Off a quiet leafy street, two men sat in a large office in Chandigarh, discussing how to send immigrants from Punjab to Italy.
In a state where hundreds of thousands of youth have migrated illegally in search of work and a better life, such deal-making is common. Except that the two men were Punjab Governor retired Gen SF Rodrigues and Italian Ambassador to India Antonio Armellini, figuring out legal ways to realise those dreams.
Punjab is India’s illegal immigration hub. Many sell land, pay illegal travel agents and make perilous journeys on boats, in oil tankers and on foot across seas and rugged terrain — only to be arrested or deported. Many others are promised visa by these agents, who then disappear.
But Punjab is showing how that can change. The government is set to bring a law to crack down on illegal travel agents and has started labour emigration deals with countries looking for young workers. Rodrigues said countries seeking labour should come to places like Punjab and state the type of workers they want. The process has started.
A maritime customer in Canada was looking for 500 sailors with rural background and experience. The state government helped identify and send them.
With 80 per cent of Indian migrants to Italy coming from Punjab, officials have suggested that Italians provide details of the kind of workers needed, take batches for two weeks before they finally move.
The Canadian state of Saskatchewan has asked for dairy workers. “They said ‘we have a very big dairying industry, we are looking for people. We said we will train them here, you sponsor automated dairies, use that to train them, then let them go overseas’,” Rodrigues said.
Such deals could have a far-reaching impact on countries with ageing populations and a shortage of young workers. They are also likely to cut into the deep network of illegal travel agents.
“A rise in fraudulent visa applications has been observed,” the Italian embassy said after one of its awareness campaigns. “Italy is open to everyone and obtaining a visa through legal means…is the only way to enter Italy.”
But the law seems toothless in dealing with travel agents. Punjab hopes to fix that later this year.
The Punjab Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2008 — a draft of which is ready — says every agent will require a three-year government license to work. Officials will have the power to enter any building, even forcibly, search and seize documents and free people detained by travel agents — without search warrants between sunset and sunrise.
There will be a maximum prison term of 10 years and fines of up to Rs 25 lakh that could be increased by the judge.
Punjab will set up a State Fund to compensate those cheated, pay for measures taken to fight illegal travel agents and sponsor awareness programmes. The Fund will include grants from the state and proceeds of the sale of property forfeited under the law.
Police officials believe awareness will help tackle an equally big problem: people who have been cheated do not go to the police to register cases.
In Jalandhar, veteran travel agent SK Chopra believes something else will help end the practice of illegal trafficking — the changing face of new India. “A lot of things are changing about India itself, and if there are jobs here people might not want to go,” said Chopra, whose doctor daughter is a fellow at Harvard, and son a top executive with a financial services company in New York. “I could never have imagined that people living overseas would begin to return to settle down in India.”
But for now, there are many cracks that need to be filled.
KP Tiwari, the Protector of Emigrants in Chandigarh, complained about agents in immigration frauds in an interview with HT . Fifteen minutes later, CBI arrested him for allegedly taking a bribe in an immigration scandal.
The foreign ministry official was charged with accepting Rs 2.5 lakh from a recruiting agent to help them travel to the Gulf countries, said BL Soni, DIG of CBI.