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Unravelling Bhakra

Unravelling Bhakra SHRIPAD DHARMADHIKARY AVaidyanathan


Unravelling Bhakra


Vaidyanathan’s review of our study of the Bhakra project (‘Flawed Critique of Bhakra’, December 3, 2005) questions some of our basic findings on the grounds of “several serious flaws in the use of data and the methodology of estimation”. We feel that the arguments and figures presented by the reviewer do not establish the said serious flaws and hence, cannot make our findings “unconvincing” or “untenable”. We would like to engage with the review in the spirit of taking forward the debate and discussion.

Issues of Data

Vaidyanathan presents figures used by us and says that we have underestimated the surface water as also the recharged groundwater used in Punjab and Haryana, and hence overestimated the mined groundwater. This leads us to underestimate the contribution of the Bhakra project. He summarises figures used by us, reproduced here (Table 1) for ease of reference.

First of all, we may point out there are errors in the compilation by Vaidyanathan. The figure given for groundwater mining for Haryana has been wrongly taken as

13.3 billion cubic metres (BCM). This is actually the figure for total canal and recharged groundwater in Haryana. The correct figure should be 10.68 BCM. Secondly, the figures used by us for Punjab have been stated in million acre feet (MAF) and not in BCM. They have been used as such directly in the table compiled without converting them to BCM. (That is why the total of figures in that column do not match the given total). We correct the errors and present the table once again (Table 2).

Vaidyanathan says that “Based on official data, total utilisation in the Indus basin in the early 1990s is estimated at around 62-63 BCM consisting of 44 BCM from surface water and 18-19 BCM from groundwater.” He then says that while the figure of total utilisation given by us matches this, the source-wise break-up is grossly different. That is, the estimate of the Central Water Commission (reference not given) for surface waters utilised in the Indus basin in early 1990s was twice the figure given by us. Similarly, he says that the estimated utilisation of groundwater recharge cited by us is about half the latest Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) estimate of the annual recharge from rainfall and from canals in the two states (26 BCM). Thus, we tend to overestimate the mining of groundwater. This is the foundation of his argument that our data is flawed.

Consumptive Use vs Water Supply

However, here, he commits the error of trying to compare the non-comparable. For, the data presented by Vaidyanathan pertains to the Indus Basin as a whole (the Indian part) while we have presented calculations for the states of Punjab and Haryana. The two entities are farfrombeing coterminus. They are not even comparable.1 How can our data be flawed just because it differs from the figures for a geographically different region?

What is interesting is that Vaidyanathan realises that the two regions are geographically non-identical. He says, “The fact that the geographical coverage of the two estimates differ – the CWC estimates do not cover Indus waters used in Rajasthan, while Haryana estimates cover the entire state, and therefore cover areas under the western Jamuna canal – cannot explain a difference of this magnitude.” Yet, he does not give any reason as to why we should expect the figures to match in spite of the difference in geographical coverage.

It is also not clear to us why Vaidyanathan chose to use figures for Indus basin and not those for the two states to compare with our figures.

However, even if he had taken the figures of gross water supply in the states of Punjab and Haryana, it would still be improper to compare these with our figures. This is the second error that Vaidyanathan makes in assessing our data and method. He assumes that the figures we have used are for gross irrigation supply from various sources; actually, the figures we have used are not of gross supply but rather how much of the consumptive use of crops is being met from each source. We have also clearly stated this in our report with the figures. Hence it is wrong to compare figures used by us with the gross irrigation supply.

This error by the reviewer is also apparent in his comment that “the author attempts to validate the estimated contributions of surface and groundwater [our Method 2]…on the basis of the proportion of gross water utilisation contributed by canals, natural recharge, canal recharge and mining. This is simply and totally wrong. Productivity impact of different sources of irrigation does not depend on their contribution to gross utilisation, but on net consumptive use and its distribution between the surface water and the groundwater.” We would like to point out that it is precisely the latter that we have evaluated – we have used figures for contribution of each source to consumptive use by crops and not the gross utilisation.

These two errors explain why the various comments by the reviewer are not valid. For example, he states that “the author does not seem to be even aware of the huge divergence between his and the official estimates”. However, these “huge” differences are there only because Vaidyanathan is comparing non-comparables – our figures of consumptive use by crops in the two states with the gross water supply in the Indus basin.

