WRITER: Amarjit Bhullar
There is no institutional mechanism to study socio-economic , cultural and emotional issues of NRIs. Periodic efforts to reach out to NRIs have been a momentary affair. The government must put in place an effective system to redress their grievances.
In the last half-century, thousands of Punjabis have migrated to other countries in search for greener pastures. Although the history of migration to other countries goes back to the first decade of the 20th century but mass migration started in the late 1960s. By hard work and resilience, Punjabis have been able to discover an economic space for themselves and their families in alien lands. They also uplift the economic and social base of their extended families back home in Punjab through remittances or generating out-migration opportunities for their kin.
The NRI “Sammelans” that were organised by the state government were largely elite gatherings. An ordinary NRI Punjabi feels disconnected and abandoned by the native land.
Though these people have tried to assimilate in the societies and systems where they live but psychological and cultural ties with the native land have endured the test of time. They look for a supportive political dispensation in Punjab and want an administrative system that is sensitive to their issues and aspirations. So far, no political party has been able to meet their expectations. This creates frustration and anger. The unprecedented support to Manpreet Badal's People’s Party of Punjab in 2012 and to the Aam Aadmi Party in the recent Assembly elections this year testifies this.
A section of NRIs does use discontent to settle scores and resort to rogue methods too. Most from the Punjabi diaspora only aspire for a NRI-friendly administrative system that solves their problems without wastage of time.
Punjabis surpass all Indian communities settled across the globe as far as activism goes. The Punjabi print and electronic media in where Punjabis live, continuously focus on Punjab’s political developments. People participate in a big way in the discussions on electronic media through “on-air” telephone lines.
Punjabis donated lakhs of dollars to the AAP in this election and campaigned in person to build up a hype in its favour even though the hype did not translate into votes. The excessive activism among Punjabis, even though people from other states too face the same set of problems, has to be understood in a historical perspective. Punjabis in foreign lands always struggled for betterment. The relatively higher participation of the NRI Punjabis in the Gadar and the Komagata Maru movements affirms this. The NRIs miss the zeal that their predecessors displayed. however, these movements bestowed an extraordinary legacy upon them.
As far as problems go, the first problem the Punjabi NRIs face is while travelling to India. It takes about 35 to 40 hours to reach the different parts of Punjab from US and Canada. Operationalising the Chandigarh International Airport will reduce it to 16 to 20 hours. Similarly, the travel time requirement from Europe to Punjab will come down from 16 to 20 hours to 9 to 13 hours. Elderly people who visit Punjab each winter are the worst affected.
Somehow word has travelled in the Punjabi community abroad that vested interests were responsible for the failure of the Amritsar International Airport and the Chandigarh International Airport too is likely to meet a similar fate.
Another major concern is the protection of the properties of the NRIs in Punjab since there are cases of grabbing or illegal transfer. The state government should immediately constitute a committee to look into the matter and make changes in revenue rules to ensure the protection of the rights of NRIs over their properties. The NRIs cannot match their opponents in India in case there is a property dispute because of their tightly scheduled visits. Systemic delays burn them out and strengthen the feeling of alienation.
This issue needs to be understood from the economic perspective too. Already, many NRIs are selling their assets in Punjab and transferring the sale proceeds to other countries through both legal and illegal channels. The flight of capital, both industrial and agricultural (though flight of agricultural capital is less talked about), is an important economic issue.
There is no institutional mechanism to study the economic, social, cultural and emotional issues of the NRI Punjabis. There have been periodic efforts by the state government to reach out to them but these were a momentary affair. The NRI “Sammelans” that were organised by the state government were largely elite gatherings. An ordinary NRI Punjabi feels disconnected and abandoned by the native land. Though the mass migration of Europeans to North America started in the nineteenth century but their respective governments are still continuing the ties with them by establishing Diaspora Study Centres, both in the countries of origin as well as countries of destination.
The NRIs must understand that the vulgar display of dissatisfaction, ignited by some interest groups, will lead nowhere. They have the right to question, make suggestions and even protest but there is a civilised way to do that.
The way the leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Congress, including the present Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, were treated during their visits to Canada and the US last year is an invitation to adverse reactions and not positive actions.
Hopefully, the mature political leadership of the state will focus on important issues and ensure a positive outcome as far as issues of NRIs are concerned.
The writer teaches economics at University of Northern British Columbia, Canada.