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Sikh News Land Of Five Rivers In Water Crisis And Water Chaos

Jul 10, 2006
Land Of Five Rivers In Water Crisis And Water Chaos
Wednesday 11th of October 2006

Courtesy - Umendra Dutt, Countercurrents.org

Last month Punjab has been declared as the over all best state in the country by India Today news magazine for the third consecutive year. It is a prize for Punjab and the state government has immediately taken this as an opportunity to begin a publicity campaign highlighting this achievement. But there is another dark side of this seemingly rosy picture which shows doom, distress and destruction that is fast engulfing this land of five waters. It is the water chaos in the Punjab.

Farmers are committing suicide due to the failure of water pumps while neighbor are killing each other over quarrels for irrigation water. Women are forced to fetch water walking from as far as 3 kms, carrying the precious fluid atop their heads in available containers while a vast majority of people have no option other then to drink non-potable water. Long queues are witnessed around handpumps that have potable water adjacent to canals; farmers are seen fetching water on trolleys, bullock carts, jeeps, and village made 'jeep-the jogards', motorbikes and bicycles in several villages.

The situation is more pityful in the southern districts of the Malwa region, but the situation is fast becoming almost the same throughout the entire Punjab. There are news of public demonstrations, roadblocks, 'dharnas' and civil unrest on the issue of water. Students have boycotted classes and even at an engineering collage near Malout students have forced the administration there to declare a three day hiatus as there has been no water supply to the institute in April 2006. Students at ITI Moga went on strike to protest against the unavailability of drinking water.

The water crisis is so vast that it has engulfed every nook and corner of the state. One can find farmers demonstrating in Talwandi Sabo, Pathankot, Fazilka, Malout, Muktsar, Hoshiarpur and Garhshankar. Then there are demonstrations by urban people at Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana. The list is endless.

Water scarcity has impacted the daily lives and routines of Punjab's citizens. They have to spend time and money to bring water from safe sources. Residents of Talwandi Bhai and Mudki towns in Ferozepur are compelled to drink unpotable water and though they wish to drink near potable water they would have to travel as far 8 KMs to fetch the same. In the Talwandi Sabo block, villagers in some of adjoining villages have to bring water from as far as 10 KMs. In Malsingh Wala village one can witness people towing water from great distances not only to drink, but also to bathe their animals. It has become a 100% water importing village. Malsingh Wala has already declared itself as a 'village for sale'. Even earlier, village Harkishanpura which was first village to put itself on sale, has also a severe water problem. There is no water for irrigation neither for drinking. The water crisis made the village insolvent and compelled villagers to put the village for sale. The situation is almost the same in the whole of the Malwa region. The severe water crisis is also becoming a social stigma put upon some villages. It is tough to find a bride for village youths as nobody wants to marry hisor her daughter to men of these villages.

The water crisis is so pitiable that in the village Buladewala with a population of 6000 water is obtained from 2 handpumps only. The situation is so grim that in urban and suburban areas, people are forced to install expensive submersible pumps to obtain water. The deeper one drills the more the drilling cost. Furthermore, a higher capacity motor is needed to pump water and a costlier power bill; it is a vicious circle now in most parts of the Punjab.

Even villagers' drinking water obtained from substandard sources feel they have no other options left. "It is better to drink unfit water then die of thirst," says Barjinder Singh a farmer from village Malsinghwala.
The water crisis is fast deepening in Malwa so that public anguish is increasing all around. About three dozen villages of Talwandi Sabo had already declared a boycott of the coming assembly elections in the state to mark the protest against unavailability of potable water.

Potable water is lately becoming a saleable good even in villages. Villagers at Tarkhanwala, Shekhu, Chack Hira Singh and Bagha in district Sangrur are forced to purchase water at Rs 150/ per trolley from the neighboring Haryana village of Tigri. Even in Malsinghwala and other adjoining villages, villagers have to pay for diesel to the trolley owner to get water regular.
It is ironical that water is selling in that very land which had an abundance of water resources once and it is even more tragic that this commercialization of water is done not by any company but by villagers themselves. This is an erosion of value system related to the paucity of water.

