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Why the road to finish UP’s Saryu canal project went via jail, Dubai & a messy marriage

PM Modi inaugurated 6,623-km long Saryu canal project this month. The delayed project was first conceptualised in 1978. This is the story of UP govt's push since 2017 to get it going.

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Bahraich/Shravasti/Balrampur/Basti: Moving a registry office to a jail for just a day to allow a convicted murderer to register land. Finding a landowner in Dubai and buying him return tickets to visit India. Counselling a couple going through a messy divorce to give up a jointly-owned piece of land.

Outlandish as it sounds, these are very much the lived experiences of officials negotiating land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh for the Saryu canal irrigation project, which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 11 December.

Much has been written about the 6,623-km-long project, on which work began in 1978: How one of Uttar Pradesh’s largest irrigation projects will bring prosperity to farmers in the Purvanchal (eastern) region, how the farmers had to wait for as long as 40 years to get benefit from the project, and how its cost escalated to Rs 9,802 crore from Rs 78 crore because of the delay, etc.

There is one aspect, however, which has largely been missing from the narrative — what it took to complete the infrastructure project.

More specifically, what it took the engineers of the UP irrigation department, district and state administration officials, village elderly and political influencers, to resolve complex land issues that had held up the project all these years. 

“This project is a testimony to the fact that completing a project of this scale in India does not require mere engineering interventions,” V.K. Niranjan, engineer-in-chief and head of the UP irrigation department, told ThePrint in Lucknow.

“No engineering college had taught civil engineers working on the project the complex negotiation skills required to execute it. It involved a mix of social and human touch, building trust and convincing people to give their land that came in the way of the canal.”

V.K. Niranjan, engineer-in-chief and head of department, irrigation department, Uttar Pradesh, at his office in Lucknow. | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint
V.K. Niranjan, engineer-in-chief and head of department, irrigation department, Uttar Pradesh, at his office in Lucknow | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Niranjan said the project was stalled after 50 per cent of it was completed, owing to land acquisition issues.

“Despite the fact that 50 per cent work was done (until 2017), it was of no use as many stretches in between were not connected to the canal network. It was like a white elephant. There were some 1,300 extremely complex land issues in this project that nobody bothered to sort,” he added. 

A total of 25,021 hectares of land was acquired in 6,200 villages for the entire project.

In 2017, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the UP assembly elections and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government took charge, it was decided to take up the project again on priority and finish it. The irrigation department went over each of the 1,300 complex land acquisition cases that had held up the work so far.

The Saryu canal project involved interlinking five rivers of eastern Uttar Pradesh — Ghagra, Saryu, Rapti, Banganga and Rohin — through a network of canals to irrigate 1.4 lakh hectares of land in 6,200 villages. The project starts in Bahraich and ends in Gorakhpur, nearly 250 km away. Approximately 29 lakh farmers are expected to benefit from the canal.

Of the 28 districts of eastern UP, the Saryu canal passes through nine — Bahraich, Shravasti, Balrampur, Siddharthnagar, Basti, Gonda, Sant Kabir Nagar, Maharajganj and Gorakhpur.

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From jail to kabristan, and from Dubai to Basti

Speaking to ThePrint, Niranjan recalled an incident in Basti where a small piece of plot measuring 0.113 hectares, owned by a convicted murderer who was serving a life term, fell on the canal’s path.

“Our team was stuck. The owner of the plot, Hansraj Chauhan, was convicted in a murder case and serving life term in Basti jail. We went to the jail and convinced him to give his land for the canal project,” Niranjan said. “The compensation of Rs 10.51 lakh was four times the prevailing circle rate of the land, as per the new land acquisition law (2013).” 

Hansraj agreed to sell. But there was a practical issue — how do you take a convicted felon out of jail to get the land registered? 

“We met the Basti DM (district magistrate) and the registrar of land and requested them to shift their office to the jail for a day so that the owner can get the land registered. It was just a small land parcel but it was important as it came on the way of the canal,” Niranjan said.

In another case, a landowner had moved to Dubai. “When we got in touch with his family, they were reluctant to give his phone number. We visited his family’s house almost every week and told them about the project and its benefits. They finally gave his number,” said Ajay Kumar, executive engineer in-charge of the project in Shravasti.

But this wasn’t the end of it. When officials from the department called and asked the owner to come to India for a few days to complete the formalities, “the guy kept dilly-dallying for close to a year”. “Finally, we provided him with a round ticket to India. And he landed,” Kumar said.

