Mr Bains, a kindly 90-year-old retired customs officer, hosted us last month at his home amidst mango orchards outside Gurdaspur. Alone, he lived a regulated life: rummy with friends, two drinks every evening and occasionally a third, so as to not “waste the soda.” A man Friday, a Punjabi lady cook, and a Punjabi-speaking Jharkand family answered to his needs.
That evening, just as he was about to call for the soda, Mr Bains complained of chest pain and sweating. Given his age, we feared the worst and scrambled. Mr Bains was rushed off in pouring rain through slushy lanes that ran between the fields. But the clinic in Gurdaspur turned us away: no doctor. The next hope was the ambitiously named X Medcity—a clinic with only minimal facilities, and virtually none to handle a cardiac patient. In a two-bedded room that served as an emergency-cum-ICU, a doctor administered first-aid and advised us to rush him to Amritsar or Jalandhar, never mind his ongoing cardiac event. An elementary ambulance, which nearly left without the oxygen mask, finally took the patient to Amritsar. Mr Dhillon (name changed), a friend of Mr Bains who had rushed to the clinic, shook his head in disbelief.
“For 30 years,” he said, “we’ve lived in a village in Canada, a village. But just one call to 911 and they come immediately. You get the best treatment. Here, there is nothing.”
The next day Mr Bains was back. He was never to recover from his ordeal and passed away a fortnight later. But that evening he was happy to be home with his friends. Mr Dhillon again waxed eloquent about Canada’s attractions. About the minimum hourly wage of $15. Of his sons who now grow Honeycrisp apples in an 80-acre orchard near Niagara Falls. About his own prize-winning flowers. About how he has never felt any racism, how the “goras love us” and how the Canadian government gives both him and his wife old-age pension because “they want their citizens to live honourably”.
Driving back the next day through Punjab’s “NRI belt”—the Doaba region between the Sutlej and the Beas—I could see that Mr Dhillon was not alone. The exodus was being announced by omnipresent signboards: “Study Canada, Pay after Visa,” “IELTS coaching,” “Spoken English,” “Contact for Visa/PR,” and so on. Ghost villages dot the landscape; fancy houses—financed by NRI dollars—lie vacant. Between 2016 and 2021, nearly ten lakh people went abroad from Chandigarh and Punjab, a staggering 38 per cent on student visas; unlike the Kerala migrant who usually heads to West Asia to earn and return, the Punjabi heads to Canada, the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand to put down roots, often selling ancestral land to fund his way. The reasons are not far to seek: gross mis-governance, stagnating industry and agriculture, lack of jobs, highly polluted soil and water, poor education and health infrastructure. Punjab, once a dynamic powerhouse, is becoming an old age home, drained of its youth. Ironically, political parties have often promoted schemes that facilitate migration.
Normally, I would have little sympathy for the ones who leave. I would urge them to rejuvenate Punjab, to resurrect pride in their culture and history, to not give up their passports for a few dollars more. But when I think of the helpless indignity of the good Mr Bains, once a devoted officer proud of his crisp white uniform, clutching his CGHS card in a minimal clinic, I feel less certain. Somewhere there has been a collective failure, somewhere lies a promise betrayed. Perhaps, those who leave in search of a better life have a point.
Navtej Sarna is former ambassador of India to the US and author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.