It is a new trend that now the farmers in Punjab are committing suicide as their tube wells are going dry. As the water level goes down drastically, day by day the farmers are forced to spend money to get water from new depths. In some areas this is a very common phenomenon. This also adds a larger debt burden on Punjabi farmers. Here are few examples:
Khushpal Singh (42) a small farmer of village Gajewas in Patiala district, committed suicide in June 2005 as he failed to get the bore reinstalled after drastic fall in water levels. Already after he had piled up debts and when he could not raise money to get the borewell workable again he consumed pesticide. Another young farmer of same village Baljinder Singh (23) was found dead on his farm. He faced a similar situation and when he could not sow his paddy as his tubewell became totally dry. His mother describes the situation" We didn't have the money to reinstall it and couldn't sow the paddy, our only means of existence. He lost all hope."

Redrilling a bore and making it operational can cost about Rs 1 lakh, which is an impssoble sum for a marginal or small farmer to afford. The same is the story of Malsinghwala village where Makhan Singh (35) committed suicide due to a burden of debt accumulated over the years as for loans taken for redrilling.

There is even a more tragic and sad story of Sukhchain Singh and Jinder Singh, both brothers in their thirties and sons of Labh Singh a small farmer of Lehel Kalan village near Lehragaga in Sangrur district. Both had committed suicide one after the other after their tubewell failed. They were unable to pay back the loan taken for redrilling and when the tubewell again went dry, they ended their lives.

Taking water out of deep aquifers is rapidly becoming a costly affair where someone ends up paying its price with his life especially by none other than, the poor laborers who drill them. This is the deadly aspect of redrilling. Every year here are about a hundred incidents in which laborers, masons and mechanics, working to dig deep tubewells, die due to the collapse of well. The poor laborers loose their lives as water levels have dipped to the new depths. These incidents are rising every year.

A large number of farmers' suicides taking place in Malwa region were somehow related to water crisis, either through redrilling and reinstalling of wells whereas a high operational cost or the bad quality of water leads to a decline in crop productivity.

This sorrowful saga does not end here at water-related suicides as now there are water-related murders. One farmer Sarabjeet Singh was killed by his neighbor after an altercation and sudden provocation over the drawing of irrigation water in village Butala in Amritsar district. One could find hundreds of similar news regarding altercations, tensions and manhandling across the Punjab over irrigation water particularly during the paddy season. These instances are disturbing indictors of a social crisis knocking the door of Punjab.

Now there is growing demand for more canal water in Central and North Punjab districts in Majha and Doaba regions for irrigation. Even a few farmers have started debating riparian rights among the various districts of Punjab. This is really a bad news for Punjab . With ever increasing demand of irrigation water and with drasticly receding groundwater levels, the problem is fast becoming a very serious crisis.

This crisis further compounds as dark zones are rapidly increasing in Punjab. The Green revolution agriculture system based on greed, exploitation and misappropriation of nature has enhanced the human lust for squeezing Mother Nature and her resources. It has broken the mother-son relation of farmer and earth resulting in ruthless use and misuse of earth resources.

In 1970-71 there were only 1.92 lakh tubewells in Punjab, in 80-81 there were 6 lakh, in 90-91 those numbers went up to 8 lakh, while 2000-01 they shot up to 10 lakh. Today, there are about 14 lakh tubewells. This has resulted in turning district after district into dark zones, highly over exploited areas with ever increasing supplies of brackish, unusable water.The entire once fertile region of central Punjab is a dark zone now, plunging the state into an unimaginable ecological catastrophe. After any area is declared a dark zone no new tubewell is allowed to be drilled, yet one can find hundred of drilling machines working in these dark zones.

In 1984, there were 53 blocks as dark zones, in 1995 they were 84 and in 2005 the figure went up to 108 out of total 138 development blocks in Punjab. The ground water level is falling at a much faster then was assumed. In 1973 only 3% area of Punjab had a water table below 10 meters, this goes up to 14.9% in 1989, 20% in 1992, and 28% in 1997, 53% in 2000, 76% in 2002 and in 2004 the situation goes beyond expectations when 90% area of Punjab is drawing water from the depth of more then 10 meters. More over 30% area of Punjab draws water from a depth of 20 meters or even more.

