War of Waters

Water-sharing disputes in Haryana

Author: Shubhangi

Policy Advisor, Bhajan Global Impact Foundation

Tag(s) : Environment

Water forms the basis of life. Water disputes between man-made geographical boundaries have a serious bearing on this fundamental human need. The water-conflict chronology developed by the Pacific Institute indicates conflicts on water dating back to almost 5000 years (Pacific Institute, 2018).

Some important factors that contribute to inter-state disputes in water-sharing include:

  • Geographic, hydrographic, hydrological, climatic, ecological, and other natural factors;
  • Socio-economic and physiological needs of the population;
  • The fraction of population dependent upon the river;
  • Effects of the use or uses of the river by one stakeholder on another;
  • Existing and potential uses of the river;
  • Conservation, protection, development, and economy of use of the river waters, and the costs of measures taken to that effect; and
  • Availability of alternatives, of comparable value, to a planned or existing use of the river (Hegde, 2017).

Haryana is part of a major inter-state water dispute. With less than 0.70 percent of its land as water bodies, Haryana depends largely on its water-sharing agreements with an upstream state like Punjab for meeting its water demand (Town and Country Planning Department, 2015), to meet its population’s water needs. Haryana also shares borders with the state of Delhi. Therefore, water-sharing agreements take a central place in determining the water resource availability for the state of Haryana.

These disputes have both legal and political considerations, with most constitutional institutions being involved in enforcing a settlement. Haryana has been party to multiple Supreme Court judgments on water-sharing, as well as Central government orders, tribunal orders, and inter-state agreements.

The present article deals with the law of the land on matters of water-sharing between states in the first part, and in the second part, discusses two major inter-state water disputes – Punjab-Haryana dispute over water from Ravi-Beas and the dispute between Haryana and Delhi over waters of the Yamuna river. In conclusion, it highlights the impact of these disputes on socioeconomic development in Haryana.

The Law of Inter-State Water Disputes in India

In India, the matter of water regulation falls within the state list, entry 17 (Entry 17, State List, Constitution of India). However, the Centre is empowered to deal with inter-state dispute management under Entry 56 – “Regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys, to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest”(Union List, Entry 56).

Article 262 of the Constitution of India deals with the adjudication of inter-state disputes related to water. It empowers the Parliament to provide a system to solve such disputes (Article 262, 1949). Based on the power given under this Article, the Parliament enacted two separate laws –

  1. River Board Act, 1956 – The objective of the Board was to advise on inter-state river basin to prepare development scheme and to prevent emergence of conflicts. Some of the river boards created since then are the Brahmaputra Board (established in 1980) and the Upper Yamuna River Board (established in 1994). The recommendation of these boards is advisory in nature, instead of being adjudicatory. Some successful disputes that have been settled through the Boards are water-sharing of Krishna, Godavari, and Narmada (Bakshi, 2002). However, the political aspects of some disputes like that of the Ravi-Beas dispute between Haryana and Punjab make the Board redundant when attempting to address confrontational disputes.
  2. Inter-State Water Dispute Act, 1956 – It provides the procedure in case of legal disputes between states. If the matter cannot be solved by mutual consultation, the matter is forwarded to a tribunal constituted under the Act. It consists of the Chief Justice of India and sitting judges of the High Court, and the Supreme Court.

Apart from the constitutional and legislative provisions with respect to water-sharing, there exist some specialised international law doctrine. The only one recognised by the Supreme Court of India with respect to inter-state water disputes is the Doctrine of Equitable Apportionment (Raman, 1992). According to the doctrine, every state should get a fair and equal share of water of common rivers on the basis of the demand in each state.

Therefore, the present law of the land dictates –

  • States amicably attempt to arrive at an agreement of water-sharing under the supervision of the central government. Their demands on the water resource will depend on their individual assessment of water requirement.
  • If the above is not possible, a river board – under the River Boards Act – can provide a reference order for the sharing of the water. This will merely be a guiding document with no authority.
  • If the dispute persists, a tribunal will be constituted under the Inter-state water dispute Act. The order of such a tribunal is binding on all states party to the dispute. The Supreme Court will have no jurisdiction to decide the issue if a tribunal is constituted, under Article 262 to handle the matter.

Water disputes in Haryana

  1. Haryana-Punjab dispute over Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal
    This is perhaps one of the longest and most expensive inter-state water disputes in India. It involves the sharing of Ravi-Beas river water flowing through Punjab and Haryana. The timeline of the dispute starts from 1955 wherein Punjab (including Pepsu), Rajasthan, and Jammu & Kashmir entered into a water-sharing agreement with respect to the water of Ravi and Beas (PTI, 2016). On the reorganisation of the state of Punjab in 1966, the water had to be shared with Haryana, even if it was not a riparian state (Goyal, 2017).Since there was failure to reach any mutual agreement on water-sharing between the two states, the central government passed an order for sharing water and construction of the canal, named Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, was entered in 1976. The canal was to be a 214 km canal of which 122 km were to lie in Punjab, and 92 km, in Haryana. Haryana finished its part of the canal by 1980, when Bhajan Lal was Chief Minister of Haryana, and Darbara Singh, of Punjab. However, little progress was made on part of Punjab (Ghuman, 2017).A fresh agreement was entered into by the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Jammu-Kashmir in 1981. The subject matter of the agreement was the sharing of the Ravi-Beas water (Gill, 2016). The final agreement between the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan stood as follows:

    State Shares of Water
    Punjab 4.22 MAF
    Haryana 3.50 MAF
    Rajasthan 8.60 MAF
    Jammu and Kashmir 0.65 MAF
    Quantity earmarked for Delhi 0.20 MAF

    Table 1: 1981 Water-Sharing Agreement between Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan
    Compiled by author; Source of data: Gill S.S. (2016); Water Crisis in Haryana and Punjab. Economic and Political Weekly 51(50.

