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Craze to go West

Print edition : Jun 15, 2007 T+T-
Bhupinder Singh went as a stowaway to Ukraine but was deported. He is still determined to go West.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Bhupinder Singh went as a stowaway to Ukraine but was deported. He is still determined to go West.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Thousands of Punjabis stake life, limb, property and pride to move abroad, particularly to the West.

When film-maker Gurinder Chadha adapted the classic Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice to the Indian context, the Hindi version of the movie was called Balle Balle Amritsar to L.A.

This was not merely freakish nomenclature. It was a telling comment upon the most anxious desire of hundreds of thousands of people in Punjab: go west, by hook or by crook, with visas or without, riding on the back of true love or by arranging marriages.

For decades now, Punjabis have tried to break laws prohibiting their movement West. Their aspirations, in fact, are advertised in concrete and set high upon rooftops. In several villages of the Doaba belt, households acquire water storage tanks shaped like an aeroplane or a bird poised for take-off.

Often, however, the consequences are tragic. Bhupinder Singh, 22, also known as Pinda, was deported recently from Ukraine. He lives in a large, fairly imposing, recently built house in Cheema Khurd, a village in Phillaur tehsil of Jalandhar district. His hair is fashionably short and spiky; he is well-dressed and rides a motorcycle; his father works in Dubai. Bhupinder dropped out of school in the 10th standard. "Because I always had this craze to go abroad. What is the use of studying? I just want to go abroad."

Asked whether he had thought about what he would do when he went abroad, he said: "Anything. Any work." What are his interests? "Going abroad. That's my only interest."

While he cannot be faulted for single-mindedness, this young man has lost nearly Rs.8 lakh in a failed attempt to realise his dream. "I paid one Swarn Singh, who promised to take me to Italy. Now, we cannot track him down."

Bhupinder's story is a fairly common one. He met an acquaintance from Gurdaspur who had gone to Italy "do number se" (by the number two method). This person put him on to an agent, who asked for Rs.7.70 lakh, and took him to Delhi. There he was put up in a small hotel with a few other young men of similar ambition. They were then put on a flight to Moscow. In Moscow, they were locked up in a room for eight days. From there, they went "donkey". Going donkey meant being packed inside container-trucks and crossing the border into Ukraine.

"We were asked to tear up our passports in the jungle. About 45 of us were shut inside this container. The weather was bad. Our legs froze. We spent 24 days in the forest and there was little food. We drank off the puddles on the ground. Then we tried to cross the border into Slovakia, but the security forces opened fire."

The men escaped with a few injuries, but only just. They tried crossing the border again two days later. This time the forces allowed them to enter, waited 15 minutes and opened fire.

Although nobody died, Bhupinder and his fellow-riders were handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed, and thrown into jail. He said they were also beaten up. "A day later, we were sent back to Ukraine and we stayed there for a month and a half. I saw at least 250 Indian boys there, and about 50 girls," said Bhupinder. Now Bhupinder is biding his time. All he wants is a new passport and another, hopefully legal, attempt to get away, to Spain, Italy or France.

Men have always migrated from Punjab. In previous decades, the golden destinations lay both west and east - Burma, China, Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States. In fact, old folk songs include lyrics like `tainu cheen di khat nu lat maru' (I'll kick away the money you've earned in China).

Those who migrated would send back money home, and most villages boast large houses that belie the fact that the residents are either jobless or landless, or seriously under-employed. Lifestyles improved; people started equating migration with prosperity. The diaspora's visits home only strengthened this belief, partly because of their appearance and habits and partly because of their descriptions of life abroad.

Naturally, everybody else wants to get out too. Initially, a lot of Punjabis who went abroad arranged to have their family members brought over. However, in recent decades, the West has built its walls higher and come down hard on hopeful migrants, especially those who bring nothing but their hands. With cheap labour available closer home, work permits are hard to obtain. For young people who do not plan to study further, or cannot afford to, it is near impossible to go West legally.

According to R.K. Jaiswal, the Senior Superintendent of Police of Ludhiana, different methods are used to get around the legalities. Marriage to a foreign citizen is the most common among them. The most common illegal method is to get a tourist visa and once abroad, destroy the papers and disappear. The second most popular method is to travel on a forged visa, which will most likely get the traveller caught at one of the airports. The third is to go along with one of the cultural troupes - often `folk singers', several of whom have been investigated for human trafficking. Some obtain temporary work visas for `soft' nations in Africa or Asia, then move West illegally, by sea or land. Several agents bring clients to Delhi, dump them at the international airport and slip away.

Yet another method is to travel on a valid visa, but on someone else's passport. This is what Paramjeet Kaur and Amarjeet Singh attempted to do when they were caught trying to travel along with Babubhai Katara, the Member of Parliament from Gujarat, on his wife's and son's passports.

Jaiswal said that in a special drive against fraudulent agents many fake passports and visas were seized recently. "We had 61 cases registered against agents last year and 18 so far this year. A special officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police has been assigned as a detective to deal with cases of immigration-related fraud," he said.

While young men who have been duped have a lifetime to pay off their debts, Mohinder Ram of Saifabad village is not so lucky. His passport says he is 54 years old and he was deported recently from Mali in Africa. Though he had worked abroad before - in Dubai and Saudi Arabia - he wanted to go West, settle down, and then take his son too.

