Beyond the News - FACT Analysis

Without governmental intervention, Punjab will become a desert

Harjap Singh Aujla

  As of today, Punjab’s biggest statewide problem is in the fast depleting underground water table. According to the Central Government’s own assessment published in the media, including “The Tribune”, only fifteen per cent of blocks in the entire Punjab are not stressed from the point of view of underground water. The rest have seriously depleted their underground reservoir of water. A lot of these stressed blocks are located close to the rivers, which is quite unusual and worrisome. For example, the Sutlej forms the boundary between Ludhiana and Jalandhar districts, but the water table has deepened from an average of 40 feet in the mid-nineteen sixties to more than two hundred feet in Ludhiana and a little less in Jalandhar. Similarly, the Moga district is on the Southern bank of the Sutlej, in some of its areas the water table has deepened to more than 300 feet. The situation in Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur, Kapurthala, Amritsar, and Tarn Taran is not any better. These districts are located on both sides of the Beas. The situation along the Ravi in Gurdaspur and Amritsar districts are also not rosy either. The primary reason of this depletion is overexploitation of underground water resource for the cultivation of coarse grain rice. During the 1960s, the Centre was desperate to become self sufficient in food grains. They were fed up of importing wheat and rice from abroad, particularly the United States of America was our principal supplier of wheat. America was sending us wheat under PL 480. It was outright humiliating to go to America with a begging bowl year after year. Not realizing what we are getting into, the farming community of Punjab took up the challenge thrown by the Centre and started planting water guzzler coarse grain rice which quickly started adversely impacting the water table. The Centre was under the impression that there is a sufficient quantity of river water in Punjab, which was adequate for Punjab’s own needs and it could spare water for the neighboring states. Punjab’s policy of giving free power for irrigation wells and the Centre’s decision of procurement of paddy at minimum support price emboldened the farmers. After a protracted arm twisting between India and Pakistan, a World Bank brokered the deal for sharing the waters of the Indus Basin was signed between India and Pakistan on September 19th 1960. At that time according to the then estimates 33 million acre feet of water was available from the three Eastern Rivers i.e. the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi. All this water, being less than the water of the large Western rivers was allocated exclusively to India. India had pleaded that this water was necessary for the irrigation needs of Punjab, which included Haryana at that time, and the desert state of Rajasthan, which due to very little rain, was heavily water deficit. The water of the three Western rivers, the Chenab, the Jhelum, and the Indus was a lot more, estimated to be 80 million acre-feet. All this was allocated to Pakistan. India could utilize only 20% of the Western rivers’ water for power generation, fish breeding, navigation, and potable use. Since most of the Indus Basin was in Pakistan, this allocation was considered fair by both countries. After the Bhakra and Pong dams were constructed and the storage at headworks in Nangal, Ropar, and Harike were taken into account, the availability of canal water in Punjab was assessed to be 16 million acre-feet. Out of this 8.1 million acre-feet was allocated to Rajasthan, which Punjab did not like, but “What can’t be cured must be endured”. Punjab was made to eat the humble pie. Rajasthan’s share of water was to be given mostly from Harike Headworks. According to the figures provided by the design office of the Punjab PWD Irrigation branch, the designed capacity of Rajasthan Canal off taking from Harike was 18500 cubic feet per second (cusecs). The Ferozepur Feeder was designed to carry 11192 (roughly 11200) cusecs and the local area irrigating Makhu Canal was designed to carry 292 (roughly 300) cusecs. The problem of conflict between Punjab and Rajasthan starts from Harike Headworks. This massive lake was completed in 1952-53. Its original storage capacity was 67900 acre-feet. Due to the cutting of trees at a massive scale all over agricultural and urban Punjab, this lake has been silted up so heavily over the past nearly seven decades, that its storage capacity has come down to merely 9300 acre-feet. That means it has shrunk to merely 7% of its original storage capacity. Some people think that the present capacity is merely 20% of its original capacity. How can we store more water when there is hardly any storage capacity left in the lake?. I believe in erring on the positive side. I shall recommend immediate deep dredging of Harike Lake to augment its storage capacity to more than 80000 acre-feet. The dredged material can be dumped on the government land or on specifically acquired land in adjoining Tarntaran district and Sultanpur Lodhi tehsil of Kapurthala district with at least 2 horizontal to 1 vertical slope. The top can be flattened with a self-draining gradient and used as picnic grounds in Ferozepore, Tarntaran, and Kapurthala districts and observation posts for wildlife watching. Dredging of Harike Lake alone will ensure supply of close to full authorized quantity of water for both Rajasthan and the Malwa belt of Punjab. Of course, excess Water will flow to Pakistan, but only in the event of a continuous week-long duration of rain. At present only Muktsar and some parts of Bathinda are getting adequate quantities of canal water. For the rest of Malwa, there is less availability of canal water. Abohar area at present gets the leftover water from Muktsar at the tail end. With augmented supply, some more parts of Ferozepore, Moga, Faridkot, and Fazilka districts will also get supply by gravity flow or by pumped flow. In the event of a very low level in Harike Lake, provision can be made for pumping with powerful high-volume pumps. The Ropar Headworks and Madhopur Headworks, though not as badly silted up, need dredging too, doubling their capacity will ensure year-round adequate water for irrigating the districts of Ludhiana, Nawanshahr, Jalandhar, Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Amritsar and Tarntaran. There are some drains in the former waterlogged areas of Gurdaspur and Amritsar districts, excess water can be released into these drains too for recharging of the underground water table. At least 200 cusecs of Beas water should be released daily in Kali Vein of Kapurthala. This will help in de-stressing a big chunk of the area in Bholath, Kapurthala, and Sultanpur Lodhi tehsils. All blocks in Patiala and Sangrur districts are also stressed. Bhakra Main Line supplying water to Haryana passes through Patiala. Under a special arrangement, Patiala and Sangrur should get additional Bhakra water in lieu of stopping the cultivation of rice paddy. Punjab is a terribly fund starved state. It has to request the Centre to provide special funding ranging in thousands of crores for dredging, transportation, and deposition of dredged soil. Estimates can be made by the Punjab PWD and the Central Government’s Water and Power Commission. Mechanical wet dredging is probably the best available option for desiltation of Punjab’s canal feeding lakes, especially Harike Lake. In the meanwhile cultivation of paddy should be banned in all the non-canal fed areas of Punjab and alternative crops encouraged.
(The author is a retired water resources engineer, with a 26 year experience in the USA.)