Page last updated at 12:25 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Punjab's migrants take less home

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Jalandhar, Punjab state

Old men in Giljian village in Punjab, India
Almost every family in Punjab's Giljian village has members living abroad

Pyara Singh is on his annual visit home from Hamburg, Germany, where he works as a cook in a pizzeria.

He has been away for 14 years, but his parents, wife and two children live in Giljian, a village in the Jalandhar district of India's northern state of Punjab.

"I have two acres of land, but that isn't enough to support the whole family. So I migrated to Germany. As a cook, I make six euros ($8) an hour," he says.

Pyara Singh
Pyara Singh now only gets four or five hours of work a day
Mr Singh lives cheaply - he shares a small apartment with several other workers from Punjab and eats frugally, which allows him to save most of his earnings.

His annual visits are eagerly looked forward to by his family - when he comes, he brings his year's savings, which help the family live more comfortably for the rest of the year.

His savings have helped the family build a new two-storey house where he sits and chats now. With several bedrooms, a drawing room, a lounge and a courtyard, the house is spacious and accommodating.

But Mr Singh is a worried man now - the economic recession in Germany has made the going tough for him.

"A lot of Germans have lost their jobs and when people have less money, they eat out less. Earlier, the pizzeria was buzzing, there was lots of work, I could make about 1,200 euros a month and I could save 500 euros. But now there is little work. I can get only four to five hours of work in a day."

Pyara Singh's tale is echoed in nearly all homes in Giljian.

Map of Punjab
In this village of 300 homes, almost every family has sent one or more of its members to foreign shores.

And the remittances they have sent back over the years have helped the residents here live a life of affluence that many in India can only dream of.

Many of the houses have been built in the last few years and most are large. Some have expensive SUVs parked in their front yards.

The conversation here is peppered with references to children and grandchildren making a living in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Italy, France and Belgium.

Scarce land

Nearly six million Indians working abroad sent home $30bn in 2008, according to World Bank estimates, making India the top receiver of migrant remittances.

The money is spent mostly on buying consumer goods, land and building houses, a study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) study suggests.

Residents of Giljian describe the help they receive from relatives abroad

"One-third of the 25 million Indians living abroad are Punjabis which means there are more than eight million Punjabis settled abroad," says SK Chopra, president of a committee in Jalandhar representing non-resident Indians. The committee has 5,500 members.

The land here is hugely fertile, but it is scarce and as families grow larger, the land-holdings are divided among the children. With smaller plots of land, it becomes impossible for families to sustain themselves by farming.

A lack of industry and the outbreak of Sikh militancy in the 1980s also contributed to the flight of people to unknown shores in search of better prospects.

Earlier our bank received one million rupees a month, now we are getting only 30% of that
Suchet Singh of the Allahabad Bank in Nakodar, Jalandhar
"During the militancy, shiploads of men from Punjab fled to other countries and settled down there after getting political asylum. In time, they took their families and then friends and acquaintances too," says Major Singh, a journalist in Jalandhar.

"Punjabis can do only two things - they either join the army or they migrate. They have a craze to go abroad. But they are very hard working and they adjust well wherever they are," he says.

'No status'

These qualities have helped Punjabis prosper in all sorts of foreign lands.

"Today, people from Punjab are settled in 67 countries around the world," Mr Chopra says.

Most of those who migrate work as farm hands in Canada and Australia, as attendants at gas stations in the US, run stores in the UK or work as cabbies on the streets of New York.

A notice outside a bank in Nakodar, Punjab
Nakodar has 20 bank branches to receive money from Indians abroad

"Punjabis abroad have no status, six to eight people share a small apartment, they live mostly on bread and tea. They earn little, but they save nearly all of it, and they send all their savings home," Major Singh says.

It's estimated that Punjabi non-resident Indians send approximately $150m to $160m home every year.

But now the economic meltdown thousands of miles away, banks going bust in the US, job losses and dwindling businesses are threatening to upset the applecart in Jalandhar.

The heat is being felt in Nakodar, a small nondescript town 15 miles (24km) from Jalandhar, which is home to 20 banks.

Just on one street, you can count branches of Kotak Mahindra Bank, Axis Bank, Bank of Patiala, Allahabad Bank, State Bank of India and several others. And most of them have opened in the last three or four years.

'Less money'

"The business grew rapidly over the last five-six years," says Suchet Singh, a senior official at the Allahabad Bank. "But now it's begun stagnating. The global economic downturn means little money is coming here," he says.

Usually in the winter months, people visit home. This year the traffic is down by at least 30%
SK Chopra, president of the Non-Resident Indian committee, Jalandhar
"Earlier our bank received one million rupees ($20,000) a month, but now we are getting only 30% of that.

"There is less money coming from the US because of the recession there, there is less money coming from Britain because the rupee is now stronger against the pound, there is also less money coming from Dubai and Muscat, possibly because they are not getting money from elsewhere on time."

Mr Chopra says, "The economic downturn has meant people are no longer purchasing property, the markets are empty too.

"Usually in the winter months, people visit home. This year the traffic is down by at least 30%. In the last one month, direct flights to the UK and Singapore from the nearest airport of Amritsar have stopped," he says.

But the less than attractive conditions abroad do not mean the Punjabi non-resident Indian is making a beeline home.

"What will he do if he comes back here? He doesn't have much land, there are no jobs here. He's still much better there," says Major Singh.

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