Devotees leave a toy plastic airplane within the gurudwara precincts at Baba Nihal Singhji Shaheed Gurudwara in Talhan
Devotees leave a toy plastic airplane within the gurudwara precincts at Baba Nihal Singhji Shaheed Gurudwara in Talhan | Chitleen Sethi | ThePrint
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Talhan (Jalandhar): The Baba Nihal Singhji Shaheed Gurudwara in Talhan is like no other in India. Thousands of devotees visit the shrine, which stands near Jalandhar, almost 150 km away from Chandigarh, with only one prayer on their lips — Waheguru ji, please help me go abroad.

Along with the prayers before the Guru Granth Sahib, devotees make a unique offering — they each leave a toy plastic airplane within the gurudwara precincts. At the end of each day, thousands of these toy planes, collected by the gurudwara, are given away as ‘prasad’ to the young children who accompany their parents to the shrine.

These toy planes are given away as ‘prasad’ to the young children who accompany their parents to the gurudwara | Chitleen Sethi | ThePrint

The Talhan gurudwara epitomises the unapologetic desperation of Punjabis to go abroad — be it jobless rural youth looking for options beyond agriculture, young students wanting to use education as a stepping stone to a better future, NRIs’ wives waiting to be called by their husbands, or elderly parents awaiting their visitor visa to the countries their children are settled in.

Talhan lies in Punjab’s Doaba region, also called the NRI belt of the state. Almost every town in this region is teeming with coaching centres for spoken English, institutes that help students prepare for the English language test IELTS, or education consultants promising assured admission in foreign universities. The whole process, including admissions and visa applications, can cost several lakh rupees.

Frustrated youth

Jalandhar resident Satnam Singh, 23, is visiting the gurudwara with his mother and older sister, and justifies the desperation to go abroad by saying: “Where are the jobs in Punjab, or for that matter, anywhere in this country now? There is so much unemployment, and jobs are only a handful.”

“There is sifarish (commendations), and whatever is left goes in reservation. Despite being educated, the jobs one finally gets are low-paying. For the same job in Canada or USA, one is paid much better,” he adds.

Yuvraj, a 25-year-old who hails from Jalandhar, managed to go to Canada after finishing his Class 12. He is a truck driver there and earns the equivalent of several lakh rupees a month. “I’ve been in Canada for five years. Had I lived here, I would still be looking for a job, while there, I am already earning quite a lot and managing to help my family financially,” he says.

Yuvraj’s cousin Gurkeerat Singh also left the country after finishing Class 12, and makes good money working as a restaurant manager in New Zealand. “It is not that we don’t miss Punjab or want to leave it, but the fact is that hard work pays there and not here. There is so much frustration among the youth here,” he adds.


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Success of the first wave

Kuljeet Singh is a former president of the Punjab Travel Agents Association. His father was among the first to start a travel agency in the state, in 1967.

He says the culture of going abroad began with success stories of the first wave of Punjabis who migrated.

“The single most important reason why Punjabis go abroad is to make money. Initially, the emigration was from rural agricultural families who sought various means to go out of Punjab. Their success stories encouraged others to follow suit,” he adds.

The first-wavers, he says, went to the UK, the US and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s, and came back to tell fantastic stories about their lives. They invariably took along a relative, and that his how entire families migrated and settled there.

Kuljeet says that Punjabis are hard-working and enterprising, so even those that started life in these countries doing small jobs went on to set up businesses, made a lot of money, and now own property and even join politics.

Baba Nihal Singhji Shaheed Gurudwara’s hall filled with toy planes | Chitleen Sethi | ThePrint

Amarjit Singh from Ludhiana, whose son is a property dealer in Canada, adds: “In Canada, UK and Australia, the Punjabi diaspora has made an indelible mark in society. Sikhs are prominent citizens and no government can ignore them. Unlike India, where Sikhs are treated shabbily.”

Tejinder Singh runs a shop outside the Talhan gurudwara, and sees thousands of devotees flock to the holy place to try and go abroad. He explains: “‘NRI’ is almost like a status symbol in Punjab, and everyone here is in awe of NRIs. NRI almost means someone who is a winner, as against those who live here, who are losers.

“Being an NRI has come to mean a man who has managed to make a place for himself in a foreign country, and it is presumed that he is making lot of money, has a big house, lots of servants, good clothes and gadgets.”

A shop selling toy aeroplanes outside the gurudwara premises | Chitleen Sethi | ThePrint

State of Indian economy

Prof. Rajesh Gill of the Department of Sociology at Chandigarh-based Panjab University says the chief reason for Punjabis going abroad is the state of the Indian economy.

“Initially, we had people only from rural areas going abroad, since they had no option beyond agriculture. Now, young boys and girls are going out for good education, followed by jobs,” she says.

“The Punjabi love for consumerism and status symbols has also had some role to play in the exodus.”

Gill adds that Punjabi boys from patriarchal families have never been encouraged to hold blue-collar jobs in the same cultural setting. “But when these boys are out of this cultural environment, they happily accept such jobs. Also, for the same kind of job, the money they make abroad is much more,” she says.

“The relatively new trend is for Punjabi parents to send their young children for education abroad and encourage them to settle there. The educated class in India feels that its children have no future here. There was a time when students from India would go abroad for jobs after their postgraduation or doctorate, but now students are leaving after Class 12,” Gill adds.

Travel agent Kuljeet concurs, saying the ratio of rural emigration to urban emigration was 80:20 until five years ago, but is now around 50:50. Around 1.5 lakh students are believed to go abroad from Punjab every year.

The risk

However, there is a flip-side to Punjabis’ desperation to go abroad. Touts offer several illegal means to send people abroad, but the cost is huge — even if one shells out lakhs to such agents, there is no guarantee of immigration.

There are innumerable horror stories of Punjabi youth getting caught at various places in transit. In November last year, 26 youths were stuck in Russia after being cheated by a travel agent. One of them even died for want of timely medical aid.

“Every day we hear about youths being duped by unscrupulous agents and then getting stuck in Armenia, Germany, Dubai, Mexico… They are dumped there with no money or legal papers. Many are arrested and ill-treated. The government should do something about this,” says Sarabpreet Singh, a Jalandhar resident.

Kuljeet Singh, however, says while the perception in most cases ends up being that innocent youths are “duped” by agents and sent abroad illegally, the youngsters are equally involved.

“The youth are so desperate to go abroad that they encourage the agents to prepare forged documents. When an agent is booked, the person who has given the money for the crime should be booked too,” he says.

Those who manage to reach these countries face a different struggle. They live in hiding until well-settled Punjabi brethren “help out” in regularising their stay, but another hefty fee has to be paid — this time in dollars.


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Contract marriages

For the desperate, marriage, too, is a way out of the country. “Contract marriages are generally undertaken among those youth whose immigration and student visa have not worked out,” says Kuljeet Singh.

If the girl is already on a student visa abroad, then she can legitimately call her husband to that country on a work permit. “For the past two years, I have been in talks with girls who are likely to get a study visa to the UK. The marriage will be a contract marriage. I will pay for the wedding, the travel and also her stay in the UK for one year. Also, I will be paying for expenses of education as well as staying,” says Harpreet Singh from Amritsar.

“After one year, the marriage will end mutually, by which time I would have settled in the UK.”

Harpreet says the reason he wants to go abroad is not that he needs money, but because all his family members and many of his friends have already settled in the UK. “I tried for a visa twice but was rejected,” he adds.

Kuljeet Singh says: “Joining peer groups, especially friends who have managed to go abroad, is the new thing. Earlier, people wanted to go out to join families; now, it is for friends.”

Failed effort at streamlining

In 2008, the then Akali Dal-BJP government in Punjab tried to streamline the working of agents and mooted an Act to register all travel agents in the state. It took the government almost six years to implement the Act.

“Currently, there are over 1,550 travel agents registered in the state under the Punjab Travel Professional Regulation Act 2013, and the lists are on the district websites,” says Punjab home secretary Satish Chandra. Another 70 agencies are registered with the Protector-General of Emigrants, Ministry of External Affairs.

However, Jatinder Walia, the current president of the Punjab Travel Agents Association, says: “The number of registered agents is very low. The number of travel agents functional in Punjab is over 6,000.”

Walia says the 2013 Act has not been able to make any effective contribution in stopping unscrupulous agents from operating. “The law failed to take a practical view of the situation. Instead of registering travel agents and demanding a huge fee for the licences, the government should take a nominal fee and register more agents, bringing them under the ambit of this law,” he says.

Walia adds that though the Act has strict provisions for punishment, its entire purpose is defeated by the fact that an agent who hasn’t registered with the government cannot be booked for duping people.


Also read: Indian diaspora is 17.5 million strong, the highest from a single country: UN report


 

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