With Factories Being Shut, Unemployment Echoes in Punjab’s Doaba

This story first appeared on The Quint on 1 February 2017.

To what extent can one go to avoid coming back to one’s own country? Prabjot Sood, 28, got married. After he completed his matriculation from Jalandhar, he headed to Canada on a two-year education visa to pursue mechanical engineering, which proved too arduous for his abilities. He dropped out and began driving a truck instead. “I realised I could make more money than what my friends did back home with their fancy degrees,” he said.

However, he ran into trouble after the visa expired. “The only way I could have remained in Canada was to get married,” Sood said. “And I did.”

‘Impossible to Find a Job in Punjab’

But Sood did not get along with his wife. The marriage ended, and so did the stay in Canada. In January last year, Sood was deported back to his hometown of Jalandhar, which falls in Punjab’s Doaba region that covers the area between Beas and Sutlej rivers.

However, Sood is not the only one to have been deported. In the last three years, 6000 residents of Doaba have been deported from US and Canada for entering illegally, forging documents or overstaying their visa. “It is impossible to find a job in Punjab,” said Sood. “Jalandhar, Ludhiana used to be hubs of industries and factories. They have all shut shops over the years. Where does one work now?”

Doaba Region Hit by Deindustrialisation

There are 23 crucial seats in Doaba, and when Punjab goes to polls on 4 February, unemployment of youngsters would be a critical factor on the electorate’s mind, for it has been ailing the whole state for a long time. The Congress has campaigned on the plank of promising a job per household. AAP’s 51-point manifesto is called “for the youth, of the youth and by the youth”.

Both the parties are trying to capitalise on the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal, which has been governing the state for a decade, and has done nothing to stop the slide. In 2014, newspaper reports said 18,770 factories have shut down since the Akali government came to power. Observers say it is a conservative number, and many more have followed suit in the last two years.

While Majha and Malwa regions are overwhelmingly agrarian, the tremors of de-industrialisation have been most severe in Doaba, which consists of towns like Ludhiana – once known to be a steel hub and manufacturers of cycles – and Jalandhar, where sports goods industry used to prosper.

Mass Exodus of Factories

In a narrow lane running through the Lasudi mohalla in Jalandhar West constituency, families are busy weaving footballs for different factories that are still operational. The women weave, while the men do the coolie work. Raj Rani, 50, has been making footballs for the past 27 years. “I got married in December. Lived like a princess for a month. And since February, I have been making footballs,” she described her married life in three lines. “I used to make 200 rupees per day 20 years ago. Today, I still make 200 rupees.”

Rani said Jalandhar had close to 800 factories back then, but there are hardly 50 today. The sports industry has moved to Meerut and cycle-makers like Hero and Avon, for which Ludhiana used to be a den, have expanded elsewhere, creating a massive void of jobs.

“The amount of work has gone down drastically,” Rani said, while weaving the ball. Her hands worked in harmony, like a flight on an autopilot mode. “The whole mohalla was into it. Now we are all struggling to make our ends meet.”

Industrialists and businessmen lay the blame of this mass exodus by factories squarely on the Akali Dal government in alliance with the BJP, and more so on the CM’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the party and Deputy CM of Punjab.

Requesting anonymity, a businessman, who became a member of the Akali Dal ten years ago, said it is impossible to do business in Punjab if you are not close to the Badals. “Sukhbir is greedy,” he said, sitting in his office, which had a photograph of him and Sukhbir.

If a business is doing well, he (Sukhbir Badal) would ask for a cut. It reduces your margins significantly. And if you have a fallout with him, he makes your life miserable.

A businessman on conditions of anonymity

Further, activists say that since most of the state’s businesses that generate substantial revenue belong to Badals or their proxies, many do not pay taxes, resulting in the state being starved of funds, which is why it has to compensate from elsewhere.

Educated Youth Forced to Do Odd Jobs

While other states lure industries to set up their factories, Punjab charges Rs 8 per unit for electricity – other states charge around Rs 4-5. On power bills, Punjab charges Octroi and Cow Cess. It drastically increases the production cost, and has reduced the purchasing power of the people.

