Finger on Punjab’s political pulse, young people seek future in Canada
“Tere munde Kaneda (Canada) jaan,” says the eight-year-old boy who sells murunda (rice and sweet jaggery) at a red light, as a blessing and an incentive to buy his wares. The “blessing” reflects the deep desire of young Punjabi to immigrate.
The huge advertisements of immigration consultancies and those offering IELTS and PTE exam coaching dotting the roads and highways of Punjab are quite common. Each ad competes with the next by offering a success rate for immigration and study visas to Canada, Australia, the UK and many other countries.
Harmanpreet Singh, 25, is busy erecting candidate billboards in a village near Sultanpur Lodhi. He originally belongs to Gurdaspur but is here as part of a team of politicians to help run his election campaign. He too wants to immigrate as soon as possible although he 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 him from various people as he was already based in Italy and I trusted him because he was related to me. Gradually, he stopped taking my phone calls and answering my messages. He sees my saved messages on Whatsapp but does not respond,” he said.
Harmanpreet has passed the class 12 exam and works in a factory in Gurdaspur. Despite the loss he suffered, he is still willing to try again provided he finds a “reliable” agent. “There are no jobs here in Punjab. What other option do we have,” he says in effect. This is the first Assembly election where he has worked for a candidate and the second in which he will vote. He has no hope of change, he says.
In the nearby village of Dadwindi, Kanwar Ateshbir Singh, 26, a dentist, shares Harmanpreet Singh’s sentiments. Ateshbir completed his Bachelor of Dental Science in Baddi in Himachal Pradesh and is now biding his time to appear in IELTS, score high and move to Canada for further education and then employment.
“What future do we have here? There are virtually no jobs. Do you know what salary or stipend is given to MBBS or BDS qualified people? That’s barely enough to cover fuel costs. There is hardly any recruitment by the government and even there the reserve leaves very few vacancies for people like me,” he says.
Like Harmanpreet, Ateshbir will also vote for the second time in the 2022 Assembly polls. Coming from a Congress-affiliated political family, he says if given the choice he would not go to Canada, but he did not foresee any changes in the next few years. “Who wants to leave their country if there were adequate jobs. It’s not just about money. It’s about what the future offers,” he says.
The exodus of Punjabis to Canada, Australia and New Zealand is not a new phenomenon. But lately it has raised the hedgehogs of political parties who have taken notice. While the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has promised to offer financial aid to students who wish to study abroad, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) promises to create enough job opportunities in the state, which will not only prevent exodus but also encourage those who are abroad to return.
In the meantime, the results of the rush to leave Punjab are there to be seen on the electoral rolls of the villages. In several villages in the Sultanpur Lodhi constituency, more than 10% of registered voters work abroad or are now classified as NRIs by their fellow citizens. The NRIs did not have their votes annulled, but those votes are never cast.
“They don’t vote but they make phone calls from abroad to tell their family members here who to vote for. Poor elderly parents have no choice but to comply with their persistent demands on the button to press on the voting machine,” says a villager from Dadwindi.