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Maple leaf in mustard field

There exists in the towns and villages of Punjab a well-oiled network to facilitate migration to Canada

Manavi Kapur 

Vidhur Taneja (extreme right) conducting an English coaching class at the Academy of Languages in Jalandhar
Vidhur Taneja (extreme right) conducting an English coaching class at the Academy of Languages in Jalandhar

The strength of the Punjabi community in is evident from the five MPs in the recently-elected The country's defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, has roots in

According to a 2011 estimate, there are in 1.2 million Indian immigrants, of which over half are Punjab's Doaba - the fertile belt of land between the Sutlej and Beas rivers - has come to be called the NRI (non-resident Indian) belt.

It then seems only logical that the in is the only diplomatic mission in the state.

Inside his eerily silent office in Chandigarh's upscale Sector 17, Consul General Christopher Gibbins is intrigued why Punjabis flock to Canada, but agrees the consulate's presence in the city is a reflection of the significant volume of visas and trade. "Punjabis are so intrinsic to the Canadian society that it's hard to see them as Punjabis or immigrants," he laughs, seated behind a desk that sports flags of both India and

Christopher Gibbins, Consul general, Canadian High Commission, Chandigarh
Christopher Gibbins, Consul general, Canadian High Commission, Chandigarh
On my way to Jalandhar, I spot the Canadian flag on one of the hotels on the highway, rightly called Canadian Hotel. The red maple leaf, I discover, is almost a metaphor unto itself in It can be seen at the offices of travel agents and painted proudly on buses. In fact, the is as common as Gurdas Mann's face at every dhaba.

The Indo-Canadian Transport buses that run in offer another distinguishing mark for this unique state-country relationship.

The service runs about 1,000 buses daily during the NRI-heavy winter season from the Delhi airport to towns like Jalandhar, Ludhiana, and Moga, also offering last-mile connectivity to villages through local travel partners.

Founded by Satnam Singh Deol in 1994, the buses were an outcome of the poor treatment he faced from taxi drivers when he came from Canada to visit Punjab.

Poor treatment, as it happens, continues to be handed out to first-time outbound travellers from Punjab - easy to identify in their kurtas and loose pajamas. Ignoring the sneers at the airport and inside the flight, these hardy men and women, young and old, determined to earn more, charge on.

The ticket and visa to Canada take some effort. Money has to be arranged, which often comes from selling agricultural land, paperwork has to be done and skills that will help you survive in a new country have to be acquired. There are people who will do it all for you.

The Doaba belt, with Jalandhar as its hub, has an explosion of educational consultants who help students fill their applications, besides getting a good score on the all-important IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, exam.

Outside the office of one such consultant, Canam Consultants, an LED screen shows IELTS scores of successful candidates. Prem Kumar Kapila, branch manager at Canam, explains that because of a lower IELTS requirement for visas to Canada, more people with absolutely no prior knowledge of English, especially those from rural pockets in Punjab, can successfully emigrate.

Canam, which has 21 offices in India and five abroad, helps a student fill out a form, choose universities to apply to, gather relevant documents in the right format and train him or her to get at least a 6.5 score in IELTS.

A very large number of such consultancies exist in Jalandhar and Ludhiana. Kapila cautiously estimates authorised consultants to be about 600 in Jalandhar alone.

With the increased number of visas, a large portion of these even fraudulent, a certification for such consultants is necessary from the ICCRC, or the Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, which is the national regulatory body authorised by the government of Canada under the and Refugee Protection Act.

But are visa seekers aware of the ICCRC certification? Kapila promptly dishes out a booklet. "This details all the visa requirements and procedures and I urge my clients to go through this before they sign up," he says. This, though, may be futile for those who need training to read, write, understand and speak rudimentary English.

Down a floor from Canam's office in Vasal Tower, a consultant tells a prospective client on the phone that her company follows a "points-based" system to assess whether or not a visa to Canada is possible. One gets points for age, educational qualification, work experience, a relative living in Canada and IELTS score. When she discovers that the candidate does not make the cut, she does not deter her from applying: "I'm sure bhaiyya will be able to guide you better."

Bhaiyya is Siddharth Kataria, the director of Global Innovative and Placement Services. The photocopies of passports with Canadian permanent residency visas on display inside leave nothing to the imagination.

Seated inside a cabin with faux leather all around, Kataria scribbles various permanent residency visa options for candidates with different qualifications.

Each visa, he informs me, can take up to 18 months to get. While a regular, "above board" application can cost up to Rs 3 lakh, the one that catches my eye is the one that can cost up to Rs 10 lakh.

Kataria explains that this visa pertains to skilled labour schemes. Plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers can apply under it. But why does it cost so much? "The visa does not cost as much as procuring a letter of employment from Canada. We're just middlemen helping people get jobs in Canada," Kataria says matter-of-factly.

That the job letters are real and necessarily mean an actual job in Canada is not always the case.