Lakhs of educated youngsters are thereby languishing, doing odd jobs. Anmol Gulathi, 18, a bright young college student, drives an auto at night.

A friend of mine has done B.Tech. He works as a delivery boy and earns Rs 6,000. I get Rs 9,000. There are so many like him as labour here has become dirt-cheap. We are all waiting for the opportunity to go abroad and settle down.

Anmol Gulathi, student

Consequently, English-speaking course, or IELTS, have proliferated across Punjab, which basically train the youngsters to get out of the state. Click a photograph of a random skyline and it will not be without the IELTS signboard.

The electorate holds the Badals accountable for the quagmire, and Congress and AAP are fighting hard to gain from it. The youth in Doaba is tilting towards the fresher because it does not carry any baggage. Anmol said Punjab needs a fresh face, which will enthuse voters.

The Congress is corrupt as well. They do not have the ability to expose the Akali scams. The Akalis will manage them. Only AAP can put the ones who are ruining the state behind bars.

Anmol Gulathi, student

AAP’s Charm Depends on Age Group

Rita Cheema, 31, residing in Kartarpur constituency on the outskirts of Jalandhar, said AAP speaks the language of the people. “They seem concerned about the people,” she said. “I cannot say the same thing about the Congress. Akalis are not even worth mentioning. AAP deserves a chance.”

Moreover, even though the unemployment has intensified during the last decade, situation prior to that, when Congress was in charge, was not hunky dory either, which AAP has harped upon, knowing Congress is their main opponent. In June 2006, Tribune India had written an editorial titled “Spectre of unemployment looms large in Doaba”.

However, as the age group changes, AAP’s charm wanes.

The pro-Khalistan chunk, which is disillusioned with the Akali Dal, and would never vote for Congress, are backing AAP. The NRIs are lobbying for them like never before. But commentators say these NRIs are the ones who fled Punjab during the militancy, and are now using AAP to regain significance. Doaba is the most politically aware and socially conscious region of the three, and the way AAP is entertaining radicals has not been received well here, raising concerns for the long run.

AAP Pandering to Radical Elements

Surjeet Kaur, 60, said she fears the Khalistan slogans would be heard again if AAP comes to power. “If Kejriwal is using them, they would expect something in return,” she said.

If he (Kejriwal) concedes the SGPC and Akal Takht, we might see the resurgence of radicals. Having lived through the period, I dread that. Captain Amrinder, on the other hand, is an experienced cog, who would know how to deal with all sections of the society. I wonder if AAP is capable of handling a complex state like Punjab. They are inexperienced.

Surjeet Kaur

Dalit Advantage for AAP

Doaba has over 40 percent Dalit votes with noticeable BSP followers. They are en-masse gravitating towards AAP, because they have recognised BSP as a spoiler. But the head of the dera of Ravidasa sect among the Dalits, which has a following of close to a million in Doaba, has tacitly extended its support to the Congress, which means the Congress has its nose ahead in the region.

Disillusioned Youth Flocking to Foreign Shores

Akin to Majha, AAP suffers from a brittle local cadre, and has relied on the face of Arvind Kejriwal, who is seen as a messiah in the all-important Malwa region with 69 seats. The reports of an AAP sweep in Malwa are spreading, which could influence voters from Majha and Doaba ahead of the polls. AAP has thrown all its might in Malwa and only has to ensure a respectable performance in the other two regions to scrape through to the halfway mark.

However, one person who is least bothered about Punjab and its future is Sood. After having failed to find a job in Jalandhar for the past year, he has fallen back on his tried and tested strategy to escape the misery of his home state. He got married in January this year. His wife is a 20-year old B.Com student, who wants to study abroad.

The pre-conditions of the wedding was simple. Sood’s parents from their savings will bear the expenses for the MBA the bride intends to pursue. And Sood will tag along on the back of his wife’s visa. It has worked out well. Both are set to fly to New Zealand in May.

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