Kalabagh Dam: Facts and fictions about the Thal Canal

A large cultivable area of Southern Punjab located between Indus and Jhelum rivers did not benefit from the waters of mighty Indus flowing through it. There was no irrigation network for the farmers of South Punjab. Under the British Government, when canals were constructed to irrigate upper plains of Punjab from tributary rivers of Indus, people belonging to Southern Punjab also had a natural expectation for receiving a similar facility from River Indus.

It may come as a surprise for many but the record shows that the idea of constructing a perennial canal from River Indus at Mari to irrigate the Doab between the Indus and the Jhelum was first mooted by Government of Punjab in 1873. However, for the next 27 years, nothing happened.

Later, in line with irrigation network developed to irrigate the other Doab lands, Sindh Sagar Colonization Act was passed in October 1901. This Act created entitlement of Government of Punjab on shamilat land of about 1.932 million acres in Bhakkar and Layyah in lieu of bringing a canal in Sindh Sagar Doab (now known as Thal Doab).People of this area kept waiting for the proposed canal but due to non-committal attitude of the Central Government and stiff resistance by the lower riparian, the Sindh Sagar wastelands remained un-irrigated for another generation and next18 years went by without any progress.

In 1919, the Govt. of Punjab prepared a project for the entire Doab (total culturable area of 2.468 million acres) to be irrigated by a 14,000 cusecs canal. However, this project too was turned down by the Central Government of India.

Also at the same time, Sukkur Barrage Project was sanctioned by the British Government and approved by the Secretary of State for India in 1923. The record confirms that the Punjab Government protested in April 1923, against denial of water to South Punjab.

In view of the continuous denial of provision for water for this area, the Punjab Government came up with revised project in 1924 with following three alternatives:

a)   Lesser Thal Project;

b)   Larger Thal Project;

c)   Project for the entire Doab.

However, it was commented by the British Government that question of supplies necessary for the Sukkur Barrage Project has to be addressed before any decision on proposed alternatives for Thal Doab is taken.

Finally the Punjab Government submitted the Lesser Thal Project in October, 1925. The capacity of this canal was 6,750 cusecs.

The Government of India, however, expressed unwillingness to recommend even the Lesser Thal project to the Secretary of State for sanction until such time as the Sukkur Barrage scheme came into operation.

This reply from the Government of India, as the record shows, resulted in an immediate and lengthy protest from the Government of the Punjab and led to long correspondence between the Governments of India, the Punjab and the Bombay Presidency. Thereafter the issue was referred to the Indus Discharge Committee. At their meeting in March, 1929, the Indus Discharge Committee came to the conclusion that it would be unjustifiable at that time to withdraw from the Indus, the perennial supply required for the Lesser Thal Project. They advised another waiting period of 10 years.

The failure of Government of Punjab for allocation of water through an irrigation canal has left a lingering impression in the collective psyche of the farmers located in South Punjab that administration located at Lahore was not able to win the case for them from the British Government. The Punjab Government was unable to withstand the protest of the farmers and the Sindh Sagar Doab Colonization Act was consequently repealed in August, 1929.

The scheme was, however, never abandoned by Punjab Government. An opportunity arose early in 1935 to revive the question at the Anderson Water Distribution Committee which allowed the Government of Punjab to construct the Thal Canal with a maximum withdrawal of up to 6,000 cusecs, limiting the mean supplies in December and January to 2,000 cusecs, in February and March to 3,600 cusecs, and in November to 5,600 cusecs. The Thal Canal was constructed in 1947 to irrigate 1.6 million acres of land along Kundian-Khushab and Kundian-Shershah railway lines.

The history of Thal canal, which saw the light of day after a long period of more than 70 years has been given to depict that upper riparians have also felt aggrieved regarding distribution of water.

A cross section of general public in Sindh believe that Punjab has lost the confidence of Sindh province because Chashma-Jhelum (CJ) Link Canal & Greater Thal Canal (GTC) were constructed without approval of PC-I and their allocations were inserted in Annexes of Water Apportionment Accord (WAA) 1991 even though the GTC was not built at that time.

As perceptions sometimes become more important than reality, in the following lines an attempt would be made to present the factual position regarding the above quoted account.

The CJ Link Canal was part of Indus Basin Replacement Works and was not under the purview of the then Planning Commission as a High Powered Committee constituting World Bank Officials, Donor Countries and WAPDA were entrusted with the task to execute the Replacement Works. It is true that planning document was not the PC-I, as it is known today but so was the case for all projects undertaken in the Replacement Works which included five barrages and eight link canals. The CJ Link Canal got commissioned in June, 1971. To isolate one project to create a wrong impression that only this canal was constructed without even a PC-I of the development scheme is not fair and creates a distortion of facts.

The CJ Link Canal was completed in 1971 and Sindh objected to the operation of CJ Link Canal in July 1972 and Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took notice. In the absence of a water apportionment agreement, the choices to resolve the difference of opinion on the timings of canal operation were a difficult task. Therefore, an interim accord was concluded between Punjab and Sindh signed by Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Governor of Punjab & Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, Chief Minister of Sindh and by Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, Minister for Provincial Coordination, Government of Pakistan. The salient features of the accord were as follow:

·      Without any mention of specific water quantity to be released vide CJ Link Canal, it was decided to allow the water flow to keep the lower section of the Link alive;

·      It was agreed that this flow would be on adhoc basis and would not create any right for subsequent flows;

·      In the event of request by the Chief Minister of Sindh on the erratic behavior of the river Indus, WAPDA shall close the canal.

The duration of the above accord was till the final decision by the President of Pakistan on apportionment of water of the Indus system. After two years in June 1974, the 1972 interim accord was again allowed to continue by the respective governments and from 1974 onwards CJ Link Canal operated without any special arrangement.

After signing of Water Apportionment Accord (WAA) in 1991, the releases in CJ Link to feed the downstream irrigation canals for Punjab were counted against Punjab’s share of allocated Indus water.

In regard to the construction of Greater Thal Canal, a very strong perception exists in Sindh that GTC is meant to take water from Indus River by Punjab which may be in excess of its share whereas this contention is not supported by IRSA’s record. Some of the writers are under the impression that GTC in Punjab was constructed without approval of PC-I. The reality check, by verification of original record revealed that proper PC-I of GTC was approved on February 28, 2002 at a total cost of Rs. 30.46 billion (only Phase-I of the project at a cost of Rs. 9.1 billion has been completed).

It does not appear justified to allege that water allocation for Greater Thal Canal was stealthily inserted in the Annexes of WAA. The fact is that as per the Water Apportionment Accord, Provinces were to give their allocations after this agreement was signed on March 21, 1991. Accordingly all provinces gave their requirement of water based on ten daily allocations from their allocated shares in the Accord by March 30, 1991. Province of Punjab as per undisputed record of IRSA has only taken its share in accordance with the WAA 1991 but somehow the operation of CJ Link Canal as well as GTC continues to be cited as an example of Punjab’s highhandedness.

(The writer can be reached at chairman@wapda.gov.pk)

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt