About Bhakra Nangal, Why its Water might be used for Votes

  • Why was Bhakra Dam made? How does it operate? What is its importance?
  • It is o/s example of inter-state co-operation. Hope its water is not used to get votes.

According to an April 2022 report in The Tribune, “AAP Rajya Sabha MP and state convener Sushil Gupta claimed that AAP would form the government in 2024 in Haryana and would provide water to each and every field of the state in 2025.” Caught on the wrong foot in promising to provide water to Haryana through the Sutlej Yamuna Canal, Punjab Finance Minister Cheema said on April 20 Punjab has the sole right over its waters. "Not a single drop of water would be allowed to flow out.” 


Water has always been an emotive issue in Punjab. With AAP coming to power in Punjab, seeking to win Himachal and making promises of water supply to come to power in Haryana, it is time to jog our memory about Bhakra Nangal (being the source of water), its importance and implications.


Why was Bhakra Dam made? How is it managed?

The idea of tapping the waters of river Sutlej were first mooted around 1908. For certain reasons it did not progress. The project was signed by then Punjab Revenue Minister with the king of Bilaspur and was finalised in early 1945. Since about 80% of irrigated area went to Pakistan it left India with meagre irrigation resources. Thus, construction of Bhakra Nangal Project assumed urgency. It was required for power, irrigation and flood control.


Bhakra Dam (built on Sutlej River) has its genesis in the 1960 Indus Water Treaty where waters of Ravi, Sutlej and Beas were allotted to India for exclusive use. The project took fifteen years and was completed in 1963 at a cost of Rs 235 crore. The Nangal dam is on Sutlej river at Nangal i.e. 13 kms below the Bhakra dam. Bhakra project was a joint venture between Punjab (undivided) and Rajasthan. Cost was shared proportionately based on benefits expected.

Board Bhakra Dam site. 2014.

The Gobind Sagar Reservoir is part of Bhakra Nangal project. It extends over a length of 96.56 kms with a surface area of 168.35 sq kms and a storage capacity of 9621 cubic metres.

View of Gobind Sagar from Naina Devi Mandir, Himachal.

Initially this project was about Sutlej. Later on its scope increased. River Beas (starts from a kund in Rohtang, Himachal) was tapped through Beas project and Ravi through Thein Dam. Through a network of canals water is provided, across states, for irrigation.


Beas Unit 1 is when water is diverted from Beas at Pandoh into river Sutlej over a 1000 feet drop. At this point is Dehar Power House. Unit 2 of the Beas Project is the Pong Dam before it enters the plains at Talwara. Note Rajasthan gets maximum water from Pong Dam (Kangra district of Himachal) on river Beas.


Bhakra Dam is in Himachal and Nangal in Punjab.  The Pong Dam is located on river Beas in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. The Ranjit Sagar Dam is located over river Ravi near village Thein in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir and is the result of a 1979 agreement between Himachal, Punjab and J&K.

Ranjit Sagar Dam. 2014. 

BBMB has an installed capacity of 2918.73 MW. Power is generated at a very low cost as the generating system is operated with the ‘harnessed force of power’.


Due to the Punjab Reorganization 1966, operation, maintenance and management of Bhakra Nangal was handed over to the Bhakra Management Board in 1967. When Beas River Projects were added to it in 1976 it was renamed as Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB). Water and power allocated to undivided Punjab was partially shared with Haryana on a pre-determined basis.


Since then BBMB manages Bhakra dam, Dehar hydroelectricity project, Pong dam, Ganguwal and Kotla power station. It generates, regulates and supplies power generated from Bhakra Nangal and Beas Projects and regulates the supply of water to Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chandigarh. There are written agreements on the shares of each state. Salaries and Operating costs are shared between states on percentage of benefit received by each of the three states. 


BBMB is run by a board. It has three full-time members i.e. Chairman who is nominated by the Centre, Member Irrigation by the Punjab government and Member Power by the Haryana government (last two per precedent). Two directors are nominated by the Centre, one of whom is Commissioner Indus. Four additional members, one each is nominated by Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Rajasthan.

