Himachal Pradesh and Punjab share boundaries and bonds —cultural, emotional, and territorial—with a great sense of dependability. It is a historical fact that Punjab’s economic revolution, the green revolution as we call it, could not have been possible without sacrifices made by the people of Himachal.
The bonds, in a way, should have got further cemented over the years, but recent political developments do not reflect so. Himachal and Punjab are currently at loggerheads once again. This time, it’s not about territorial boundaries but about water disputes. Himachal Chief Minister Sukhwinder Sukhu has sought what he says is the state’s legitimate share on the river water within its territorial jurisdiction being used for hydro-power projects, irrigation, and drinking purposes.
Himachal’s Sukhu-led Congress government wants Punjab and even Centre to acknowledge the state’s rightful share in water and hydro-electric projects on the rivers flowing through the state and the 7.19 per cent share in Chandigarh’s assets.
The demand is based on the division of Punjab under the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966. Himachal and Haryana were both carved out of Punjab and, following the division, Himachal was given 7.19 per cent share in all the assets of undivided Punjab. This was also upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011. While Sukhu —like chief ministers before him— is raising the issue now and has backing in the state, there is a huge resistance in Punjab and Haryana.
Punjab fumes as Himachal seeks water rights
A bitter discord has emerged over the Centre’s May 15, 2023 decision to waive off the requirement of obtaining a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB) for utilising waters for irrigation and drinking water in Himachal.
Punjab CM Bhagwant Singh Mann has vehemently opposed the decision to waive off the condition of seeking NOC for drawing water by Himachal. He wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and termed the decision “unfortunate”.
He wrote, “This decision is completely unjustified because as per the water agreements, no water is required to be allocated to Himachal Pradesh out of the Sutlej and Beas. Though the Supreme Court has allowed 7.19 per cent share to Himachal Pradesh but it only relates to power, not sharing of the water.”
Sukhu takes credit for making the Centre agree to Himachal’s demand to invoke its right on the BBMB to use water for irrigation and drinking without preconditions of obtaining permissions.
The BBMB has large projects in Himachal, which include Bhakra-Nangal Dam, Satluj-Beas-Link (SYL), and Pong Dam for power generation and irrigation facilities in Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan.
“After coming to power, we strongly advocated for the Himachal Pradesh rights under the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966 in the BBMB projects. The state had to go through numerous formalities to obtain NOCs to access water from the BBMB project. This had adversely affected the interests of the people. The BBMB has liability of hundreds of crores as arrears of 7.19 per cent power share payable to Himachal as per Supreme Court order of year 2011,” said Sukhu in an interview to Outlook Hindi.
Sukhu has hailed the Centre’s notification doing away with the precondition of NOC and has said that the BBMB projects have utilised Himachal’s natural resources without adequately considering the welfare of its residents.
Sukhu said, “Our people suffered the pains of displacement. Their cultivable land and houses got submerged in the dams. Hundreds of families turned homeless and landless. They were paid in peanuts and the majority of them still await rehabilitations.”
The tussle over water cess, lease of Shanan power plant
The tussle between Himachal and Punjab is not restricted to the utilisation of the BBMB water. Punjab has also locked its horns with Himachal on yet other two contentious issues.
The Punjab assembly has unanimously passed a resolution against the Himachal Pradesh Water Cess on Hydropower Generation Bill passed by the Himachal assembly to levy water cess on hydropower projects in the state. The cash-strapped hill state’s move is aimed to raise an additional revenue of Rs 3,000 crore by levying the cess on hydro-power companies, including BBMB, NHPC, Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) Ltd, and NTPC.
The resolution, first passed by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-ruled Punjab and later also by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Haryana, said that the water cess imposed by the Himachal government was illegal and should be withdrawn.
Sukhu later rushed to Mann to clarify the state’s position, but refused to give-up its claim. Mann says the cess was a “fresh attack” on the waters of the state which cannot be tolerated
As per Sukhu’s claim, the water cess would not be levied on water but on the power generation in about 172 hydropower projects operating in the state. Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir already had levied the cess on hydro-power companies.
A war of words is also brewing between Punjab and Haryana over 110-megawatt (MW) British-era Shanan Power House, which is a British-era project located at Joginder Nagar in Himachal’s Mandi District. The project is in the control of Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) which earns an annual income of Rs 200 crore from the sale of power.
While Punjab claims ownership of the powerhouse, the land for the project was given on a 99-year lease by Raja Joginder Sen Bahadur, the erstwhile King of Mandi. The lease —given on March 3, 1925— expires in March 2024. During reorganisation of Punjab and carving out of Haryana and Himachal, the project was allocated to Punjab by the Ministry of Irrigation and Power, Government of India.
Himachal government has conveyed to Punjab that it would not renew the land lease and the project must be handed to the state on expiry of the lease.But it looks like a tall order. Punjab has made it clear that the project has come to the state’s share under the state’s reorganisation act of 1966 and will not be handed to Himachal.
Sukhu also took up the matter with the Union Power Minister RK Singh during his visit to Kinnaur on June 8. He also handed over papers in support of the state’s claim.
Ex-BJP CM Shanta Kumar supports Sukhu’s demands
Last week while in Chandigarh, Sukhu revived Himachal’s demand for 7.19 per cent share in the Union Territory under the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966 as proportionate to the state's total population in the composite Punjab .
Former Himachal CM Shanta Kumar of BJP has backed Sukhu and has reminded him how he got an ad hoc share of 15 MW of power allotted to the state in 1977 when the matter was taken up with the then-Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who had convened a meeting with the chief ministers of the concerned states. In the meeting, the then-Punjab CM Parkash Singh Badal supported the demand for share in BBMB for Himachal but Haryana CM Devi Lal was unwilling. Thus, only 15 MW ad hoc share was given when Supreme Court decided in favour of Himachal Pradesh in 2011 on a writ petition filed by the Virbhadra Singh-led Himachal government at the time.
In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections next year, the Congress government in Himachal may sharpen its posture to reassert its rights on water-sharing, levying of cess on hydroelectric projects, and get the Shanan project back. Punjab, however, remains unwilling to acknowledge Himachal’s stand.