On one hand, the Punjab has lost most of its natural systems of ground water recharging within the last two decades. On the other, the natural wetlands of Punjab have almost disappeared and so is the condition of village ponds. Ponds were encroached and filled and used as farmland or for construction of buildings thus disturbing the ecosystem and jeopardizing the natural recharging of aquifers. This mindless destruction of ponds was done under government patronage. Knowingly or un-knowingly whosoever they may be, are environmental criminals who pushed the future generations of Punjab into a saga of distress and sorrow, death, destruction and displacement.

Unfortunately, Punjab is about to lose her wetlands not only due to bad planning but also due to criminal negligence and the greedy deeds of mankind. Punjab has already several of her wetlands. The great Bhupindra Sagar Lake in Sangrur district, which was once known as a favorite hunting spot of Maharaja Bhupindra Singh of Patiala , has totally vanished. The mighty Bhupindra Sagar once spread over an area of 1280 hectares.

The list of vanishing wetlands is an indication of the devastation, which is knocking on the door of Punjab. The few districted wetlands left are Chhangli Chhamb – 1000 Ha, Chhangli Tabo-140 Ha, Chhamb Gurditwala Ferozpur-100 Ha, Sangeri Mansa-41 Ha, Sharmkot Gurdaspur-12 Ha, Gaunspur chhamb Hoshiarpur-100 Ha, Jandwal Chhamb Hoshiarpur-100 Ha, Rahon De Chhamb Jallandhar 300 Ha. One major wetlands in Punjab, "Tarkiana" wetland near Dasuha, is no more on the ground and remains only on paper. Other wetlands such as as Jasterwal, Khanuwan, Lobana (near Nabha), Mand Bharthala, Rababsar and Bareta are the worst victims of man-made disaster and ignorance. The Lobana wetland is almost dead though the government considers it a wetland on papers is loosing its area due to encroachments. This is the common fate of all natural wetlands of Punjab. But, man-made wetlands are also facing similar threats. The wetland ecosystem along with river ecospheres in Punjab are passing through a very critical stage and this entire scenario is due to reach a breaking point.

Apart from this, the several major reservoirs such as Sitasar (Sunam), Ajj Sarovar (Kharar), Mullanpur Garibdass, Gharian, Pandusar (Dasuha), Rajetal, Bopa Rai Kalan, Kahangarh, Chamunda Devi, Thand Kasel, Attariwala, Batala, Gurdaspur, Bhagna, Fethgarh Churrien, Chmiari, Preet Nagar, Ramsar, Lakshmansar (Amritsar) are in a condition of distress. Several among these had marvelous architectural designs with splendorous beauty, but now only ruin remains. Most of these ponds are situated in Amritsar district. One can see the tradition of constructing ponds in Punjab through the windows of Ghats of these majestic monuments. The former princely city of Sangrur once had four major reservoirs on all four corners of town, but the man-made foolish decisions killed all four tanks, and this is too declared at a cost of so-called modern development.

The princely town of Nabha was also lost its famous HattiKhanna Talab along with several other ponds in towns and in adjacent villages. The ruins of traditional pond system of Punjab can be found in the districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Ropar. The remains of puckka ghats with their beautiful construction are evidence of the rich native tradition of ponds, their architecture and design in Punjab. But this great glory of conserving water is a thing of a forgotten past. Today nobody is aware about it and nobody wants to care about it. It is sad and unfortunate Punjab's own people put this great pond system to death.

Because of this, the situation worsened more. In 1980 there are 3712 villages identified as drinking water problem villages, this figure went up to 6287 in 1990, and then in year 2000 the number increased to 8518 while as of now, 11849 villages or habitations out of a total 12423 in Punjab are facing drinking water problems.

Another aspect of this crisis is the fast deteriorating quality of ground water as well as canal water. According to a survey done by Punjab Remote Sensing Centre at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana and by the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Use Planning, Punjab has a very high concentration of sodium carbonate and salinity in tubewell water. The survey states that 57% of ground water is unfit for irrigation. Moreover, some districts of Malwa region are in a deep crisis as they had a decreasing percentage of their ground water meeting standards. Muktsar has only 38% quality water, Faridkot – 33%, Mansa 35%, Sangrur-34%, Bathinda-19.77% and Moga has 14.98% of ground water fit for irrigation. The Punjab level picture is gloomier as 7.7% ground water in the entire state is totally unfit, 5.3% has a high salt contents and 42.1% contains some sodium bicarbonate. Several farmers in Bathinda, Mansa, Muktsar, Faridkot and Moga districts lost their crop productivites and yields. The geophysical analysis of ground water of Punjab shows that it contains high levels of Fluorine, Nitrates, Sulphate, Sodium, Selenium, cadmium, chromium and even nickel.

