Is a reported spike in corpse sightings at a sluice gate along the Bhakra main line canal linked to rising agrarian distress in the Malwa region? The jury is still out, and the State government refuses to wade into it

If anything perfectly captures the cradle of the country’s Green Revolution and its extensive network of canal-fed irrigation, it is the blue-green waters of the Sutlej flowing through the Bhakra main line canal. The 164-km channel, with a carrying capacity of 12,455 cusecs and built between 1950 and 1954, supplies water to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Just where it branches off into Rajasthan and Haryana, however, the scenes at a sluice gate convey what many think is the underside of the success story — the rise in rural distress. Over a dozen people are craning their necks for a better view of the gushing water. They are looking for their missing kin here.

The sluice gate in Khanauri-Kalan village in Sangrur, and the siphon in Padarth Khera village in adjoining Haryana, are where a number of bodies are getting washed up. The sight of dogs dragging away the mutilated bodies and feeding on them is not uncommon.

“My elder brother Balwinder Singh is missing… We found his clothes near the canal in Sirhind and immediately rushed to Khanauri in search of him,” says Paramjit Singh from Khanna-Khurd village in Ludhiana, sitting in a small shed overlooking the canal near the sluice gate, which has ‘missing’ posters pasted all over. “He was the breadwinner of the family… for the past few months he was in some sort of tension, but he never shared it with us. Our livelihood is based on farming, but the returns have been falling,” adds Mr. Paramjit, who has been in Khanauri for more than five days with a friend.

In search of bodies

People come to Khanauri from Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Patiala and Sangrur, the districts through which the canal passes. With the government not doing its bit, the local Sahara Charitable Trust has built a rest house for visiting families and local gurdwaras provide them food. There’s not even a mortuary here, a long-standing demand of both locals and visiting family members.

In absence of any proper institutionalised mechanism to retrieve corpses, private divers — operating without proper kits and charging anywhere between Rs.5,000 and Rs.15,000 — are the only hope for families. “There’s not a single day when I don’t see another corpse in this canal. In fact, in the past two-three months I have been sighting two-three human bodies daily,” says Ashu Malik, a Khanauri-based diver who has been recovering bodies for over 25 years. “Besides, many bodies go unnoticed because they are submerged or they pass the barrage at night.”

In 2012 the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the State government to install underwater cameras in the Bhakra canal above the Khanauri Headworks to spot bodies, but the cameras are yet to be installed. However, the Sahara trust has helped erect around 20 floodlights and 13 CCTV cameras at the gate and main canal for better sighting.

Looking the other way

The police station is hardly a few hundred metres away from the canal’s sluice gate, but the men in khaki are reluctant to retrieve these bodies due to long-drawn procedures and legal tangles in case of unidentified bodies, say locals, and also because the onus is then on them for cremating the dead, lodging a report and settling jurisdiction. Kuldeep Singh, sarpanch of Khanauri-Khurd village, claims that although the police adopt due process for the bodies that are claimed or identified, many unidentified bodies are either not fished out or are thrown back into the canal. “The police let many corpses float away into Rajasthan and Haryana,” he alleges.

The police rubbish the allegations. “Whenever a body is sighted necessary action is taken by the police,” insists Senior Superintendent of Police, Sangrur, Pritpal Singh. “Even underwater cameras were installed, but they were damaged by stones and mud that come with the flow of water,” he adds. “We maintain a record. Between April 2015 and March 2016 we have recovered 29 bodies… there’s no truth to two-three sightings a day,” says Baljeet Singh, the Khanauri Station House Officer. He, however, concedes that there is always a chance that bodies which are not sighted could cross the barrage and flow downstream. “We’ve had a police post near the canal since 2014, and just few months back we’ve posted four policemen for round-the clock vigil and to assist families of victims,” he added. It’s another matter that no policeman was seen manning the ‘post’ for almost four hours.

The spike in corpse sightings during the past two-three months has raised concern among local NGOs, human right activists and agriculture experts, who link it to agrarian distress along the stretch of canal in the Malwa region, the epicentre of farmer suicides in the State.

Also read: ‘Punjab overstayed in agriculture’

Rural suicides

A survey by the Baba Nanak Educational Society, a Sangrur-based NGO that runs a rescue-and-revival project for families of suicide victims, revealed that the Lehra, Andana, Sunam blocks (Sangrur), Patran block (Patiala), Budhlada block (Mansa) and four villages in neighbouring Haryana have witnessed as many as 2,342 rural suicides from the late 1990s to 2015. “A majority of these suicides were of farmers and farm labourers who had taken loans from moneylenders. In many cases multiple suicides have taken place in the same family,” says Surjit Singh, field officer of the NGO.

Surveys jointly conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, Punjabi University, Patiala and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar for the period 2000-2010 show that more than 7,000 farmers and agricultural labourers committed suicide in the State due to agrarian distress and indebtedness. The surveys also revealed that nearly 34 per cent of the victims chose canals to commit suicide. A PAU report on the two districts worst hit, Sangrur and Bathinda, had put the farmer suicide figure at 1,757 between 2000 and 2008. Senior PAU economist Sukhpal Singh, who authored the report, says 1,288 (73.3 per cent) farmers committed suicide primarily due to indebtedness.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee, a human rights activist and the convener of Movement Against State Repression, has even taken up the issue of floating unidentified bodies with the National Human Rights Commission, following which on March 13, the NHRC directed the Punjab government to file a report on the issue.

“Local villagers and private divers have been sighting 30-45 bodies on average every month, but now this number is rising, which should not be ignored. Recovery of all bodies from the canal is important not only as a humanitarian step, but will also help give a clearer picture of all deaths by unnatural causes in Punjab,” says Mr. Jaijee. “The bodies ought to be disposed of in a dignified manner. The insensitivity of those at the helm of affairs reflects their mindset about the problems faced by the people,” says Lakhwinder Singh, professor of economics at the Punjabi University.

Even if one were to dispute the numbers at the Khanauri barrage, the fact is that Bhakra main line canal comprises only 159 km of Punjab’s 14,500-km-long canal system. If so many sightings were reported from just the Bhakra, it’s anybody’s guess what the number of bodies floating down all canals in Punjab might be.