NEWS
17/09/2018 8:05 AM IST | Updated 17/09/2018 8:17 AM IST

Rajasthan Quietly Given Extra Water By Bhakra Dam Board To Improve BJP's Poll Prospects

Haryana and Punjab allege Rajasthan was favoured due to political compulsions.

HuffPost India
A view of the Bhakra reservoir on 14 September 2018.

CHANDIGARH—The Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) diverted scarce water from the Bhakra and Pong reservoirs to poll-bound Rajasthan earlier this year, lowering their water levels to the dead-storage mark at a time of extreme shortage, HuffPost India has learnt.

The water was released at a time when Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was besieged by rampant farmer unrest.

Interviews with government officials in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh indicate that BBMB officials released this water to Rajasthan without sanction, prompting the Haryana government to file a complaint. Some of this surplus water was allegedly released under the guise of maintenance work on a rarely used irrigation tunnel at Pong dam.

The unsanctioned release of water has prompted allegations that the BBMB, whose members are appointed by the BJP-led Union Government, was swayed by political compulsions to bail out the party's beleaguered state government in Rajasthan.

Since then, the three states have been locked in hectic negotiations with the BBMB about how to account for the additional, and unsanctioned, water released to Rajasthan. BBMB officials say the allocations have been accepted by all stakeholders, but sources privy to the discussions told HuffPost India that Punjab and Haryana are yet to sign off on this as they are concerned that retroactively approving the water released to Rajasthan will limit the amount of water they are entitled to in the future.

"The acceptance of surplus allocations amounts to treason by the officials who were made responsible to safeguard the state water share," said Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu, when confronted with HuffPost India's findings. "The matter also needs to be investigated by a technical expert committee to access as to how much water was actually received from rainfall and the snow melting this season. I must say, it is a wake-up call for the Punjab government!"

BBMB Chairman Devender Sharma accepted that the dam had released surplus water this year, despite low reservoir levels and below-normal snowfall in the catchment areas of the Sutlej and Beas rivers. Sharma said the water was released to all three states in accordance with shares approved by the Technical Committee Meeting (TCM), which oversees allocations.

"There was huge paddy requirement in all the three states after June 20 this year and maximum water was released during this time," Sharma said.

Water Politics

Punjab and Haryana officials say approximately 3.5 lakh cusec days of surplus water was released to Rajasthan in May and June this year as the state's deeply unpopular BJP government battled widespread farmer disaffection and unrest.

Rajasthan officials have disputed this calculation.

Since September last year, farmers organised a series of Mahapadaos, or agitations, along the stretch of the Indira Gandhi canal. At the same time, upstream in Punjab, newspapers were saturated with reports of a historic shortfall of water in the dam.

Rajasthan is gearing up for Assembly elections later this year.

The revelation that Rajasthan had got more than its fair share of water came to light in a BBMB presentation made to the Ministry of Power in August this year. HuffPost India has reviewed this presentation.

In their presentation, BBMB officials claimed the shortfall of water in the Bhakra reservoir was a consequence of "an exceptional hydrological event".

But officials in attendance noticed a discrepancy in the records of the amount of water released to each state.

Slide number 13 stated that 7.930 Million Acre Feet/Day (MAF) of water had been released to all three states from 1 September 2017 to 20 May 2018, against an amount of 8.866 MAF approved by the TCM. The Pong reservoir had released a total of 5.004 MAF against an approved quota of 6.112 MAF.

So while Slide 13 suggested the states had received slightly less than their approved shares, slide 14 said the opposite—claiming all three states had been given water in excess of their quotas—prompting questions from officials as to how much water was actually released by the dam.

The linear nature of the canal network meant that the surplus water flowed through Punjab and Haryana before making its way to Rajasthan.

"We have water capacity constraints and cannot store much water," said Anurag Rastogi, principal secretary, irrigation, Haryana. "As per usual practice, BBMB releases water as per demand raised by the states. However this year, it released water to Rajasthan without any demand."

HuffPost India
A view of the Bhakra reservoir during monsoon in 2017.

Following a complaint lodged by Haryana, a meeting was called by the Union power in August this year and an explanation was sought from BBMB over the charges levied by Haryana.

HuffPost India has learnt that following the high-level meeting, Rajasthan has recently submitted a formal demand letter to BBMB over the water share it had received since May this year.

Jaspal Singh, principal secretary for water resources in Punjab, echoed his Haryana counterpart's complaints.

"There was indeed a gross mismanagement by the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) in releasing water this year," Singh said. "Like Haryana, I too have raised the issue at the ministry level and informed them about the additional releases made by BBMB."

Shikhar Aggarwal, principal secretary, water resources, of Rajasthan refuted the claims of his counterparts in Haryana and Punjab, saying that Rajasthan was given water as per the state's assigned share. However, he declined to share any water inflow data with HuffPost India to back up his claims.

BBMB Response

The BBMB's response has prompted more questions than answers.

Satish Singla, the BBMB's director for water regulation, admitted that the board had released more water than each state's allocated share. However, he said this was a consequence of maintenance work performed on an irrigation tunnel linked to the Pong reservoir in April.

"While the repair of the irrigation tunnel was done once in every five years, it was not done from the last eight years," Singla said. "So expecting heavy monsoon as predicted by the meteorology department, we released excessive water, hence bringing down the water level to dead storage level at Pong."

This water was released in the canal network and made its way to Rajasthan.

Once the Pong reservoir was emptied to dead storage, Singla said, the BBMB authorities had to release even more water from the Bhakra reservoir to meet the water demands of Punjab and Rajasthan during paddy season.

All water releases, Singla said, were done with the approval of the board, with senior officials from all three states.

According to SK Sharma, former member (irrigation), BBMB, the irrigation tunnel has rarely been opened since the commissioning of the Bhakra Beas project and hence there was no requirement for any repairs.

"However, this year, the water level in the Pong reservoir was reduced next to the dead storage level to carry out the repair work of the irrigation tunnel," Sharma said. "Later, lesser inflows at both the dams deepened the crisis further."

Punjab minister Sidhu told HuffPost India that the repair of the irrigation tunnel seemed like a well-laid plan to divert water away from Punjab to Rajasthan at the behest of the central government.

"There must be a high-level inquiry into this matter," he said.