Let us look at the figures for the two states of Punjab and Haryana in a little

Table 1: Table Given by VaidyanathanCompiling our Figures

Estimated Sources of irrigation Supplies in Punjab and Haryana

(Billion cubic metres)

Haryana* Punjab** Total

Canal supplies 6.5 14.2 20.5 Groundwater recharge 6.8 7.0 13.8 Groundwater mining 13.3 12.0 25.3 Total 26.6 42.0 69

Notes: * No mention of year to which the estimate relates on p 122 of the book. ** Figures reported relate to 1988-90 on p 121.

Table 2: Corrected Figures Used in

Unravelling Bhakra

Estimated Sources of irrigation Supplies in Punjab and Haryana

(Billion cubic metres)

Haryana* Punjab** Total

Canal supplies 6.5 17.276 23.78 Groundwater recharge 6.8 9.872 16.67 Groundwater mining 10.68 14.808 25.48 Total 23.98 41.96 65.94

Notes: * No mention of year to which the estimate relates on p 122 of the book. ** Figures reported relate to 1988-90 on p 121.

Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006 more detail. The total mean annual flow in the three “eastern” Indus basin rivers (Ravi, Beas, Sutlej – the three that are allotted to India as per the Indus Treaty) is around 32.7 MAF or 40.35 BCM at the rim stations [Gulhati 1973:432]. Out of this, 26.5 BCM is allotted to Punjab and Haryana. If we add to this the 5.7 BCM Jamuna waters allocated to Haryana [SinchaiPatrika, HIRMI, October 1998:9], the surface (canal) water in the two states comes to about 32.2 BCM. To this, one should add the waters available to Punjab from the unused share of Rajasthan (which was considerable in the early 1990s), the waters available in the rivers below the rim stations, the waters in the seasonal rivers, streams and torrents including the Ghagghar, the return flows, etc.

Figures used by us show that out of this, 24 BCM is used to meet the crop requirements. Most of the rest will be losses that go to recharge the groundwater and our calculations of groundwater recharge from non-rainfall sources corroborate this. Note also that the 32.2 BCM (plus other sources) is an average value, whereas our figure is for specific years.2 Clearly there is no contradiction between our figures and the official figures.

Groundwater Estimates

Coming to groundwater, according to Vaidyanathan “the estimated utilisation of groundwater recharge cited [by us] is about half the latest CGWB estimate of the annual recharge from rainfall and from canals in the two states (26 BCM) cited in the report of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development (NCIWRD), (1999).”

The CGWB figures according to Vaidyanathan say that 26 BCM recharge is available every year from rainfall and canal seepage.3However, these are figures for total replenishable recharge. As some of the groundwater is being used or reserved for municipal and other uses, the water actually available for irrigation is less than this. According to the CGWB, the utilisable groundwater for irrigation in the two states is 22.53 BCM [CGWB 1991].4 Figures we have used for recharged groundwater total to 17 BCM (and not 14 BCM as stated by Vaidyanathan.)5 Moreover, our figures are for specific years, as against the CGWB which are average figures. More important, the figures that we have used for Punjab are for recharged groundwater for irrigation net of recharge in saline areas, in areas like kandi where extraction is not possible. Thus, the assumptions behind the two estimates are quite different. Given this, it is difficult to say that figures used by us are erroneous simply because there is a difference between our and CGWB figures – the difference is not so much as stated in the review (that our estimates are half of CGWB figures) but is essentially due to differing measurement parameters.

But at least one part of the explanation is that the CGWB estimates are for the state as a whole. In the case of Haryana and also Punjab, the state is largely divided into two parts, one which is seeing mining of groundwater because of which water levels have been plummeting, and another where waterlogging has taken place and hence water levels are rising. So it is quite possible that there could be extensive water mining taking place in parts of the state even as overall the state may show that groundwater recharge has been more than total extraction. It is to avoid this problem that we chose to take the figures from other sources – as these figures were estimated by the sources used by us to specifically work out source-wise consumptive use of water by crops in the state.

We would also like to point out that the estimates of groundwater mining for Punjab we have used (about 15 BCM) is similar to the estimates provided by the Punjab Human Development Report (12.5 BCM) [Government of Punjab 2004] and the Johl Committee Report (12.4 BCM) [Government of Punjab 2002].

Thus, there is no contradiction in the figures used by us and the official data, nor any basis to question them, and in turn no reason to say that our conclusions are untenable or unconvincing. The review does not establish in any way that data used by us is flawed.

