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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

They don't live here anymore

Punjab's 'thriving' model village stands sad witness to a never-ending exodus to distant shores. It has more people abroad that at home, writes Nirupama Dutt

How often have I loitered o'er thy green/Where humble happiness endeared each scene/How often have I paused on every charm/The sheltered cot, the cultivated farm – Oliver Goldsmith (The Deserted Village)

Driving down the tree-lined road in the Doaba region of Punjab, which takes its name from do-ab and literally means land between two rivers, we stop at Mahilpur in Hoshiarpur district to seek directions to Kharaudi. “Turn left and when you come to a Marriage Palace on one side and a petrol pump on the other, just turn right and you will reach the village,” a wayfarer guides us.

Kharaudi is well-known in these parts because it is the first village that brought in the lifestyle improvement project to rural Punjab, courtesy the efforts of its eminent expatriates.

As we enter the village, we are struck by its palatial villas and houses with landscaped gardens, which could compete with the best residences in Chandigarh or Panchkula, but there are locks on their huge wrought-iron gates. Therein lies the paradox of this promised village: more of its inhabitants live abroad than at home.

A labourer paving a footpath says: “All the wealthy villagers live in America, Canada or Australia. They might come in the winters every other year or not.” The homes, however, are kept spic and span by caretakers as mementos to the success that they earn abroad.

A popular song sums up the story of this land: ‘You will long for mangoes once you leave the Doaba homeland’. Sadly, the people do long for the sweet mangoes yet they leave. The largest immigration in the past three centuries has been from this region known for its mango and citrus fruit groves.

It is the most picturesque area of Punjab, sharing its northeast boundary with Himachal Pradesh, known for its forests and rivulets. Writer Des Raj Kali, who has done extensive research on these parts, says: “ It is said of our region that as soon as a child is born in Doaba, his or her passport is made. The reasons for this are the small land holdings and the unsuitability of much of the land for wheat and paddy crops. Most of the heroes of the Ghadar movement and the famed Komagata Maru ship belong here. Our immigrants have done us proud.”

Hoshiarpur has also had the highest literacy rate because survival here meant education. Male literacy is 89.9%, and female literacy is 80.8% as per the 2001 census which showed the total literacy for the state at for 71.4 per cent for males and 60.53 for females.

Eminent thinker and writer John Berger says: “Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our times.” This experience translated itself with educated immigrants from Kharaudi moving to distant shores seeking their fate and fortune. One of them was Raghbir Singh Bassi, who graduated from Harvard and rose to the position of Vice-Chancellor of Alaska Pacific University.

His students and admirers would ask him about the village of his origin and express a wish to visit it. He often wondered what these people would think of an obscure village without any modern facilities. His fellow villager, Gurdev Singh Gill, who left for Canada after completing high school in 1949, did his medicine there and became the first doctor of Indian origin to start private practice in Maple-leaf land, was also concerned about the poor sanitary conditions that he saw in his village on his trips back home.

The two joined hands in the mid 1990s to change the face of their village when they were home on a vacation. They appealed to other Kharaudians and in a short time Rs 50 lakh was collected and the Village Life Improvement Board was formed. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal gave a matching grant and work started with the help of the district administration to turn Kharaudi into a model village.

Harpreet Singh Gill, a member of the Board who resisted the temptation to migrate and does farming, says: “The villagers happily gave land and buildings for the project and whatever else they could in cash or kind. A new Kharaudi was born in 2002.

Solar lighting was introduced and a primary school with computer education was started. A park was laid out in the memory of a native hero, freedom fighter, poet and social activist Arjan Singh Sach (1897-1979) who languished in British India jails for 18 long years. Another clock-tower park was built on the other end of the village.

Kharaudi also has a community centre with furniture, crockery and what have you. A foreign visitor later built an open-air theatre and Pammi Gill constructed a modern mortuary as he had not been able to see his mother’s body for he could not make it back in time for the funeral.

In spite of all this, telephone connections and a monument to the Ghadari Babas, the model village of Punjab bears a deserted, or rather haunted, look. Harpreet Gill, whose grandfather migrated to New Zealand in 1890s, says: “All our family slowly moved to distant shores. I am the only one who chose to stay here. In many other homes there is not a single person. Very few are left here.”

This is the paradox of Kharaudi. Villagers realise the dream of building palatial homes with dollars earned broad but rarely get to live in them. Kharaudi is indeed a model village but few are left there to enjoy the blessings.

Real These link also:

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