Saturday, October 18, 2003

A pied piper too many

The lure of easy lucre, even if illegal, has made many a known name indulge in human trafficking. The extent of the ‘trade’ is so vast that in Punjab alone it is estimated to be worth over Rs 100 crore per annum. From politicians to religious leaders; from folk artistes to sportspersons; and from travel agents to overseas ‘handlers’, all are involved in this lucrative racket. Singer Daler Mehndi’s case highlights the fact that the leading lights of this region have been indulging in this kabootarbaazi since the mid-1980s. Prabhjot Singh reports.

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiTHE Daler Mehndi episode has once again brought into focus the menace of human trafficking which has emerged as a lucrative multi-crore business. Shrinking job avenues and the total apathy of the Union and state governments toward human resource development have contributed to the growth of this illegitimate trade.

Smuggling of humans has multinational dimensions as the problem is not confined only to developing countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It also affects the erstwhile East European countries.

The only paper-thin difference between large-scale human smuggling through illicit means and the so-called kabootar or pigeon scam is the legitimacy the latter channel offers. An assured visa and proper travel documents make this "trade" respectful, reliable and expensive.

If one scans through the records of immigration and naturalisation services of the USA or Canada during and after they play host to international events, one finds that they always have on their hands overseas participants seeking "asylum" and refusing to go back to their country. During the 1996 Olympic Games at Atlanta and the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, many athletes from Africa and Pan American countries disappeared from Olympic villages and later surfaced to seek "political asylum."

This is what made parents of five Punjab women cricketers pay hefty amounts to the Jalandhar travel agent after he had obtained "visas" for the entire team. "We paid him in three installments. After all, it was about the future of our daughter and we could not take any chances," remarked the mother of one of the girls. Otherwise, she admitted, another travel agent was demanding a little less but "we were not sure whether our daughter would be able to reach England safely."

There are few complaints against those involved in the kabootar scam as the candidates invariably reach their destinations. The problem starts only if they desert their team or troupe midway and it becomes public. This happened in the case of two Punjab Akali ministers who were on a visit to Canada a couple of years ago and also the Punjab women cricketers in England some weeks ago.

"Even in such cases, the onus lies on those staying back and not on those who brought them as a part of the team or their troupe," remarks a senior police official, maintaining, "It is the safest, quickest and easiest way of making quick money."

Legally speaking, the leader of the troupe reserves the right of blaming the beneficiaries for their disappearance. They can walk up to the local police to complain that one or more members of the troupe "have disappeared". This way the leader keeps his or her track record clean and becomes eligible to bring another team, packed with kabootars to the desired nation.

Immediate monetary gains, besides popularity, have been luring big-time politicians, folk artistes, sports organisers and religious heads into this "illegal trade." It has been thriving on account of the "foreign craze" among the youth.

For many of the ‘pigeon-handlers,’ it is a secondary or supplementary source of income apart from their main vocation. But returns from this are many times more than their actual earnings through regular means. Though no one buys any more the theory propounded by senior exponents of the trade that by taking "aspiring youth" abroad, they are doing a service to society; yet many of them, when caught, try to wriggle out either by using the influence that they wield in their professional capacity or by accusing the investigating agencies of demanding a bribe from them.

The most recent example has been of Daler Mehndi, who made all types of allegations against the police. But investigations have revealed a prima facie case against him.

However, for one, Mehndi, there are a number of senior politicians, eminent folk artistes, sportsmen, organisers, promoters and theatre personalities, who wriggle out of the mess and the police close the case files as they could not find "anything incriminating against them."

"We are aware of the magnitude of this problem. When a team of senior officers from Punjab was in England recently for an international police conference, this issue was debated threadbare," says A.A. Siddiqui, Director-General of Punjab Police.

He said that in Punjab as many as 1819 cases have been registered against erring travel agents during the past three years. Doaba is the worst affected region where a total of 363 cases have been registered in Jalandhar, 287 in Hoshiarpur, 336 in Kapurthala and 188 in Nawanshahr.

Siddiqui says that during the first seven months of 2003, the Punjab Police received 1909 enquiries from Indian missions overseas for verification of the antecedents of those who have landed in various countries by illegitimate means.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg. Those who get into western countries on proper short-term visa and refuse to come back in time are the cases which are seldom referred back to the states for verification. Only some cases, in which the applicants are seeking political asylum, alleging persecution back home, are received by us for verification," he adds. As of now, the Daler Mehndi case is the first kabootar case involving a big star which is being fully investigated. Efforts to get in touch with him proved to be futile.

