Punjab: An irreversible exodus?

A new study shows why people are selling the family silver to send their children abroad, especially women, and why it is worrisome

Punjab Agricultural University study shows 'since 2016 when there has been an unabated flow of Punjabi migrants to foreign shores, women migrants have outnumbered men’. Representative image of female students (photo: Getty Images)
Punjab Agricultural University study shows 'since 2016 when there has been an unabated flow of Punjabi migrants to foreign shores, women migrants have outnumbered men’. Representative image of female students (photo: Getty Images)

Shalini Sahay

More women from Punjab are migrating overseas, legally or illegally, reveals a pioneering study by the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana. Females (65 per cent) outnum- bered males (35 per cent) when it came to obtaining study visas, with higher scores that secure the required IELTS bands.

The study found that between 1991 and 2015, it was just the reverse, with male migrants outnumbering the women. However, ‘since 2016, when there has been an unabated flow of Punjabi migrants to foreign shores, women migrants have outnumbered men’.

The study also found that for the majority of male migrants, a work visa was the first choice, followed by a study visa, while female migrants chose to go abroad on a study visa followed by a spouse visa. This, too, over- turns the earlier trend when Punjabi women moved abroad only after marriage.

The research project titled, ‘A Study on Overseas Migration from Rural Punjab: Trends, Causes, and Consequences’, was led by professors Shalini Sharma, Manjeet Kaur and Amit Guleria from PAU’s department of economics and sociology. It was conducted between 2021 and 2023 and collected informa- tion from 9,500 households in 22 districts.

Among the migrants, more than 70 per cent were males, almost 60 per cent were under-30, and nearly eight per cent were under-20. Among male migrants, 43.15 per cent went on work visas and 33.73 per cent on study visas, while among female migrants 64.37 per cent went on study visas and 14.98 per cent on spouse visas. While the study focused on the period 1990 to 2022, it found that migration had spiked from 2016.

‘Between 2016 and 2022, very young migrants who were well educated migrated to Canada, Australia, Italy, UK, USA mostly on study visas, while middle-aged migrants with a medium education level preferred to move to the Gulf countries for better earn- ings’. What the study points out vis-à-vis this finding is that while migration to the Gulf to earn more is a temporary loss for the coun- try, an exodus of the younger and relatively better educated youth to Western countries amounts to a more serious and possibly per- manent loss.

Some of the other key findings of the study are as follows:

• 13.34 per cent of rural households of Punjab have at least one member living abroad

• Canada (41.88 per cent) was the most preferred destination followed by Dubai (16.25 per cent), Australia (9.63 per cent), Italy (5.54 cent), UK (3.49 per cent), US (3.25 cent) and others (19.98 cent)

• Low income and lack of employment opportunities (72 per cent), systemic corruption (62 per cent), prevalence of drugs (52 per cent), social insecurity (50 per cent), small land holdings (35 per cent), landlessness (28 per cent) and debt (24 per cent) were cited as the drivers for migration

• As many as 51 per cent cited ‘factionalism in villages’ as one of the reasons for leaving

Each of the rural households admitted to having spent Rs 18 to Rs 25 lakh to obtain a study visa for their wards. Work and spouse visas incurred an expenditure of Rs 4 lakh each. Those who opted for the illegal ‘donkey route’ paid much more to agents and touts, although households claimed to have spent not more than Rs 32 lakh on each illegal migrant.

One of the researchers, Manjeet Kaur, told the media that as per their calculations, Rs 14,342 crore had been borrowed by rural households in the state during this period to send their children abroad. “The majority of low-caste, low-income and landless labourers also sold their houses and gold ornaments. About 56 per cent of the households borrowed money to send their wards abroad. The average amount borrowed by migrant households worked out to Rs 3.13 lakh per household. Of this, non-institutional borrowing constituted 38.8 per cent and institutional money formed 61.2 per cent,” she revealed.

The study also indicates ‘farm distress’ as a driver for migration. The highest level of migration was found to be among the small farmers (5.6 per cent), followed by landless farmers (3 per cent), medium and large farmers (2 per cent each).

Not only farm distress and dissatisfaction with employment opportunities, but ‘rampant corruption and unbridled prevalence of drugs’ were also cited as factors that prompted the decision to leave the country. Clearly, there is a high level of frustration with the slow-moving, corrupt and inefficient administration, where government employees are keener on harassing citizens rather than helping them.

The motivation to leave is so strong that many of the migrant families sold their assets, including land, plots/ houses, top soil, cars, gold and tractors. The majority of low-caste, landless and low-income households resorted to selling their gold ornaments.

Around 18 per cent of small farm households sold land. The study revealed that among those who sold their family silver and gold, 28.42 per cent were SCs (Scheduled Castes), 35 per cent landless and 17 per cent small farmers. Several low-income farmers also sold their tractors.

An overwhelming 95 per cent of the migrants and 91 per cent of their families claimed to be happy with their decision to move. Over 60 per cent of them justified migrating overseas, pointing out that migrants had secured better employment abroad and enjoyed a better standard of living. Around 19 per cent of the migrants cited ‘better governance’ and systems as grounds for their satisfaction.

With the relatively younger members of the family having left for greener pastures, the household heads are elderly men and women. This is taking a toll across generations. Those who have the advantage of still living in joint families are better off, but in nuclear families, the elderly suffer from isolation and inability to cope with household chores on their own. The younger ones who are abroad suffer from guilt, despite some of them being able to afford to send money home for parental care.

While the study found that a majority of the rural households surveyed are still ‘joint families’, it reported that as many as 52 per cent of the elderly complained of loneliness while 41 per cent of households admitted that elders were neglected. A quarter of the families had lost their moorings following the sale of land holdings and other assets while over one-third of the families reported that they are now hopelessly in debt.

When asked what should be done to reverse the trend and stop or at least slow down migration, an overwhelming 96 per cent spoke of the need to improve and expand employment opportunities and ensure ‘good jobs’ and ‘stable income’. More than a quarter of the respondents admitted that they did not feel safe, and found it difficult to cut through red tape. The ‘system’ must improve and become more efficient. As many as 21 per cent suggested making agriculture more viable while eight per cent demanded better and more affordable education in government institutions.

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