“Tere munde Kaneda (Canada) jaan,” says the eight-year-old boy selling murunda (rice and jaggery sweet) at a traffic light point, as a blessing and enticement to buy his wares. The ‘blessing’ reflects the deep desire among Punjabi youth to immigrate.
The huge advertisements of immigration consultancy firms and those offering coaching in IELTS and PTE exams dotting the roads and highways of Punjab are fairly common. Each advertisement vies with the next one in offering success rate of immigration and study visas to Canada, Australia, UK and many other countries.
25-year-old Harmanpreet Singh is busy erecting hoardings of a candidate in a village near Sultanpur Lodhi. He originally belongs to Gurdaspur but is here as part of a politician’s team to help conduct his election campaign. He too wants to immigrate as soon as possible despite having once lost a substantial sum of money to a relative who promised to take him to Italy.
“I gave him Rs 4 lakh after borrowing it from various people as he was already based in Italy and I had faith in him because he was related to me. Gradually, he stopped taking my phone calls and replying to my messages. He sees my recorded messages on Whatsapp but does not reply,” he says.
Harmanpreet has cleared Class 12 examination and works in a factory in Gurdaspur. Despite the loss he suffered, he is still willing to give it another try provided he finds some ‘reliable’ agent. “There are no jobs here in Punjab. What other option do we have,” he says as a matter of fact. This is the first Assembly election where he is working for a candidate and the second one that he will be voting in. He does not have any hopes for a change, he says.
In nearby Dadwindi village, 26-year-old Kanwar Ateshbir Singh, a dentist, shares the sentiments of Harmanpreet Singh. Ateshbir has done his bachelors in Dental Science from Baddi in Himachal Pradesh and is now biding his time to appear in IELTS, get a high score and move to Canada for further studies and then employment.
“What future do we have here? There are hardly any jobs. Do you know what salary or stipend is given to MBBS or BDS qualified persons? It is hardly enough to cover the fuel expenses. There is hardly any recruitment being done by the government and even there the reservation leaves very few vacancies for people like me,” he says.
Like Harmanpreet, Ateshbir will also be voting for the second time in 2022 Assembly polls. Coming from a political family, which has affiliations with Congress, he says given a choice he would not go to Canada but he did not foresee any changes in the next few years. “Who wants to leave your country if adequate jobs existed. It is not about money alone. It is about what future offers,” he says.
The Punjabi exodus to Canada, Australia and New Zealand is not a new phenomenon. But lately it has raised the hackles of political parties who have taken note of it. While the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has promised to offer financial assistance to those students who want to go abroad for studies, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promises to create enough job opportunities in the state which will not only prevent the exodus but also encourage those who are abroad, to return.
In the meantime, the results of the rush to leave Punjab are there to see on the voter lists of villages. In several villages in Sultanpur Lodhi constituency there are upwards of 10 per cent registered voters who are either working abroad or are now classified as NRIs by their fellow villagers. The NRIs have not gotten their votes cancelled but these votes are never cast.
“They do not vote but they make phone calls from abroad directing their family members here who to vote for. The poor aged parents have no option but to comply with their persistent demands on which button to press on the voting machine,” says a villager in Dadwindi.