Jalandhar: In rural Punjab, being an NRI is the stuff dreams are made of. People are keen to migrate to Europe and North America.
But for many of them, the dreams have gone horribly sour.
In June 2004, local travel agents promised Charanjit Singh a direct flight to Spain. But Charanjeet's group never reached Spain. Instead, they landed up in the Sahara desert.
“There was no water. One of our friends died of thirst and we feared a similar fate,” says Charanjit.
Eventually, Charanjit was rescued by UN officials from a jail in Mauritania in North Africa.
But there are many who were not as lucky. J S Nagra's eyes water each time he thinks of his 23-year-old son..
“My son went off more than two years ago, and we haven't heard from him since,” says Nagra.
The NRI tag is especially coveted in places like Doaba, where there is a lack of opportunities. Though many have been duped by travel agents, they still won't give up.
“Two lakh rupees of mine got stuck with one travel agent and then three lakh were again stuck with another agent. Even now I can spend money on an agent, as I want to go abroad,” says a resident Kuldeep Singh.
Over the past few decades hundreds of thousands of Punjabis have emigrated abroad and contributed substantially to the prosperity of this region.
Most are happy stories, some sad and a few horrific. But the allure of foreign money is such that the rush to go abroad continues. Legally or illegally.