The first mass exodus from joint Punjab took place in 1947-48 when a red line was drawn and Punjab was divided not only into east and west Punjab, but also into Pakistan and India. This line led to a forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from both sides of the divide, mainly on the basis of religious identity. Consequently, one can safely say that thousands of migrants were murdered, kidnapped and raped. The red line that was drawn on the map became a red line across the throats of millions of people.
Punjab stood divided, devastated and without home or hearth; and the people found shelter wherever they could—in camps, with relatives or under the open sky. Added to this misery was the massive trauma faced by the people who had lost everything, from homes to families. The government of the day rose to the occasion and tremendous efforts were made to rehabilitate these displaced people, or ‘refugees’, as they were called at that time.
However, no compensation could ever be enough for the losses suffered in terms of land and commerce. But it was also an occasion when the true Punjabi grit stood out and people girded their loins to face and overcome the situation. Traders began trading in rudimentary ways and farmers began working on the small tracts of land allotted to them. However, they did not confine themselves within the boundaries of Punjab, but soon spread across to Delhi, UP, MP, Kolkata, etc. Farmers developed uncultivated lands in these areas and converted them into prosperous farms. Traders became a force to reckon with and Delhi was virtually taken over by them. Transporters and spare-part traders spread to cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. It is due to the eternal grit of the indomitable Punjabi spirit that the word ‘refugee’ soon went out of use.
Alongside the above activities, a large number of youth began joining the armed forces and civil service—subordinate services and higher positions, thereby increasing the income of their families. This was specially so in the areas of Doaba, which include Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala. As a result, this additional income was added to the farm or business incomes and helped in raising their living standard. The landholdings in these areas were small as compared to Majha, and specially Malwa areas.
With the pressure of population and the division of land and business down the generations, life again started to become difficult. The early 1950s saw the Punjabis migrating to England to seek greener pastures for themselves and their families back in Punjab. This first wave of migrants from Punjab was illiterate or semi-literate. But again, the Punjabi spirit overcame the barriers of language, housing, climate, etc. Working conditions were very bad there as most of these migrants worked in open furnaces and in the mines because salaries in these two fields were better. This generation had a difficult time in England, but they stuck on and saw to it that their second and third generations started educating themselves and making attempts to assimilate with the local populace there. However, their third generation onwards made it clear that they were no longer interested in returning to Punjab.
In due course of time, the economic situation in both Majha and Malwa areas also deteriorated and the people from these areas also started migrating. New avenues for migrants had opened up in Canada, the USA, Australia, Italy, etc. While the US attracted professionals like doctors and technocrats, other countries’ demand for semi-skilled and unskilled labour was greater.
Thus, the small streams of migration that had begun in the 1950s started turning into vast rivers. The late 1970s and the ’80s saw the rise of militancy and violence in Punjab and a lot of youth were sucked into this movement. Without going into the details of this (it is a big and difficult story to narrate which can be kept for another day), it can be said that it led to the total disruption of life in Punjab.
The social upheaval was immense and the people had to pay heavily in terms of loss of life and property. This period again saw a big rush of Sikh youths to western countries where they sought ‘political asylum’, but their real aim was to settle down in those countries. Of course, there were branches of these movements in those foreign countries also and they managed to corner vast amounts of money through their false propaganda about the situation in Punjab. This resulted in greater alienation of people abroad, because the Indian Government had to take very severe and drastic measures to contain the menace of terrorism. It was finally contained and petered out by the mid-1990s.
However, the lust for money had affected the appetite of political parties and they wanted to make money on a big scale by using this situation and going on collection drives to the West and this brought them into contact with all kinds of people.
Because of all these happenings and the western countries’ acceptance of more migrants, the floodgates of migration for Punjabi youths opened again. It can also be pointed out here that year after year and decade after decade, the economic situation of the state, particularly the farming community, kept worsening under various state governments owing to their faulty policies and programmes. The prices of farming inputs kept increasing while those of agricultural produce were not commensurate with the expenses incurred. This naturally led to a decrease in the participation of the youth in agricultural activities. Punjab’s best resource has always been its human resource. It was always the hard work of the Punjabis and their ready acceptance of technology and new methods of farming that brought about the Green Revolution. While other states continue to stick to old methods of cultivation, Punjabi farmers readily took to new seeds, fertilisers and sprinkling system. However, a parallel change was taking place in farming—Punjab youth being replaced in agricultural work by migrants from other states. This development was due to the refusal of the local rural youth to be active in the farming activities which led to almost total dependence on the migrant labour.
On the other hand, jobs in the government sector were not easily available and Punjab has not seen any major industrial development. Whatever industry had been there in cities like Amritsar, Batala, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Mandi Gobindgarh was also lost during militancy years when established industrialists moved out of the state. On both the agriculture and industrial fronts, there have been no major visible efforts by any successive governments in Punjab which could usher in major development. As a result of the decline in employment opportunities and the reluctance of the youth to engage in agricultural activities, the efforts by the youth to go out increased.
Today, almost the entire rural youth is ready to pay huge amounts of money to travel agents to obtain a visa to migrate to western countries. It is clear that Punjab is fast losing its youth to this lure of migration. I have personally seen and heard from reliable persons across the state that in most villages, the older people outnumber the youth. At the rate at which the exodus of the youth is continuing, Punjab will soon be a land of the old and the infirm.
Even in Chandigarh, one sees that there are only old couples in big houses because their children and grandchildren are all abroad. Parks are full of non-Punjabi children and it is a joy to see that they are happily assimilating in the society of locals.
Finding out from batch-mates and friends from college, it becomes further clear that in a majority of cases, the children and grandchildren are abroad. While earlier, the youth used to go abroad for higher education after graduation, today, the children are leaving on a large scale after class XII, and they have no intention of coming back. Broadly speaking, I understand that there has been a steep decline in boys joining colleges—the girls outnumber them. As a result of this, the number of Punjabi youths, especially from the rural areas, entering the services, has gone down drastically.
It is sad that successive governments, over a period of time, have not formulated any policies and programmes vis-a-vis the rural and urban youth of Punjab. The failure of the state governments to make Punjab a magnet of attraction for its youth gives no hope of any reversal in the exodus of the youth. This is specially so in the case of rural areas where farming is being given up; and bereft of its youth, the villages give a deserted look. So, I would like to conclude with these lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village: ‘Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay/Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade/A breath can make them, as a breath has made/But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride/When once destroyed, can never be supplied.’
(Author is former chairman of UPSC and former Governor of Manipur)
Courtesy: Tribune (First carried by Tribune Newspaper)