The poor water quality also results in higher consumption of fertilizers and other nutrients to sustain the failing yields. Farmers are spending on gypsum and zinc every year to counter the effects of salinity. Salts in the water the also block the percolation process that facilitate recharging of ground water aquifers. This highly substandard ground water is also contributing to high incidences of cancer in Malwa. There are several waterbourne diseases spreading throughout the entire Punjab, but Malwa is the worst victim. The premature graying of hair, arthritis, and fluorosis both skeletal and dental has already taken over the disease list.
The situation is alarming as on one hand groundwater is fast decreasing daily while on the other hand, its quality is also rapidly deteriorating.

The doom does not end here as more stark facts are yet to come. Take for example canal water. In earlier days canal water considered ideal for irrigation is no more so, courtesy of industrial pollution and un-reated effluents released into rivers and rivulets. This has further deepened the water crisis and woes of the common people. The canal water in most of areas is contaminated and polluted. The situation had become worst during the summer season. This year the Malwa region had faced an unprecedented water crisis when black brackish water flowed through canals containing contaminants, pollutants, toxicants and a whole lot of chemicals. The districts of Faridkot, Muktsar, Bathinda and Abohar-Fazilka were literally waging water wars, as Municipal Committees were forced to stop supplying tap water to citizens. Even the Muktsar civic body had made public announcements not to its drink municipal water. The water had a bad odor and its impurity made it a dangerous substance flowing through the taps distributing diseases. This canal water is also unfit for irrigation also.

The groundwater is contaminated more near rivers and drains. The untreated industrial waste released into drains , is further seeping into the lands and thus polluting the groundwater. Several towns are witnessing this problem. The lives of people living along the side of drains in Punjab are fast becoming vulnerable to DNA damage. Dr J S Thakur of PGIMER who is working on this issue and admits that water contaminated by untreated industrial waste might be leading to the DNA changes and making people predisposed to cancer and congenital diseases. His views were supported by Dr. Gursatej Gandhi scientist at the Genetics Department of Guru Nanak Dev University , Amritsar. The latter had worked in Mahal village situated on the bank of a drain which carries industrial affluent. She says the groundwater contamination due to industrial waste disposal in these drains is causing a very severe health challenge. The toxic waste after seeping into groundwater brings several irreversible health damages. She cites examples of not only DNA damage, but also chromosome damage, premature aging and other adverse effects due to the drinking of this contaminated groundwater.

This situation again has put extra financial burden on citizens. The sale of water filters and purifiers has shot up in the last two years in Punjab. The ordinary people in fear of cancer and other deadly diseases, are purchasing expensive water purifiers, often by taking a loan. Providing safe water has become a dubious business opportunity in the very land of five rivers. This is bound to have deep cultural impacts besides socio-economic stress in its society.

Summarizing, these are a few glimpses of the water crisis in Punjab. To bring Punjab out of this devastation, the civil authority has to act today as tomorrow may be too late. 'Save Water' is not merely a slogan it needs to become a conviction, commitment and mission of every proud Punjabi. Moreover, the role of the Punjab government, politicians, bureaucrats and decision makers is yet not in accordance with the gravity of the crisis. Punjab has to evolve a strategy, an action plan, a water policy and most importantly a vision to save the existence of its water. But all these should based on eternal values preached by our glorious water heritage and wisdom.

The land of Guru Nanak, which has given a rousing call for the well-being of all creatures and led the first struggle for water rights of the common folk, is fast loosing its water heritage. There would be no more Bhai Khaniya, who was called the true Sikh by Guru Gobind Singh and who had served water without any thought of friend or foe, who gave water to each and every one without any discrimination, if there was no water left in Punjab.
Without Aab we cannot imagine Punj aab. How could we do Sarbat da Bhala – wellbeing of all if there is no water?

The state, number one, should wake up to save its very character.
(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission. Jaitu, Faridkot district based environmental NGO. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail: umendradutt@gmail.com)

Source:Panthic Weekly: Land Of Five Rivers In Water Crisis And Water Chaos



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