Unfortunately, things did not happen that way. His attempt to go to Spain cost him his health, his dignity and, perhaps, his house. Mohinder paid Rs.6 lakh to a local travel agent, who is allegedly hiding in Malaysia now. Said Mohinder: "I was told I would travel 15 days. I ended up spending three and a half months in Mali. There was little food, and the water smelt of petrol. When we went `donkey', 22 men were tied together with rope. We had a few rations and two drums of oil. I spent 15 days in jail in Algeria. Then it was back to Mali. Then back to the Algerian border and to Morocco. For 13 months, and five days we were locked up in a room. Even to go to the toilet we had to take permission. The guards beat us up, partly because my agent owed money to a bigger agent operating from Delhi. They demanded Rs.50,000 to let us go. I did not have money even for food. The younger men with me took pity and gave me something."

When the guards let them out for a day, six of them including Mohinder ran away. They went to the police station, but could not communicate in either English or Arabic. So they ran to the embassy in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. "For four days we crept about, walking only at night and drinking water from the gutter," said Mohinder.

Back home, with failing health and mounting anger, he watches his own father, now in his eighties, selling vegetables and fruits on the streets. There is no land to sell and no way of repaying debts. Mohinder's repatriation was facilitated by Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, Member of Parliament and president of the Lok Bhalai Party.

He is one of the few politicians in the State who takes a serious view of illegal migration and has set up an office in Ludhiana to help those stranded or jailed in foreign countries, or women who have been abandoned by visiting husbands. The party's workers also help to track down dubious agents and recover money.

Speaking to Frontline, Ramoowalia said: "In each village, there are 15-20 men who have gone away. They sell their family property, jewellery, everything. And once abroad, they are treated like dogs. This fraudulent business has cost Punjab at least Rs.10,000 crores. Now, marriage bureaus are also looting girls. Men will come from foreign countries, marry a girl, stay with her for a few days, take dowry, and leave and never send for her. And nobody is doing anything to stop it."

Abandonment or the threat of sexual and economic exploitation is not deterrent enough, though. There are an estimated 20,000 abandoned women, or "holiday wives", in Punjab. Yet, women want to take their chances with the great Western dream.

Bhupinder's younger sister, studying in senior secondary school, at first denied that she would like to go abroad. But asked whether she wanted to marry a local or an NRI (non-resident Indian), she at once said NRI. Her friends often make plans about going abroad to work, but know their chances are too slim to be real. However, getting married to an NRI is a real possibility, and they cling to the idea as if to the tail end of a dream of mist.

So, marriage bureaus work overtime, holding out bait that is so obviously fake that it is surprising anyone gets taken in. In fact, a local newspaper found lying at the office of the Lok Bhalai Party has one such advertisement offering a bride - a Canadian citizen looking for a hard-working, `heavy driver'.

Besides marital fraud, there are reports of women being trafficked out of the country to be sold off. Few of them ever make it back or file a report. Prabhjyot Kaur, luckily, did. The 26-year-old admitted that it was her own craze to go abroad that landed her in trouble. "I was a BEMS (electropathy) doctor and had a small clinic in Mothanwal village in Kapurthala. One man, Avtar Singh, posed as a patient, got close to me, and later proposed. He claimed that his mother was a Canadian citizen. I asked for documents, a letter of sponsorship and so on. He got the documents and they looked genuine. I handed over my passport; we got married."

The nightmare began when, instead of Canada, he took her to Malaysia, left her there and returned to contact her parents. Using Malaysia as a base, he kept bringing more people, including her brother-in-law, Baljinder Singh. Prabhjyot told Frontline that when she saw other women being brought in and disappearing, she grew afraid and fled home. In the meantime, Baljinder Singh was sent on a fake visa to Indonesia, where he was arrested and deported. While a first information report (FIR) landed at least two of the culprits in jail, they are likely to get bail. Prabhjyot's family is afraid, most of all, of angry villagers.

While their anger may be natural, it is not necessarily justified. Every year, thousands of Punjabis attempt to emigrate illegally and are deported. According to the Regional Passport Office in Jalandhar, which covers seven districts of the Doaba and Majha regions of Punjab, 2,225 people were deported in 2006. For the last five years, the figure is 9,465.

According to Amarjeet Singh, Passport Officer, the demand for passports is growing. "We issued about 2.1 lakh new passports last year," he said. People are also lining up to apply a second or third time. The number of applications for passports under the `lost or damaged' category has increased. In 2003, there were 4,540 such applications. In 2006, their number was 10,367. The office also detects at least 15-20 cases of `duplicate' passports, where people apply for a fresh one without disclosing that they already have a passport.

Most of those desirous of leaving the country never make it beyond the nearest international airport. But that does not serve as a lesson. Bhupinder Singh, for instance, is not willing to settle for work in any foreign country that is not in Europe, barring the US, Canada or Australia. He refuses to go to Kuwait or Dubai, where his father works. "That's not money enough. I want more," he says stubbornly.

And on the train journey back to New Delhi, an anonymous co-passenger, a well-dressed young man, talked into his phone: "But why should I stay in Ludhiana? I'm determined not to live there - dirty place, dirty people, no freedom. I'm going to Australia."