Ajay Kumar, executive engineer in-charge of the project in Shravasti. | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint
Ajay Kumar, executive engineer in-charge of the project in Shravasti | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Niranjan said his team of engineers came up with out-of-the-box solutions to deal with tricky issues that were difficult to resolve otherwise.

“Our team used to go to villages to survey the land. If the owner lived outside, they would find out his religion. In case he were a Hindu, our team would visit his home again during Holi or Diwali to check if he had returned. If he were a Muslim, they would go during Eid,” he added.

The engineers succeeded in getting hold of many such “missing” landowners, and in convincing them to sell their land to the irrigation department.

There was another complex land piece in Basti, of about 0.117 hectares, which was earmarked for a kabristan (burial ground for Muslims). Soon after the project was restarted in 2017, officials of the irrigation department tried speaking to the maulvis in the village but the latter did not agree to shift the burial ground.

“It was a sensitive matter and nobody had touched the case in all these years fearing backlash,” said Santosh Kumar, executive engineer, who is in-charge of the project in Balrampur district. 

Kumar said that the irrigation department first requested the owner of the adjacent plot, who is a Hindu, to sell his land to the department. Officials from the engineering team then convinced the maulvis to take the adjacent land for the kabristan and give their original plot for the Saryu canal. “They agreed. It took the department close to three years to resolve the matter,” Santosh Kumar said.

In another case in Basti, a piece of land that came on the canal’s path was under litigation for over 20 years.

“There was a dispute related to the boundary map and the file had disappeared. We made round of DM’s office innumerable times. With help from the DM’s office, we managed to trace the file and settled the dispute before buying the plot from the owner,” Santosh Kumar said.

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Engineers turned counsellors

But the irrigation department officials didn’t just hone their negotiation skills in their long ordeal. They turned relationship counselors too.

In Siddharthnagar, one of the plots that fell in the canal’s path was jointly owned by a moneyed landlord and his wife, who were going through a messy divorce. 

“There was so much animosity that no one was willing to give up his/her stake on the land. Our engineers had a harrowing time initially. But they decided to be patient listeners,” said Niranjan. “Our team used to talk to the couple separately, sympathetically listened to whatever issues each had against the other and counselled them. Slowly they managed to win their trust.”

It was a happy ending, at least for the team of officials as the couple agreed to sell their land.

Executive engineer Santosh Kumar, a civil engineer, who is a postgraduate from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi, said the project has taught him many valuable lessons that IITs can’t teach.

“I was posted in Balrampur in 2016 and made in-charge of the stretch falling in the district. Back then, I was not very confident of my social skills. I only knew to draw lines. But today, I am confident of my negotiation skills,” he said.

The Rapti link canal, which is part of the Saryu canal project. | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint
The Rapti link canal, which is part of the Saryu canal project | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Project origins and details

The Uttar Pradesh irrigation department officials devoted all this energy and effort to a project that was first conceptualised in the early 1970s. The original idea was to build a canal on the left bank of the Ghagra river and connect it to the Saryu to help irrigate 3.12 lakh hectares of farm land in Gonda and Bahraich districts.

When work started in 1978 on the Left Bank Ghagra Canal, the cost estimate was Rs 78 crore. 

Around four years later, it was decided to extend the project to nine districts of eastern UP — Bahraich, Shravasti, Balrampur, Siddharthnagar, Basti, Gonda, Sant Kabir Nagar, Maharajganj and Gorakhpur — by interlinking the five rivers flowing through the region. 


Ghagra, Saryu, Rapti, Banganga and Rohin are all Himalayan rivers and originate from Nepal.

Ghagra is eastern UP’s biggest river and flows perennially. According to officials in the irrigation department, the discharge from Ghagra during the monsoon is more than that from the Ganga.

“The British used to call it the mighty Ghagra. The other four rivers are smaller in scale. Ghagra is the major source of water that feeds the other rivers and the canal system,” said Niranjan.

The irrigation potential was extended in 1982 to cover 14.04 lakh hectares of farm land and the project cost was revised to Rs 299 crore. It now involved connecting the rivers through a network of link canals and then developing the main canal.

Over a period of decades, as the project kept getting delayed, the cost kept getting revised upwards, eventually landing at nearly Rs 10,000 crore. It is a national project, which means that the Centre bears the entire cost.

Sugarcane is one of the prime crops in eastern UP, especially in districts like Balrampur, Gonda and  Siddharthnagar. Rice, wheat and mustard are also some of the common crops grown in the region, which contributes about 30 per cent of UP’s total food grain production.

But erratic monsoon has affected farmers’ produce, especially small farmers.