At the Academy of Languages, Vidhu Taneja, all pride on his talent in public speaking and his love for the English language, prepares visa aspirants to get the right IELTS score for their applications. The courses can cost up to Rs 7,500 per month. Those with low levels of proficiency sometimes need to enrol for as long as eight months. Besides this, the IELTS exam costs nearly Rs 12,000 and, in most cases, students have to take the test at least twice. Taneja trains about 150 students a year.

The chaotic Narinder Cinema area in Jalandhar offers all kinds of visa and education solutions to Punjabis who want to emigrate to Canada
The chaotic Narinder Cinema area in Jalandhar offers all kinds of visa and education solutions to Punjabis who want to emigrate to Canada
The Narinder Cinema area in Jalandhar is the true hub for everything related to emigration. The commercial complex is a one-stop-shop for IELTS coaching, skill and personality development classes, visa consultants, travel agents - and nanny training.

Divya Chanana of the CHR Group, dressed in a sharp black suit and stilettoes, explains the importance of nanny courses. "There's a huge demand for nurses in Canada. But not everyone has an interest in medicine. The second-best option then is a nanny course," she explains.

Students, mostly young women and a few young men, who enrol for the course are usually those who want to go to Canada to study and need something that will help them earn and cover their living costs.

At the Guru Nanak College of Nursing in Nawanshahr, a stately Dalbir Singh, the principal of the college, tells me that 70 per cent of his students end up abroad, most of them in Canada. "In fact, some of our teachers who travelled to Canada under the programme later even found permanent jobs there," he laughs.

Jaspreet Kaur is excited about finishing her studies next year. "I don't know how or when yet, but the dream is to go abroad," she says, bubbling with excitement.

Amid fields in this NRI belt - entire residential colonies have the word "NRI" on their gates - I see installations of large birds on the roofs of some houses. Till about 10 years ago, this bird was to let the world know that someone from the house has gone to Canada.

There is a certain level of disdain for Narinder Cinema's chaotic hub among the old, reputed travel agents of Jalandhar. Dharampal Sondhi of Sondhi Travels says he does not handle too many clients for Canada. "There is a lot of scope for issues to creep up, especially when clients expect us to find a solution one way or another to go to Canada," he says.

Jalandhar alone has close to 700 travel agents, perhaps the highest in all of Punjab. It is this, and the increased number of visa frauds, that led the Punjab government to issue the Punjab Travel Professionals Act in 2012, under which all travel agents have to register themselves and pay tax. They also need to have a basic 15-by-20-feet office, disclose transactions to a competent authority and not have any criminal record at the time of registration.

Enterprising Punjabis and their agents find sports teams and musical troupes under whose pretext they travel to Canada. These, of course, vanish the second they set foot on Canadian soil.

Visa frauds, colloquially known as kabootarbaazi (pigeon-flying), extend not only to students and professionals but also to young brides.

A spokesperson at the NRI Sabha, an NGO that works closely with the NRI police wing, says that the winter season is also the time for "holiday weddings" in Punjab. "The young men marry a woman from their village to please their parents and enjoy a hefty dowry. They then dump their brides behind and refuse to call them to Canada."

Some of these marriages also end in divorce in Canada, without the knowledge of the family in India. For the woman, too, it becomes an easy exit strategy from Punjab. "In fact, educated women now know their right and can fight for themselves. While one does not want to undercut the suffering women go through when they are abandoned, you do find cases where women are not mere victims," the spokesperson says.

As we speak, a seminar conducted by the British Council is concluding. This seminar is meant to sensitise police officials to cases of domestic violence and marital fraud. Deepa Mehta's 2008 film, Heaven on Earth, is a testament to how serious marriage frauds and domestic violence have become in Canada.

The NRI police station in Jalandhar was established to address the complaints regarding fraudulent marriages and dowry harassment, says Charanjit Kumar, additional inspector-general of Punjab Police's NRI Cell, but a majority of the cases that come to 15 of these special police stations emerge out of property disputes.

Avtar Singh Rai, dressed in a dapper tweed jacket, a Seiko and a bright turban, tells me in his heavily accented Punjabi-Canadian diction that he is at the police station to file an FIR against an "illegal" occupant of his land. When asked why he still has land in Punjab, Rai explains that his children still want roots in Punjab. "One needs a home to come back to," he says.

A special court has been put in place in Jalandhar, which is at the heart of the Doaba region, to expedite land and marital disputes that involve NRI Punjabis. "The idea is to ensure that don't have to run around during their short stay in Punjab," explains Kumar.

The number of in Punjab, much like in states such as Gujarat, is so prominent that elaborate government machinery has been put in place to help them manage their wealth and family affairs in India. The Punjab government has a dedicated department of NRI Affairs that facilitates the Punjabi diaspora to participate in the welfare of their hometowns and villages through various schemes. And with a vibrant machinery in place to help Punjabis fulfil their Canadian dreams, they are more than happy to give back to their roots when the time comes.

First Published: Sat, December 26 2015. 00:30 IST