HISHIARPUR, India: Looking out of the one-room home he shares with his wife and two children, Naresh sees his neighbors’ success in the two-storied, freshly painted house that triumphs over Naresh’s own shabby building, with its cracks creeping across the walls and mildew decorating the ceiling. Ten years ago, the two sons from across the way traveled from this village here in Punjab to Italy to make their fortune. One ended up selling cheap Indian clothes in a shop in Milan, the other found work in a factory. Gradually, with the money they sent back, their parents’ simple shack was demolished to make way for the grander, Mediterranean-inspired, red-tiled edifice that now throws a shadow over Naresh’s house and mood.
Naresh followed their example last July, selling off a chunk of his ancestral land in a gamble to get to Europe. Instead he got stuck in the west of Africa and was finally repatriated in March. After the expensive failure, Naresh’s family greeted him with both relief and dismay.
“They were more shocked than happy to see me. A lot of money was spent on this,” Naresh said, shifting in a chair uneasily before the gaze of his extended family, crowding at the doorway to hear his account. “If I had managed to get abroad, I would have been able to buy the land back.”
Punjab is India’s richest state, but it is also the source of most of India’s illegal immigration to the West. There is no real contradiction, explained Stuart Gardner of the British High Commission in New Delhi, responsible for repatriating illegal migrants. “Punjab might be the most well-off state,” he said, “but to emigrate illegally, you need money.”
Every year, thousands of young Punjabi villagers risk everything to get to the West. Like Naresh, their decision is motivated neither by bread-line poverty nor economic desperation. The trigger is more a middle-class desire to get on in life, to keep climbing a ladder of affluence to secure their families’ long-term comfort.
Naresh, a sugar cane farmer, resolved last July to gamble his life and his family’s land on following his neighbors to Europe, as if to keep up with the Joneses. He entrusted himself to the hands of a Delhi-based people smuggler, and flew to West Africa (he is unclear exactly where) using a valid passport. Some time later he was ferried, in darkness, to a ship where he was hidden along with around 370 others, mainly from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, hoping to get to Greece.
The journey was as hazardous as it was unsuccessful; details of the voyage have been documented in earlier accounts of this series of articles.
Naresh, who is 37, sold a quarter of his ancestral land – around a half acre – that had been in the family for 60 years, to raise the people smuggler’s fee of 200,000 rupees, or $4,600.
Without that land, Naresh has been forced to start renting farmland, at a high price, to cultivate instead. The family will still be able to feed itself, but Naresh’s father, now 60, will have to continue working the fields, there will be no money to repaint the house, and the children’s education will suffer.
Saying he was determined to try again, despite the scarring experience and new awareness of the dangers, he asked that his surname and the name of his village (which is in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab) be withheld for fear of alienating those who helped him.
Punjabis have been leaving India, both legitimately and illicitly, for decades, and the strong network of relatives across Europe and North America has intensified the desire of a new generation to leave their villages. The tiny airport at Amritsar, the state capital, now offers flights to Singapore; Bratislava, Slovkia; and Birmingham, England.
No one in the family was surprised by Naresh’s decision, because the flight to Europe is now seen here as a routine way of putting household finances in order.
Take a walk through this tiny hamlet in a remote part of the northern Indian state of Punjab, 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, from the state capital Amritsar, and a few flashes of new wealth are clearly visible among the dirt-track lanes and open sewers, common to all Indian villages.
Of the 87 families who live here, at least eight have sons sending money from abroad. Across from the Italian-funded villa, another outlandishly extravagant, salmon-pink building, with an elaborate balustraded roof terrace, stands high over the village. “Dubai,” said Naresh’s father, Thura Ram, nodding tersely at the construction.
Around the corner a Hindu temple is being built, largely funded by contributions from families who have sent their sons away. “The temple would have been finished much faster if I had managed to get abroad,” Naresh said, with a crooked smile.
Even the land belonging to those with sons abroad is greener. “If we had money from abroad, we too could buy better seeds, use better fertilizers, and our harvest would be much better,” Thura Ram said.
Still, there seems to be a disconnect between the desperate risks taken by several of the sons of these families to get themselves to Europe, and the relative ease of life in a village where no one is going hungry.
Thura Ram tried to explain the motivation. The size of the family plot of farming land had dwindled by being divided and redivided among the brothers and sons over the generations, and even before the latest chunk was sold off, it was becoming difficult to squeeze out enough money for the family’s needs by selling the sugar cane and wheat they produce.
“Here I am at 60, still working on the land from six in the morning until seven at night, and still things are so expensive now that it is hard to make ends meet,” he said. “We need a family member to go abroad and set things right.”
This is the kind of logic that the British High Commission is attempting to fight. Last month, officials launched an experimental scheme to educate villagers about the risks of illegal migration.
Leaflets warn of the risks. “People-smugglers are ruthless criminals. They do not care about you or your family – only the money you pay them,” one document explains. “The journeys are dangerous. These criminals make promises to you that they don’t keep.”
But the pull is strong. Naresh finds it difficult to ignore his neighbors. Over the fence, in the house built on money from Italy, the grandparents no longer work. As well as the crucial second story, their home now has a good kitchen and a bathroom with plumbing. Until a decade ago the 10-member family lived in one room, and instead of a bathroom, they used the nearby fields.
Thura Ram’s sister-in-law has two sons working in Greece. “Their life has improved enormously. They have bought more land, a bigger car, and built a big house. Money comes every month from Greece. They live well. They have money in the bank earning interest,” he said, sitting cross-legged on a wooden double bed. “My wife feels that her sister’s life is easier.”
Tacked to his wall is a cheap poster hinting at the kind of lifestyle the family aspires to, a fantasy vision of a whitewashed, two-story chalet with gothic wooden beams and a lush green garden.
“We knew it was dangerous. We knew it could be a matter of life and death. We knew it was illegal,” Thura Ram said of his son’s trip. “I was so worried I couldn’t sleep at night. But there was no other way. It is up to my sons to give a good upbringing for their children.”
Naresh glumly agrees. “I’m committed to going again, to try to get back what I lost. I am willing to settle there for five, seven, 10 years and then come back. As the eldest son, it is my responsibility,” he said. “Life is getting tough. It is expensive to get children married, and it will cost a lot to put the house in order. The roof is leaking. It needs a total overhaul.”
Source: International Herald Tribune