Last month EU marked Anti-Trafficking day and with the aid of the celebrity couple, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, launched a fund for human trafficking victims. “Lives are for sale in Europe”, warned UNODC (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime). They are, and, ironically, despite their booming economies, Indians and Chinese continue to figure prominently in the list of victims. Vacationing in Europe a few years back I learnt this first hand.
"The going rate is 25 lakhs," he shrugged, "I made it in good time."
In the gently sloping green hills of southern Tuscany, dotted by church bell towers and agriturismo resorts, amidst olive groves and lush vineyards, I had come across an anomaly: a Punjabi-speaking stable hand from my native Punjab. The sight of brown-skinned folks like himself had earlier prompted him to hesitantly query, "You, Indian?" The discovery that we hailed from the same region in India (a country as varied as continental Europe) made him relax as he took my daughter on a pony ride, and spoke his heart. By the end, I had a dinner invite and had learnt the story of his flight, seventeen years ago, from Punjab as a kabootar.
Kabootarbazi, or pigeon flying, was popularized as a sport in India by the Mughals. Its present day connotations, however, are less innocuous: kabootarbazi is a routine euphemism for human trafficking - it pops up frequently in folk songs even. In Punjab, NRI (Non Resident Indian) is a badge of honor that has seen the price for illegal emigration soar to 25 lakh rupees, roughly 60,000 dollars. Desperate young men will sell their house and land; hide as stowaways in tankers; trek for several days at a stretch with little to eat through Russia, Ukraine, Czech republic before making it to some western European nation; even declare themselves gay to get access to countries that have legalized gay marriages. It is good that pigeons are hardy birds. They can be housed in cramped quarters, will endure filth and squalor, even as their homing instinct ensures that every penny saved is repatriated home, contributing to Punjab's $3 billion annual foreign remittance.
Anywhere in the world you dig, you will find two things: potato and Punjabi - a common saying that acknowledges the entrepreneurial spirit of the people. Nevertheless, the blame for the Punjabi obsession with western shores lies squarely with Queen Victoria. If she had not invited her loyal Indian troops to attend her Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in 1897, the soldiers would not have sighted Canada on their return journey, and subsequent stories of a virgin land waiting to be settled would not have germinated in the Punjabi imagination.
Trafficking specialists - travel agents, politicians, pop stars, sports officials - have sprung up, offering creative solutions that pivot on the Great Indian Rope Trick: ascend the rope of a foreign junket - as member of a sports team or pop singer's troupe or a folk dancer's group - and, on scaling foreign shores, poof, vanish! Such is their brazenness that recently a member of parliament was caught trying to smuggle a woman on his wife's passport without bothering to change her photograph on the document.
Pigeons, however, come in other colors and nationalities as well. As we savoured the majestic ruins of imperial Rome, delighted in Florentine art, we could not help but notice the man who made our room daily came from Indo-Chine, the mobile food van outside the Colosseum was manned by a Bangladeshi, the waiter who served us pasta at the alfresco diner in the Duomo's shade was a North African. Did they possess legal work papers? Likely. Did they have those papers when they entered Italy? Unlikely.
The International Labor Organization estimates that roughly 27 million people are illegally trafficked at any given time. Total yearly profits generated by the human trafficking industry is a whopping 32 billion. At the heart of the issue is the men and women desperately fleeing the poverty, unemployment and social inequality of their homeland for the economic opportunities that exist in the land of plenty - which, in turn, reeling under declining fertility rates needs extra hands but fears cultural contamination. The explicit "exclusion" laws of early twentieth century have given way to rabble-rousing over cultural erosion and, post-9/11, to paranoia over suspect ethnicities.
On my return flight I chanced on an article that spoke of empty villages in Tuscany. Apparently, under the brilliant Tuscan sun whole towns are becoming depopulated and thousands of acres of agricultural land is falling into disuse. Centuries-old olive trees decaying because there are no young hands to cultivate them; senior citizens solidifying on park benches with empty swings behind them; delightful wine cellars shuttering for lack of custom...
If there is a truth to today's world, it is this: the sagging bellies of the developed world need the booming bellies of the developing. Water finds its level; so do humans. We need governments and policy makers to add dignity to the process