I WAS amazed, not surprised, to read the comments of the Italian Ambassador to India that a large number of work permits issued to Punjabis was due to requests from the Italian business fraternity who see them as a hardworking community. The envoy goes on to say that Italy is home to the highest number of Indians in the European Union and that 80 per cent of them are Punjabis and their number is growing. He adds that the Indian and Punjabi communities are one of the most integrated ones in the economic system, especially in agriculture and dairy. The number of immigrants to the country has grown over 10 times, from a mere 20,000 in 1991 to 2.1 lakh this year. Add to this the growing exodus to Canada, Australia, UK, USA, etc. The queue of applicants for the Canadian visa snakes on and on and is an everyday affair. So is the case for other countries. Canada has strengthened its Deputy High Commissioner’s office in Chandigarh to facilitate visas. It would be relevant to question the Punjab government here as to what has been done to provide opportunities for the youth of the state. By now, one should have seen the sprouting of fresh ideas in this direction. The party in power had promised not only to stop immigration but also to reverse it — what happened?
Not only is immigration a huge financial loss, but it is our youth, our future, that sees no hope here. Jobs are scarce. Earlier it was mainly the children of farmers who were leaving as landholdings and earnings shrunk. Today, business families, traders and even children of service families are headed west. Good employment is the key to stall this ever-widening deficit. Employment that can either be generated through government jobs or by the private sector. The key here is the private sector. So the question to ask is, what is being done for it? Rather, how is the environment being made conducive for micro, small, medium and large businesses to flourish? It is not about the government giving funds, it is more about the government playing the role of a facilitator. How welcoming and encouraging is it? There are countless stories of foreign cities laying out the red carpet for investors. It is because they know the jobs that will follow and the life it will breed into their community. We are very good at tabulating data for freebies, has anyone bothered to tabulate jobs and investment district and sector-wise? Or does that not matter? NRI Sammelans have been held by past governments at the state and Central level with little or no results. Touchy-feely events with no concrete policy spelled out serve little more than optics for the media. Today, instead of making fresh investments in Punjab, NRIs are mostly disposing of whatever assets they have here. The problem is not the creation of this government, but they came to power with a massive majority due to the promises of employment and development.
The Italian Ambassador also saw tremendous potential for collaboration with Punjab in food processing, dairy farming, agricultural machines and cold chain packaging. Is anyone in the Punjab government listening? Is any follow-up planned? There are reported to be 600 Italian companies in India, mainly in Maharashtra, Gujarat, TN, Delhi and Karnataka. The Chandigarh airport continues to be a dismal story (a name change seems to be the major claim to fame so far). What happened to the many international flights which were going to start come August? Many Augusts have come and gone in the past decade since it was declared an international airport and yet one of the largest diasporas in the country has to trudge all the way to Delhi to catch a flight. What trade and business are we hoping to achieve if we have to tell businessmen, traders and officials that we are not only landlocked but also with next to zero air connectivity? Compare this with Kochi airport, which in the April-June quarter handled nearly 21 lakh international passengers (The Hindu). We need to convert our diaspora into an asset by giving them a conducive environment for business and entrepreneurship.
I have written at length on the Italian Ambassador’s views only to emphasise the scale Italy alone accounts for. Now add the vast spaces of Australia and Canada and their equally welcoming governments. Why talk about Punjab alone? The Centre, too, had promised crores of jobs. Where have all the jobs gone? Not to Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Uttarakhand where even the traditional jobs in the armed forces are not enough. The youth from these states have also started looking toward foreign shores. Mahua Mitra, MP, quoting figures put out by the national statistical office, stated in Parliament that industrial output shrunk by 4 per cent in October to a six-month low, and the manufacturing sector, which is still the biggest generator of jobs, has contracted 5.6 per cent (NDTV). She brought out figures from another important segment of our social fabric. Almost two lakh people renounced the Indian citizenship in the first 10 months of 2022, the total number for the last nine years is reported to be about 12.5 lakh. These figures, one can assume, pertain to mid-level businessmen who are seeking residence abroad. This only reinforces the problem of unemployment and a stagnant economy.
On December 13, the Finance Minister made a statement in Parliament that banks have written off loans worth Rs 10 lakh crore during the last five fiscals. The Tribune report goes on to say that the RBI informed the Centre that under some provisions, the names of the top 25 defaulters and others with loans of Rs 10 crore and above could not be disclosed. If you have ever taken a scooter, car, house loan, you would know that the banks have special teams to use strong-arm tactics to seize these assets if a default occurs. I do not claim to be an economist and leave it to wiser heads to explain the conundrum to us in layman terms.
The point of all this is that if the government is unable to generate enough jobs for the youth and major and medium business magnates fail in their ventures and get their loans written off, what can we expect? What will happen to the economy and employment? Lakhs of youth are roaming around and have become easy pickings for drug peddlers and criminal gangs. Going by media reports, Punjab is being flooded with drugs by the neighbouring country. The recoveries are only suggestive of the larger amounts that are going through. The largest consignments are coming through the Gujarat and Maharashtra coast; some have been intercepted. In fact, the entire coastline is vulnerable and will require a major joint effort by the state and Central authorities to control it. Arms are being smuggled in from across the border and being manufactured within the country. Crime and criminals are proliferating, locals are being targeted. Cases of mind-numbing rapes, assaults, robberies, etc, are reported daily from all major cities and even small towns.
The word ‘gang’ has entered our lexicon. Today, there is a nexus of gangsters, singers, drug smugglers, arm syndicates and their patrons in politics and the criminal justice system. Policing as it operates today under the overarching diktats of politicians will not be able to answer the call of the time. Rule of law has to come back in place of rule of political agendas and exigencies. Added to this crime situation are the extremist organisations operating in the country. There is an uneasy peace in J&K, Punjab, the North-East and the tribal belt. States and the Centre have to pool in resources to meet this situation, as also the ticking time bombs we are sitting on at the LAC and LoC.
The answer to all such problems begins with good governance. The time has come for governments to protect the institutions and instruments of governance and use them for the common good. Party agendas and priorities should not come in the way of the rule of law, governance and protection of national interests. In Punjab, we have to be extra cautious as we have already been through a trial by fire. We, the common citizens, have the right to ask the government to anticipate problems and take preventive measures lest events again overtake us. Pointers are there on the horizon and it is for us to read the signals that are emanating from covert and overt quarters.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP