Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Escape from Punjab - Hidden Numbers

Escape from Punjab : By Devinder Sharma

I was at a dinner with a Punjabi family in the outskirts of London. Mohinder Singh’s youngest brother who had only a few months before made it to England was visibly upset : “You are the only Punjabi I know who keeps on going back to India. Why don’t you stay here permanently ?”

When I told him that I am often invited to UK to speak at various conferences, and yet I don’t want to settle here legally or illegally, he couldn’t believe me. “There are instances when I am abused on the streets by the whites if that is what you are meaning, there was also this bizarre incident of one of the white teenager’s pissing on me while I lay on the beach one day but bhai ji this is still heaven. Come on, think about it again !”

Surinder Singh, the youngest brother in the Punjabi family I am talking about, is not the only one who feels he has crossed over to heaven. Millions of Punjabis’ cherish the dream to escape from Punjab. Legally or illegally, they are willing to take all kinds of risks. Such is the desire and desperation to escape that scores of villages in the ‘migration belt’ of Punjab -- Phagwara, Jalandhar and Kapurthala districts – are empty. Almost all houses in these villages remain locked throughout the year.

Punjabis are by nature enterprising. Defying all academic norms of ‘distress migration’ or the ‘pull or push factor’ in migration, most Punjabis believe that migration is the best form of economic growth.
They have seen this happening with generations of migratory workers who made it to the plantation sector in Southeast Asia or as industrial workers in England, Canada and to some extent as farm workers in New Zealand, California, Germany and Italy.

It was in early 1980s that I first tracked a group of asylum seekers who had landed in East Berlin (than part of the German Democratic Republic). Once in East Berlin, they would crossover to West Berlin by train where with the help of some lawyers they would have their papers ready. A majority of those who followed this escape route were apprehended at West Berlin. While their papers were being scrutinised, these migrants would be lodged in what was then popularly called ‘flower houses’ – an apology for a dingy accommodation herding some 20-25 people in one room.

The German government provided them with subsistence allowance as long as they were in the ‘flower houses’. Realising that migrants were ‘saving’ from even such paltry amounts ostensibly to send some money back home, the government finally provided them with food stamps that could be exchanged in the grocery stores. I remember asking one of the Punjabi migrants who was awaiting deportation back to India as to why did he take the risk. His reply still reverberates in my ears: “My parents have sold off the land to collect money for my travel.
They are under the impression that within months of my landing in Europe, I will start minting money. I therefore save as much as possible from my daily allowance so that I don’t let their dream die.’

The unsavoury trend still continues. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, illegal trafficking has found new escape routes. Whether it is through Morocco, Egypt or Turkey or whether it is through sports and culture, the fact remains that Punjabis are more than eager to escape. After all, what makes them so desperate that they are willing to take the risk of their life? Why is that Punjabis, who are economically well off as compared to the rest of the country, are still not satisfied? Is something terribly wrong with the underbelly of Punjab that we don’t see?

Punjab is undoubtedly the food bowl of the country. It is the harbinger of the Green Revolution that swept through well-endowed regions of the country.
For 40 years now, ever since Green Revolution began, the nation has eulogised the Punjab farmer. Newspapers have reported time and again about the visible prosperity ushered in through intensive agriculture. Magazine articles have featured the opulent life style of prosperous Punjabi farmers.
Not many of the feature writers however tried to look beyond the false sense of pride the farmers exhibited. Not many journalists tried to explore the reasons behind the new- found prosperity -- not because of agriculture but because of monthly remittances or their side business activities.

Punjab’s underbelly was gradually caving in. Agriculture had turned not only unremunerative but also highly unsustainable. Intensive farming had led to the collapse of Green Revolution. Farmers were pumping in more chemical inputs to maintain their crop harvests.
Over the years indebtedness began growing to phenomenal levels. A recent Punjab Agricultural University shows as many as 89 per cent of Punjab farm households are reeling under debt. The per farm family debt today stands at a staggering Rs 1,78,934. In other words, for every hectare of land holding, the outstanding debt is Rs 50, 140.

Still worse – tractors -- the symbol of prosperity have now turned into a symbol of suicides. Tractor owners are more heavily indebted with the average outstanding exceeding Rs 2 lakh. Marginal and small farmers owning tractors are still worse off. With the input prices climbing year after year and the output prices remaining static, Punjab farmers became a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country’s heroes. No wonder, the average income of a Punjab farm family hovers around Rs 3,000 a month.

Over the years, intensive farming practices have pushed farmers deeper into debt. High-chemical input based technology has already mined the soils and ultimately led to the lands gasping for breath, with the water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking the groundwater acquifer dry, and with the failure of the markets to rescue the farmers from a collapse of the farming systems, the tragedy is that the human cost is entirely being borne by the farmers. In Punjab, of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared dark zones, the level of groundwater exploitation in these blocks has been in excess of 98 per cent against the critical limit of 80 per cent. The resulting destruction wrought on the natural resource base – soil health deteriorating, water table plummeting and pesticides contaminating the environment – agriculture has turned into a losing proposition. More and more Punjab farmers therefore began to abandon agriculture. With no job opportunities coming in handy, escape from Punjab became a viable alternative.

What is intriguing are the missing numbers. In 1990-91, there were 2.95 lakh marginal and 2.03 small operational landholdings. In ten years time, by 2000-01, these had come down to 1.23 lakh marginal and 1.73 lakh small operational holdings.
A careful perusal would show that nearly 1.20 lakh farm families had moved out of agriculture in the ten years period. Where have these families gone? What alternative employment opportunities have they adopted? No one knows about that.

I am not suggesting that they had migrated in search of greener pastures. But with rampant corruption keeping them out of government jobs, the only avenue open for the Punjabi youth is to migrate. Whether they apply for a police constable job or for a bus conductor, they are invariably asked to cough out money. “If I have to pay Rs 20 lakh to Rs 35 lakh for a Class III government job, what do you expect me to do?” asks Manpreet Singh, a resident of Ropar district. “Isn’t it better that I spend the same money to pay to the travel agents to find me an escape to Europe or Canada?”

Punjab’s underbelly is certainly in an unforeseen crisis. It is time to feel the pain and anguish the youth are faced with. It is time to put the house in order. The sooner the better.
Indian Farm Exit Policy - http://www.exitpolicy.blogspot.com/
Farm Debt - http://farmdebt.blogspot.com/
Land Acquisition - http://landacquisition.blogspot.com/