Issues of Methodology

Some important methodological issues are also raised by Vaidyanathan and we respond to these as follows.

  • (i) Vaidyanathan says that a proper assessment of impact of irrigation should cover all crops and our focus on wheat and rice is limiting. However, we beg to point out that our stated, main focus was foodgrain production and hence the focus on wheat-ricepulses. For recent years, wheat-rice make up about 78 per cent of gross cropped area in Punjab and foodgrains form about 76 per cent of the gross cropped area in Haryana, 57 per cent coming from wheat-rice.
  • (ii) Vaidyanathan also points out several problems of estimating contribution of surface and groundwater to individual crops. These include the need to know the
  • differences in yield of various crops under rainfed, canal and groundwater irrigated conditions, the changes in these over the years and the gross areas irrigated by source (official statistics give only net areas irrigated by surface and groundwater). We have been well aware of these issues and have made several reasonable assumptions and methodological adjustments in trying to get around. These have been clearly spelt out in our report, and we believe that these are a part of every such exercise that attempts estimates related to complex phenomenon. In dealing with the lack of data on gross areas irrigated source-wise, we have taken these to be pro rata to the net areas irrigated. We have not worked with individual crops but rather at the aggregated level of total production. We should also point out that we did not estimate the contribution of the project taken together for all the years that it has been in operation. The data for that is simply not available. What we did is to estimate the contribution to food production of various sources (canal, groundwater, mined groundwater) for a specific year. This quantitative estimate, combined with trends in the development of these sources can give us a fair – if even qualitative – idea of the contribution over the years. Hence, we were not required to directly use in calculations the changing yields over the years. Certainly, all these have implications for the exactness of the estimates, which we have acknowledged in the report.

    (iii) We are not only aware of the limitations of the data and methodology, but have clearly laid these out in detail in our report (p 119) while also cautioning that our conclusions “should not be used as precise numbers; they are more in the nature of broad indicative estimates” (p 125).

    (iv) An important point made is that “there is reason to believe that yields will be higher under groundwater irrigation but there are no reliable measurements of actual differences”. It is true that there are only limited measurements of this. This is indeed a pitiable situation – that such an important parameter, that has such huge implications for understanding what the real contributions of surface and ground sources are, remains to be properly assessed. This is part and parcel of the irrigation bureaucracy’s preferred way of working which allows claims to be made without proper basis. What we have done is to take the estimate that is available (for the difference between canal and groundwater irrigated crop yields). However, as we found only one reference for this for Haryana and Punjab, we also worked out the relative

    Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

    contributions using a separate method (our Method 2) that does not consider the difference in yields of crops irrigated by these two sources. Such a method will necessarily be biased towards surface irrigation; however we found that it also indicated limited contribution of theBhakra project to foodgrain production.

  • (v) We have already pointed out earlier that the criticism of our second method by the review is incorrect.
  • (vi) The issue is whether these limitations of data and methodology vitiate the estimates to a degree that renders them invalid. We have given considerable attention to this issue, have exercised due caution in making assumptions, have crosschecked data from several sources, used alternative methods of estimation and finally have also tried to match our findings with other indicators. While all this is too detailed to elaborate here, and the interested reader is urged to look up our report, this exercise has made us quite confident of the robustness of our findings. Part of the issues related to data and methodology have been already covered in our detailed response to the review above.
  • A Political Issue

    However, the issue of contribution of the Bhakra project is not just a technical issue – it is also very much a political issue. The Bhakra project has been accorded overwhelming credit for rescuing India from hunger and famine and for ensuring foodgrain self-sufficiency. The prosperity of Punjab, the huge production of foodgrains in Punjab and Haryana that provides support to the rest of the country, have all been repeatedly cited as testimony to great benefits of the Bhakra project. Based on all this, the Bhakra project is often used to justify more such large dam projects in the country. However, we were appalled to find that there were no estimates of the actual contribution of the project.

    How have all these claims been made for Bhakra without any estimate of the project’s contribution? How come agencies responsible for decision-making in our country are using Bhakra as a justification for specific policy choices, and yet have not produced any set of estimates for its contribution? These are very important political questions. Often, the very absence of such estimates is a significant political statement. (Just as the very fact that we do not know how many people have been displaced by large dams in the country is as important a political statement as the actual numbers of displaced themselves).