    According to the 1981 agreement, the SYL Canal had to be completed within two years from the date of signing the agreement. The canal would be utilised to determine the periodical share of water through the Bakhra Beas Management Board (formed under the Inter-state Water Dispute Act).

    The construction of the canal continued at a slow pace on Punjab side and stopped completely in 1990 after the assassination of the Chief Engineer, associated with the project (Ghuman, 2017). The Haryana Government moved the Supreme Court which in turn ordered Punjab Government to finish their obligations under the 1981 agreement within a year (State of Haryana v. State of Punjab , 2004). Instead, the Punjab government passed The Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004. The Act considered all agreements with relating to Ravi-Beas waters as deemed to have been discharged (Section 3, The Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2004). It also provided that Punjab government will be discharged from any obligations arising out of any Agreements, Acts, or order of the court in reference to these Agreements (Section 4, The Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2004).

    Haryana filed a case challenging the validity of the Act. Supreme Court in its order dated November 2016 declared the Act to be unconstitutional and imposed all obligations of the 1981 Agreement (In Re: Punjab Termination of Agreement Act, 2016). The government of Punjab is yet to comply with the order.

    Figure 1: Timeline Summary of the SYL Canal Dispute
  2. Haryana-Delhi dispute over water-sharing of Yamuna river
    The dispute between Haryana and Delhi has been with respect to the supply of drinking water to Delhi from Haryana. The statutory body responsible for ensuring equitable sharing of Yamuna between the two states is the Upper Yamuna river board constituted under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and ganga rejuvenation (Upper Yamuna River Board, 1994).However, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi recently moved the Supreme Court, claiming that Haryana was not supplying the National Capital with the required amount of water at its Okhla barrage. In the order dated May 2018, the Supreme Court observed that the two states have decided to amicably settle the matter through negotiations under the aegis of the upper Yamuna Board observing that the appropriate redressal mechanism was also through this statutory body only (Sureshwar Sinha v. Union of India, 2018).The discussion is ongoing. However, the state of Haryana has informed the Supreme Court that it will continue supplying the stipulated quota of drinking water to Delhi (PTI, 2018).

Impact of water disputes on Haryana

  1. Impact on irrigation
    Haryana is highly dependent on water, with over 70 percent of the state population being rural and dependent on agriculture. Gross sown area in 2016-17 was 8.83 million hectares out of which 86.11 percent was wholly irrigated, 7.97 percent was partially irrigated, and the remaining 3.28 percent was not irrigated (Department of Economic and Statistical Analysis, 2018). The largest irrigated area is under paddy and wheat cultivation (Department of Economic and Statistical Analysis, 2018). Both crops are highly water-intensive and require a constant supply of water. Lack of proper irrigation has negatively impacted –

    • Agricultural output of the past 30 years;
    • Water tables of the state as farmers had to rely more heavily on ground water to meet their irrigation demands.

    Resultantly, the dispute has not only affected the productivity of the state in the past few decades, and continues to have an impact on the sustainability of its water-tables in the decades to come, even if the canal were to become operational.

  2. Impact on household consumption of waterThe disruption in supply of water has negatively impacted not only income of the state but also the development of the state’s human resource due to lack of access to continuous water supply throughout the year. With reference to the household consumption of water, the average per capita supply of water in major cities varies from 70 to 155 litres per day (Government of Haryana, 2011). According to a more recent survey conducted in Mohabbatpur, Hisar, the average water consumption was around 117 per person per capita per day in 2017, indicating that western Haryana (as is often the case due to its proximity to arid Rajasthan) has a lower average water consumption (Singh & Turkiya, 2013). According to the Bureau of Indian Standards, 200 litres per capita per day (lpcd) should be provided in cities with flushing systems, whereas at least 135 lpcd should be provided in other areas (Modi, 1998). Despite this relatively low household water consumption in Haryana, most of its southern and western districts face a severe shortage of water every year, especially during the summer (Garewal, 2018). The dispute, therefore, has impacted the over-all development of the state’s population and is not limited to one sector.


Policymakers must ensure a constant uninterrupted supply of water and plan for the inevitable increase in its demand. The inability of the state to plan efficiently is clearly reflected in the falling groundwater levels of the state. In 1980, the estimated shortfall in meeting irrigation water demand of the state was over 60-million-acre foot (Gill, 2016). This led to intensive reliance on tube-wells and underground water in the region (Nehra, 2016). Resultantly, the water tables in the region have fallen considerably, while the extraction rate continues to be over 130 percent (Suhag, 2016). This over-reliance on groundwater could have been contained, had the state received its share of the Ravi-Beas rivers over thirty years ago.

The failure of the policymakers of Haryana to settle its dispute of over three decades with Punjab has, therefore, impacted not only the agricultural output of the state due to lack of irrigation facilities, but also threatened the sustainability of agriculture at large. The Supreme Court has supported the claim of the Haryana government largely on all issues pertaining to its dispute with Punjab. However, as the dispute drags on, the shortage of water and an increasing demand are exacerbating the magnitude of the problem.

Meanwhile, Haryana has also to fulfil its obligation to supply water to Delhi, especially considering the ballooning water demands of the capital. The courts, however, have emphasised the drinking water demands will be prioritised (Sureshwar Sinha v. Union of India, 2018). Meeting these demands will only worsen the water availability for the state.


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