Before the Saryu canal became operational, farmers lifted water through borewells to farm their land. “Some of them were also irrigating their land through the Gandak river system. Some dams were constructed in Balrampur and Siddharthnagar. But it still left a lot of parts uncovered,” said Niranjan.

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Reasons behind delay

According to officials of the UP irrigation department, land acquisition was a crucial factor behind the massive delay. 

The project involved acquiring 25,000 hectares in 6,200 villages. Land acquisition for the project was started in 1978 but finally completed only in June this year. The project, however, didn’t involve rehabilitation as no village was shifted.

Delay in disbursement of funds is cited as another factor. “Earlier, there was erratic disbursement of budget. Lack of funds badly affected work. The project had become very unwieldy and there were far too many complications. Nobody wanted to touch it as it was perceived to be a project of the previous government,” said a senior official of the irrigation department, who didn’t wish to be named. 

Niranjan, who was in-charge of the Saryu canal irrigation project back in 2017, agreed.

“It’s difficult to restart work. The momentum got affected. Mistrust grew between the contractors and irrigation department because of non-disbursement of funds. By the time work restarted at the end of 2017, many of the smaller contractors had moved out their machinery from the project site,” he said.

A team from the irrigation department then personally visited camp after camp to request the contractors and the workers not to leave.

“We promised to facilitate whatever they needed to restart work. It was a hopeless situation. It took us 7-8 months to bring them on track and restart work,” Niranjan added.

From 2017 onwards, there was a steady flow of budget. “It kept the momentum going,” he said.

Irrigation department officials said that regular monitoring of work in the last four years helped in expediting the project. “If an issue could not be resolved at our level, it was escalated to the level of DM, principal secretary (irrigation) and the CM himself. The CM (Adityanath) wrote several letters to central agencies like NHAI and railways to get clearances fast-tracked,” said Ajay Kumar.

By early 2018, it became obvious that the project was not going to remain a dream.

“Initially, when we went to acquire land, the farmers were very hostile. They accused us of taking land earlier for building a canal, which they never saw. But slowly as work picked up momentum, the hostility gave way to hope again,” Ajay Kumar said.

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How is it impacting farmers’ lives

The farmers who have land in these nine districts have already started celebrating the completion of the project. Though 50 per cent of the canal was reportedly ready before 2017, the gaps in between meant that the farmers weren’t able to get water to irrigate their farms.

This won’t be the case now. With water flowing to the tail end of the canal, farmers have already started using pumpsets in many stretches to take water to their nearby fields.

ThePrint came across many farmers in the villages of Shravasti, Balrampur and Siddharthnagar where water from the main canal is yet to reach the minor canals for irrigation, but these farmers are not willing to wait.

Last week, when ThePrint visited, many of them were pumping water to their fields from the main canal system.

Atal Behari, 55, who owns a five-acre plot in Motipur village, Balrampur, said he had given up all hope of pumping his fields from the Rapti canal, which is part of the Saryu canal project.

The groundwater in the area is depleting, he added. “I had to pump out water from 200-250 feet but even then it was not enough. It was becoming a daily hassle. The quality of sugarcane in my field had deteriorated and the quantity of produce too had reduced,” said Behari, who grows rice and sugarcane. “I could not believe my eyes when water started flowing in the canal on 14 December,” he added.

Although the canal was inaugurated on 11 December, it took three days to reach the tail end.

Atal Behari with his son, Saroj Kumar, near the canal in Balrampur district. | Photo: Praveen Jain/ThePrint
Atal Behari with his son, Saroj Kumar, near the canal in Balrampur district | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Sixty-year-old Jhingur Yadav has a similar story. A resident of Sugao village in Balrampur, Yadav owns a little over an acre of land (three bighas) and grows sugarcane, rice and mustard.

“I have a small field. But the difficulty in irrigating the field had forced me to reduce the cultivated area. But now, I can cultivate the entire field,” he said. 

Yadav is now waiting for the irrigation department to make the minor canal near his field operational so that he does not have to take his pumpset far.

Questions over water consumption for irrigation

In India, the agriculture sector accounts for 80-90 per cent of the total water consumption. Of this, 80 per cent water is consumed by just three crops — rice, wheat and sugarcane. 

The draft National Water Policy (NWP) 2020, which has not been made public yet, has flagged the overwhelming focus on growing such water-intensive crops.

Noted water policy expert Mihir Shah, who headed the 11-member high-level committee that drafted the NWP 2020, had told ThePrint in an interview in October that the focus on just wheat and rice has played a key role in aggravating India’s water crisis.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

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