    Our estimates are probably the first ever estimates of the contribution of a project that has been lauded. We are the first to say that our figures are first cut figures, and that they can be made more precise with better data and more inputs, and we do look forward to that happening.

    If one is to accept what a part of the review by Vaidyanathan implies, that the data limitations are too severe to allow us to make any estimates about the relative contribution of different sources and projects – then do we say that we are not in a position to make any claims? If this is really so, the only correct statement we can make is that we do not know (and cannot know) what is the contribution of various sources. (A metaphor of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle may be appropriate?) How can then we push for particular policy choices?

    We however look at the issue differently. We believe that even with the limitations of the data, there was enough information to do at least first cut of estimations. Certainly, with much additional research (requiring large resources that are at the command of only official agencies or large institutions), the quality of data and the estimates can be bettered.

    Our study of the Bhakra project has been driven by the assumption that policy choices need to be informed choices. This means we need to know the real costs and contributions of past policies and projects. This reality is often hidden when a project is turned into an icon. We have tried to unmask this in the case of Bhakra. In a way, we have just kick-started the process, albeit with some reasonable, robust estimates.

    Along with estimating the contribution of the project, we have also tried to look at the various social and environmental costs of the projects – which we have found to be huge. We do know why Vaidyanathan says that “But it is quite wrong to attribute all or most of them as the direct and inherent consequences of Bhakra or of large dams generally.” We have attributed to the dam and project what is due to them – e g, displacement, or drying up of the river downstream, waterlogging and salinisation in the command, etc – and all are analysed in a detailed and nuanced manner.

    Indeed, our 370-page report brings out a number of issues – that the TINA factor (There is No Alternative) to large dams is a myth; that historically, the country has always had a number of options – including but not limited to large dams – to meet its food production and food security goals; that many of these options have played an important role; that the ultimate choice of a specific approach – the large centralised systems, with concentration in specific areas – has had a huge impact in terms of lack of employment and purchasing power for millions of people, leading to lack of access to food; that the supposedly advanced agricultural systems of Punjab and Haryana are in a crisis; that the systems have become highly vulnerable to possible ecological and economic shocks, and so on. All these explorations form the context in which the detailed analysis of the benefits and social and environmental impacts of the Bhakra project have been placed. To infer that we attribute all these problems to the dam is an incorrect reading of our report.

    We appreciate the point made in the review that a study of the water use and management in the Indus basin and the Bhakra project would have been useful; however, that was not the mandate we set ourselves.




    1 The Indus Basin in India includes parts of J andK, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, apart fromPunjab and parts of Haryana. Thus, large partof Indus basin in India is outside the two states of Punjab and Haryana. On the other hand,parts of Haryana are outside the Indus basin.Moreover, significant quantities of the Indusbasin waters are used in Rajasthan.

    2 In fact, our Haryana and Punjab figures are fordifferent years, so totalling them is also incorrect,but we will allow this small error.

    3 Actually, we find that according to NCIWRD,these figures are for the Indus basin. The CGWBfigures for the states of Punjab and Haryanacited in the NCIWRD are 27.19 BCM.

    4 Figures are mentioned as being “Provisionaland Tentative”. Later documents show that the final figures are not much different. (for e g,see ministry of water resources web site at

    5 See footnote 2 above.


    CGWB (1991): ‘Bhu-Jal News, Special Issue onGround Water Statistics, January-March, 1991’,Quarterly Journal of Central Ground WaterBoard, Ministry of Water Resource, Government of India.

    Government of Punjab (2002): ‘AgriculturalProduction Pattern Adjustment Programme inPunjab for Productivity and Growth (Reportof the Johl Committee)’, A Report by ChiefMinister’s Advisory Committee on AgriculturePolicy and Restructuring, Submitted to theGovernment of Punjab, October 2002.Available from Punjab Agro IndustriesCorporation, Chandigadh.

    – (2004): ‘Economy and Livelihood’ in PunjabHuman Development Report 2004, UNDP website, Accessed on December 9, 2004.

    Gulhati, Niranjan D (1973): Indus Waters Treaty:An Exercise in International Mediation, Allied Publishers, Bombay.

    HIRMI (1998): Sinchai Patrika, Vol 1, No 1, October 1998, Haryana Irrigation and ResearchManagement Institute, Kurukshetra.

    Economic and Political Weekly January 21, 2006

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