens. This is not to say that one should enforce inequitable sacrifice on one class of people for the greater good of the greatest number.
Punjab may have a good case, but this must be decided upon by a thorough study, not through hasty legislation which can only lead to a constitutional crisis to nobody´s benefit. Problems can be solved if we start with the principle that we are Indians first and last and that in aiming for the common good, we are strengthening the unity and security of India. And, in the end, that is the only thing that should matter.
Grow up, Captain Amarinder Singh. The nation will be with you.