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The Rediff Special/Ehtasham Khan
September 08, 2004
When taxi driver Subhash Chand saw on television a masked man holding a gun at fellow villager Antaryami Bains in Iraq in August, he rushed to join others in blocking traffic on the Delhi-Una road to register his protest.
At the same time, Subhash Chand has a desire to work abroad, earn dollars, and send money back home.
Antaryami and Subhash are childhood friends, residents of Dehlan village in Una district, 373km from New Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas in the small north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
The abduction of Antaryami and two other Indians, three Kenyans, and an Egyptian by a group calling itself 'Holders of the Black Banners' in Iraq's Fallujah town had spread panic in Una. The entire district stood as one to demand that the state and central governments put pressure on the employer of the men held hostage, the Kuwait and Gulf Links transport company, to ensure the safe release of the hostages.
The ordeal lasted 42 days.
But it has not deterred other young people in this area from dreaming of going abroad and earning more money. "I got my passport about three years back," Subhash, 30, said. "If God helps me, I will go abroad very soon."
Father of a two-year-old boy, Subhash Chand owns five acres of agricultural land, which produces enough wheat and maize to take care of his annual food needs. He bought a taxi five years ago. It yields him Rs 5,000 a month, which can go up to Rs 10,000 at certain times.
After Antaryami's experience, Subhash is hesitant to work in Iraq, but is willing to go to any other country, even in the Gulf region, that offers him a good salary.
Contrary to the general perception of poverty and unemployment pushing people to work abroad, in Una it appears to be a yearning to increase one's income and a status symbol. Una town, which is surrounded by mountains, has wide pucca roads and is nourished by canals from the Nangal dam and the Swan river. Wheat and maize are the major crops in the region apart from mangoes and cereals. All the villages have electricity and access to cable television.
Half the people have agricultural land, the rest work in the fields as labourers. Others are employed in government concerns. There are government-run schools in every village. These also provide the students with a mid-day meal every day apart from education. The town has a degree college and a teacher training institute as well.
Una town is close to Dharamsala, home to several thousand Tibetans, which sees a huge inflow of tourists throughout the year.
A retired government employee, Prem Singh Bains, said: "Our town is self-sufficient. We have everything here, but there is a fad among the youth to go abroad. Instead of doing hard work in the fields, they prefer to go abroad. They don't pursue their education diligently and cannot get good jobs here."
Yet Una is not an ideal town; poverty is visible on the margins. There are people like truck driver Tilak Raj who took a loan to go abroad. He owes about Rs 150,000, money he borrowed to build his house and pay a recruiting agent in the town of Nangal just across the border in Rupnagar district of Punjab, to get him a job abroad.
Tilak Raj said: "I was earning about Rs 4,000 a month driving a truck. I don't have any agricultural land and there was nobody to support me. I had no option. Do you think I was happy there leaving behind my wife and children here?"
In Dehlan – population: 10,000 – one person from every two houses works abroad, says Ujagar Singh, a former pradhan (elected village head) who retired from the government hospital in Una as chief pharmacist.
They are employed mostly as drivers, labourers and electricians in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in West Asia, Canada, and some African countries.
Subhash said, "Danger is everywhere, but money is important. We want to give a good life to our children."
He admitted to earning enough to support his nuclear family in Una itself, but justified his desire to go abroad. "What is wrong if I earn something extra and see the world," he said. "People look at you with respect when you come back from abroad every two-three years."
He became more enthusiastic after his brother-in-law left for Saudi Arabia about two weeks ago to work as an electrician.
But Antaryami regrets his decision to go abroad. "Life is better here," he said. "You have freedom here. They ask you to do all kinds of odd jobs there. Money is not everything. Here I earned enough to feed myself and my family."
Before leaving for Kuwait in December 2003, Antaryami was making Rs 4,000 a month driving a truck for a private operator. He had donated his first salary to the gurdwara in his village.
In Kuwait, he saved about Rs 8,000 every month. But even without that, the family is well off. They own a scooter, a landline telephone and a mobile connection. His father Ram Murthi married off Antaryami's sister and built a two-storeyed house for his son with the money he got after retirement from the state transport department as an inspector.
He offered to buy his son a tractor to ease his workload on the family's ancestral agricultural land. But Antaryami asked for Rs 70,000 to go abroad.
Antaryami's mother Pago Devi was always opposed to his going abroad to work. "He is my only son," she said. "He got married just a year ago. His daughter was just two months old when he went to Kuwait. But he never listened to me. I had to give up because of his adamant attitude."
His wife Kusum said, "I will not let him go again."
But Asha Rani (32), whose husband is in Liberia, a troubled country in west Africa, thinks differently.
She is sarpanch (head) of Dharampur village in Una district. Her husband, Raj Kumar, has been working as a salesman in Liberia since 2000. He was back in Dharampur for three months in 2003. The couple has two daughters and a son, and agricultural land that takes care of the family's monthly expenses.
Asha Rani is unaware how much Raj Kumar earns, but he sends her Rs 50,000 every five or six months. "I earn enough from the field to take care of my family," she said. "The money he sends is used to improve our house and buy jewellery. I also plan to open a dairy farm."
Before leaving for Liberia, Raj Kumar ran an embroidery shop in Una town and earned Rs 4,000 a month. His brother now looks after the shop.
About a year ago, he escaped a shootout in Liberia. "That was scary," his wife admitted, "but now everything is fine."
She lives close to Tilak Raj's house. "Everything is decided by fate," she said philosophically. "I do get scared sometimes. But then I am not so nervous about it. What has to happen will happen."
So will Asha Rani ask Raj Kumar to stay back when he comes to India next year? "It depends on him, but we have many liabilities... compulsions," she said and burst into laughter.
Her neighbour, 22 year-old Rakesh Kumar, is a carpenter who runs his own workshop. He earns about Rs 5,000 a month over and above his income from some agricultural land he owns. "I am not scared of these incidents," said the suave young man clad in fashionable blue denim, pink shirt and dark glasses. "I will definitely go abroad if I get a chance."
Headline image: Rahil Shaikh