530. The Man in Blue – Panj Ab = Five Waters

I wrote this article after hearing a lecture at the KU (Catholic University) of Leuven, Belgium, by Christophe Masson, India Desk Officer at the European Commission. He mentioned a water related project in Rajastan, which made me think of the Indira Gandhi Canal, and from there of the ever lower groundwater level in Panjab. Man in Blue

The historical Panjab, from the river Indus in the west to the river Yamuna in the east, was called the Panj-Áb, the five waters after the five rivers that flow from the Himalayas to the Indus.

Panjab is not as dry as Rajasthan, but without the five rivers most of its territory would be a dry steppe, fit for grazing but no good for arable land.

Since the green revolution the standard crop pattern in the Indian Panjab and in Haryana is wheat – rice. Wheat is the early crop and after its harvest most of the arable land is converted to paddy fields. Panjab became the rice provider of India.

Due to the paddy fields the farmers were using more water than the rivers could supply and they started to pump-up ground water to irrigate their fields. This costs money, as hand pumps are not adequate for the job. The Panjab state government decided to supply the farmers with free electricity for their tube-wells.

As the state government has the habit of either not paying or late paying the state electricity provider, one semi-state company has already given up the ghost, and its successor is struggling. Somebody has to foot the bill !

But the most alarming result of this scheme is that the groundwater table is going down fast, the tubes are getting longer and with that the energy use goes up too.

At Harike, in the south-west of the Indian Panjab starts the Indira Gandhi canal, which takes vast amounts of river water to Rajasthan. This water is obviously no longer available for either the Pakistan or the Indian Panjab. How much of this water evaporates before it gets to the Jaisalmer area I do not know.

Whether it is useful to infiltrate this water in a desert area I do not know either. I have heard reports of salinization of the irrigated fields, which does not surprise me at all.

But my main issue is with the madness of having paddy fields in a dry area like Panjab. After independence it made some sense as the rice eating states were not able to grow enough rice for their needs. Now these states have become self-sufficient and it is high time for a new green revolution in the Panjab.

The farmers are reluctant to change, but if the Panjab is to survive as at least the main provider of wheat, the paddy fields have to go. Alternative crops, dairy farming, market gardening (growing of vegetables) are the answer.

On the rich clay soils of Panjab many crops will thrive. With temperatures ranging from a minimum of near 0 degrees in December/January to a maximum of 50 degrees in May/June both crops that we know in Western Europe and subtropical to tropical ones can be grown.

In view of the above and the diminishing flow of water from the Himalayan glaciers, continuing with the present practice just is not an option.

529. The Man in Blue – ‘Headscarves’ in Belgium

Many secondary ‘Free’ schools (mostly Roman Catholic) and Community (GO!) schools in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium have measures in place that ban religious symbols or the wearing of head-cover.

The result is a ban on the wearing of turban, patka, hijáb, yarmulk etc. Most primary schools either do not have this type of restrictions or do not implement them.

From the 1st of September of this year the GO! Schools are banning religious symbols from all primary and secondary schools under its jurisdiction.

The Sikh community in Belgium joined a front of 25 organisations formed by BOEH! (boss on your own head) and ‘Justice and Democracy’ to act against this blatant discrimination.

We will petition the Raad van State (Council of State) asking it to declare the ban unconstitutional and against the freedom of religion. Some previous rulings by this body give some hope. But we have learned from experience that going the legal way in this country is often costly and ineffective.

In this case we had not much choice as GO! seems no longer interested in dialogue. Because the BOEH! lawyers are very familiar with the subject and can use previous formats in this case, they decided to charge us 4000 Euro only. Although the Raad van State is slow and unpredictable we decided to take the chance.

The Sikhs have collected 1360 Euro so far, with 200 more promised. We are financially supported by two organisations that help the minorities, which means that the Sikhs only have to collect 1500 Euro. We have also two promises to finance any shortfall.

Why are the people in the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking part of Belgium so afraid of the religious symbols of minority religions ? As the northern Dutch speaking Belgians were themselves a discriminated group in the past you would hope that they would have sympathy for other minority groups.

The nationalist NVA party, which might get up to 40% of the vote in the 2014 elections in the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking region, indulges in negative rhetoric both about French speaking Belgians and about immigrants and descendents of immigrants.

The key-problem in this country is that there is no robust anti-discrimination legislation like we have in the UK. This combined with islamophobia and xenophobia leads to escape clauses like the ‘neutrality’ principle which allows companies and organisations to discriminate the wearers of religious symbols.

The message to the religious minorities is that we have to integrate, but also that we are not really welcome. This does not mean that all Belgians have this negative attitude, but those that do seem to have public opinion with them and other parties lack the courage to oppose the NVA.