Canal near Anandpur Sahib that receives water from Bhakra Nangal.

Why are Bhakra Nangal and BBMB important to North India?

One, it regulates the supply of power and water to four states of North India and national capital of Delhi with Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan being the biggest beneficiaries. 

Two, its water irrigates lakhs of acres in Punjab and Haryana. 

Three, it is responsible for flood control in the region. 


If emotions are raised people may take law into their own hands. In 1988 Major General B.N. Kumar, then head of the Bhakra Beas Management Board, was killed for allegedly causing flooding of Punjab.


Four, BBMB is a key supplier of electricity to the Northern Grid. 


If politics or mismanagement reduce power supply it could lead to power cuts in North India. 

Indira Gandhi Canal near Bikaner. Gates control water flow. 2013.

Five, Beas river water goes to many parts of Rajasthan for e.g. Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Sriganganagar.  


Any attempt to play politics with supply of water could cause social unrest.


Returning to the issue of one party ruling the states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal. The Congress has done so in the past but with due respects and no offence meant, the Aam Aadmi Party is a disruptor and could raise emotions, take matters to Court if Delhi is a precedent. This author believes that seeking to change status-quo is good but it has to be done without arousing emotions.


Also read Who should control bureaucrats in Delhi, SC refers matter to a Constitutional Bench


For votes old issues may be raised or tell how a state was discriminated against for e.g.  finance minister Cheema said, “Speaking about the issue of SYL canal, Cheema said the first discrimination against Punjab was done in 1955 when a larger share of Ravi-Beas waters were allocated to non-riparian states by the then Congress government.” Source 


Another e.g. When the Centre announced the implementation of Central Service Rules for Chandigarh UT employees (not getting into right or wrong), the state government raised the unrelated issue of transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab raising emotions in both Punjab and Haryana.


Once emotions are aroused, protests will be organised like what we saw in Delhi in 2021. Recall the 1988 killing of Maj Gen Kumar to know what can happen when things go out of control. 


Also, terms of decade old agreements between states, that have stood the test of time, could be re-opened by complaining of discrimination. Matter would eventually land up in the Supreme Court! Since emotions are raised the affected government might not implement a Supreme Court order just like its earlier order on the Sutlej-Yamuna canal remains on paper.


We must realize that the region is seeing peace after a long spell of terrorism in the 1980-1990s. Raising emotive issues can create conflict which might spin out of control. Greed for power was one of the reasons for the violence of the 1980’s.


On management of the BBM, if 5 out of 9 members of its board are nominated by a party i.e. politically opposed to the Centre, it could adversely affect working of BBMB and allocation of power/water to states. A differing view is that the Chairman’s (appointed by the Centre) decision is final.


We must be aware that the Khalistan map released by a U.S. based organization includes Himachal and Haryana. They want control over water and power.


If a party perceived as sympathetic to Khalistan assumes power in three states its consequences might be a cause for worry. Note that Harpeet Singh Bedi, formerly associated with AAP, favoured the demand for Khalistan according to this India Today report. Subsequently, his twitter account was deleted. 

Also read Khalistan flags hoisted by Himachal Assembly gate in Dharamshala 

It can be argued that Haryana was a part of Punjab. Using the same logic North West Frontier Province was part of Punjab till 1901. Also since 1957, Akalis started to demand a state where Punjabi, in Gurumukhi script, would be the state language (linguistic states was the norm then).

The purpose of flagging this issue today is for all to be aware of the possible problems that lie ahead if the working of Bhakra Dam is tampered with for votes.  Leave this o/s example of inter-state cooperation alone.

All pictures by author.  


1. Why rule change in BBMB has become a flashpoint between Centre and Punjab

2. BBMB site

3. Education Today

4. Saral Study on Bhakra Nangal

5. Central Water Commission

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