Punjab stares at a potential crisis as students in hordes head abroad

The migration taking place in Punjab in the guise of international students , who won’t return, is alarming because it is unnatural. There are no government figures available, but estimates put the number of students leaving for foreign shores annually at 30,000.  A report by Iqbal Singh Sidhu

On many occasions I have walked into a restaurant and the unsuspecting cashier behind the till has asked me if I was there to pick up a food order for Skip or Doordash or the myriad other food delivery services that have become ubiquitous in Canada. They suspected me of this not because I wear a driver’s jacket, but because I fit the profile of the quintessential delivery driver in modern Canada: I am a male, of South Asian descent, in my 20s and have that haggard, overworked look. So fast have the profile of such professions in what is fancily called the ‘gig economy’ proliferated and has been fast filled by young students and workers who have migrated from Punjab that it is impossible to not have at least one person in my social circle who delivers food for a living.

Not in the too distant past, a motormouth Canadian official had half-jokingly boasted ‘‘we have the most well-educated taxi drivers in the world.’’ He was of course referring to the immigrants – mostly of South Asian descent- who had found employment in ferrying passengers on the streets of Toronto and Vancouver after graduating from universities in their native India and Pakistan. I once had the chance of meeting an Indian taxi driver who used to be a professor in Punjab, India. Upon my asking why he had left the cushy chair in an office to wallow in the dust of Chicago streets, he said he had only come on a preliminary fact finding tour. From there, how he had ended up behind the wheel of a cab, he hadn’t quite yet put together. I think he mentioned something about securing his ‘children’s future.’

Human migration is nothing new; we are all after-all the descendants of migrants who left the African continent some 40,000 years ago. Civilizations have thrived, composed entirely of migrants. More than 80% of the Americas today is composed of migrants and their descendants. But the migration taking place in Punjab in the guise of international students who won’t return is alarming because it is unnatural. There are no government figures available, but estimates put at least 30,000 students leaving home annually. Comparable in numbers to the flight of the Irish during the Great Irish Potato Famine in the mid 18th century, and the migration of Ukrainians during Stalin’s Holodomor in the 1930s, the migration facing Punjab today is the third largest danger faced by that small province after Climate Change and a potential nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

If one looks at the problem closely, another defining feature stands out. Curiously, unlike the Irish or the Ukrainian example, Punjab is not facing a famine problem- God forbid, not yet at least. So why this long chain of aspiring youngsters, some of them highly gifted, making a beeline for a far off distant land that most of them have only seen on YouTube and which famously remains snowbound for a good part of the year? I’ll also let you in on a little secret and let me make it clear I don’t have a peer reviewed scientific study to back this claim; but at least 90% of these aspiring migrants, international students included, if given a choice based on their experiences to start over will never come to Canada. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a fantastic country, a great place to live, start a family, raise children and grow old, probably the best in the world but for migrants, it carries what we in economics call a very high ‘opportunity cost.’ For the missed births, deaths, marriages and anniversaries back home—I think I speak for all migrants—no amount of social security or old age pension can compensate.

Again, why then this mad rush into the unknown by the scions of the Punjabi middle class. Ask an economics professor and you might get a long winded answer about unemployment and job opportunities, about social security and consumer benefits. Ask a village elder and he will tell you the blame lies entirely with the ‘mobile phone’ on which the young people spend their whole days, and which has turned their heads. Yet ask the same question to the owner of an IELTS coaching centre or a foppish ‘immigration consultant’ and he will grin ear to ear in smug satisfaction on how well the business is doing and if the gods of immigration shine upon you that day, he might even offer you a seat at some community college in backwater Ontario where you can spend upwards of $20,000 CAD learning how to bake bread, graduating from which you will be able to, he will tell you, apply for your Permanent Residence in a year or so! I am yet to meet an ‘immigration consultant’ who can faithfully answer the most natural subsequent question: ‘what then?’ What will I do after I become a Permanent Resident with a diploma in baking bread and a debt of $20,000? I am afraid, there are no easy answers.

The late journalist Kuldip Nayyar recounting his early life in an interview mentioned he had gone to Northwestern University in the US in the late 1940s to pursue higher education. The interviewer promptly asked if he had entertained the idea of settling there after finishing his studies. Mr. Nayyar said no, he never did ‘because I always felt there is a new country, we have to go back and build it.’ That sentiment is no longer there. India is nearly 80 years old while the average Indian is less than 30. There is the disconnect. The youth perhaps feel they don’t have anything to build in the old country, and out they go looking for younger, greener pastures. And to be fair, Canada does offer these pastures at least for 6 months a year, when they are not buried under knee deep snow.

I am by no means discounting the influence of popular culture, the songs and films that portray the garden of Eden version of “vilayet” must be of some influence on young impressionable minds but if songs alone had such a grip on young people, then we would have had a full-blown civil war on our hands in Punjab because songs on that topic outnumber all the other songs combined, at least 2-to-1. But that again is a topic for another day.

Will there be any easy answers for Punjab when the middle class flees, and the only remaining population is either too poor to leave or too opulent to care? As John Donne summed it ‘if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.’ But here full grown, educated men and women are being washed away, is Punjab not the less? Bureaucrats and politicians perhaps become giddy in their air-conditioned offices looking at the backs of these aspiring students as one less mouth to feed, but who will pay the taxes that finance their royal lifestyles if a sizeable chunk of their potential taxpayers board planes to abroad? John Donne answers in the same poem ‘Do not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’