It was in the mid-80s that the Punjabi community living overseas, in a display of its newly acquired affluence, started sponsoring cultural and folk troupes, religious groups and sports teams for participation in Baisakhi and Divali festivities.

Gradually, many of the enterprising promoters of these visits abroad thought of using the platform for taking "foreign crazy" youth as part of their delegations on payment of a hefty fee. Initially, those who were made members of the troupe were given some lessons in folk, culture,or religious discourses so that they could prove their bona fides to the counsellors in embassies.

However, once the system was in place, the intake of "non-performers" or "sleeping performers" started increasing and the racket began spreading its tentacles. The result is that now every troupe or team going abroad is a suspect in the eyes of foreign missions in New Delhi. Many organisations have been blacklisted.

Who all are involved?

Eminent people with connections overseas and who are well-versed with the nifty gritty of visa processing by High Commissions and embassies have been a "roaring success." Such are the contours of this racket that a conservative estimate puts the annual turnover at Rs 100 crore in Punjab alone.

The ‘trade’ is not only being run by politicians, folk artistes, sports organisers and promoters and religious leaders but by travel agents, many of them unauthorised, who are neck-deep in it.

Parvesh Rani, one of the five cricketers who went missing in the UK, returned to India after a few days
Parvesh Rani, one of the five cricketers who went missing in the UK, returned to India after a few days

Interestingly, not only gullible young people but also professionals, eminent sportsmen and women and skilled workers pay through their nose to be members of teams which can land them on foreign shores.

Two ministers in the previous Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party Government in Punjab, had also faced allegations of their involvement in human trafficking. The two ministers had gone to Vancouver carrying a handwritten manuscript of Guru Granth Sahib and a few other historic items to participate in the tercentenary celebrations of the birth of the Khalsa. A couple of members of the entourage disappeared after reaching Vancouver. This caused embarrassment to Canadian Federal Minister, Herb Dhaliwal, as he had reportedly intervened to get members of this ministerial entourage visas on the "ministers' permit."

The ministers, however, denied their involvement in the affair and the controversy gradually died down. However, this was not an isolated case involving politicians. There have been allegations and complaints against several other politicians, both from Punjab and Haryana, of taking people abroad as part of their entourage with an understanding of dropping them at the promised destination.

However, it is not a one-way racket which requires only a ‘dropping.’ "How can you operate without the other side supporting you? After all, someone does send invitations, sponsors all members of the visiting entourage, looks after them during their stay at a particular place and organises board and lodging facilities for them. It is basically a transnational issue and can be checked only if the authorities of both the countries involved, sponsors and acceptors of kabootars get together and share information," remarks a senior Punjab police official who has also attended the Indo-British International police conference.

The involvement of some officials at the lower level in foreign missions, travel agents and even airlines have also contributed to the growth of this ‘trade.’ A hue and cry is raised only when an aberration occurs. Otherwise, hundreds have travelled to make the western world in general, and North America in particular, their new abode.

Getting there alone does not solve the problem. The beneficiaries then follow it up with prolonged legal battles to earn the right to stay and work before ultimately getting the legitimate right to stay there as a landed immigrant.

"The most difficult part is getting there. Once you are there, you are certain that no one will throw you out unless you make a fool of yourself or get involved in a heinous crime or a major fraud," remarks Giani Inderjit Singh, a Sikh priest, who had gone to Canada as a kabootar but is now a Canadian citizen. His entire family has also joined him.He claims that many religious preachers like him had gone as a part of religious groups or ragi jathas and had stayed back for naturalisation.

A couple of years ago, a noted theatre personality of Chandigarh was also accused of charging "huge amounts of money" from candidates aspiring to go abroad as a part of her theatre group. The charges were denied and, after initial investigations, the police decided against charging her.

Almost at the same time, a top folk singer of Punjab, was also accused of actively conniving with travel agents and taking kabootars as part of his troupe. In this case, the police was satisfied with the explanation offered by the folk singer.

Athletes like thrower Gurtej Singh stayed back after the 1984 Olympic Games, while Kirpa Singh, a member of the junior Indian team, never returned home after he accompanied a club team to the USA.

There have been numerous other instances when members of hockey, football, kabaddi, football, tug of war and wrestling teams to the USA and Canada "disappeared" on reaching their destinations. The latest case has been of the Punjab women cricketers, five of whom disappeared, even before playing their scheduled matches. Though the team has returned, a couple of players, including Baljit Kaur of Kapurthala, have stayed back in England.

On the other hand, foreign missions, wiser by their previous experiences, have now started refusing to honour recommendations made by recognised Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and National Sports Federations (NSFs) for grant of visas to people going abroad as special observers for international events, conferences and seminars.