BJP MP's arrest exposes human trafficking racket
Apr 19, 2007 - 7:55:39 PM

Jalandhar/New Delhi, April 19 - The arrest of BJP MP Babubhai Katara, who was attempting to smuggle out a woman and a boy to Canada, has taken the lid off a flourishing human trafficking racket that appears to particularly thrive on the insatiable quest of aspiring Punjabis to make it to the West.

The well-organised immigration racket in Punjab and other parts of the country has over the years come to encompass the well-heeled - musicians and politicians included who don't mind helping people to illegally reach the developed world in return for fat bribes.

That exactly is what happened in the case of Katara.

The racket also thrives, officials and others say, because so many people in Punjab are desperate to go abroad for lifestyles they know they can never afford in the villages and small towns where they live.

In the process, many submit themselves into the hands of unscrupulous human smugglers, paying them large sums of money to reach the promise land, by selling off ancestral farm land or property. Often, the victims end up with nothing.

This is what happened to the Punjabi woman who was trying to reach Cananda on the passport of Katara's wife.

According to police and intelligence agencies, an estimated 25,000 youths from Punjab villages get sucked into the human trafficking racket each year with each one reportedly shelling out sums ranging from Rs.75,000 - to Rs.1.5 million, depending on the choice of destination and the mode of travel.

The lower amounts are fixed for destinations in the Gulf and the Middle East and higher amounts for destinations in Europe and North America.

'There are thousands of youths in the region who are forever lining up to pawn everything their families possess to make it to the elusive El Dorado. And they are willing to take the gamble, despite the risks,' says a home ministry official.

Smuggling human beings from Punjab, colourfully referred to as 'kabootarbaazi' -, continues unabated. Most unscrupulous travel agents in Punjab are located in Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Nawanshahr and Kapurthala districts.

Despite the dangerous journeys that have to be undertaken and undeterred by repeated tragedies, there are still many takers.

In the Malta boat tragedy of December 1996, 170 young men from the Doaba region of Punjab drowned in the Malta-Sicily channel.

Katara was caught as he was boarding an Air India flight to Toronto with a woman, Paramjeet Kaur, and her child Amarjit Singh posing as his wife and son. He was taking them on the diplomatic passports of Katara's wife and son.

Paramjeet had agreed to pay Rs.3 million to a travel agent in Jalandhar and had already paid Rs.1 million for her passage to Toronto.

Her devastated mother Mohinder Kaur and other family members in Kapurthala's Feroze Sanghowal village are hoping that no action is taken against Paramjeet.

'She is innocent. We were only trying to unite her with her husband in Toronto. Her husband has been there for four years. She used to live with us in the village,' Mohinder bemoaned as TV pictures flashed before her about her daughter being arrested.

This is not the first time a well-known figure has been caught helping in illegal immigration.

Punjabi folk singer Sukhi Brar's name figured in September 2004 for allegedly helping an upcoming singer-dancer Baljinder Kaur to reach the US illegally.

'People are ready to shell out any amount - from Rs.500,000 to Rs.5 million - to go abroad. The craze is mind-boggling and travel agents are making the most of it. The law enforcing agencies don't take much action despite the widespread network of human trafficking,' complained Jalandhar businessman Rajinder Singh.

Famous Bhangra pop singer Daler Mehndi is still seeking to clear his name of the human trafficking case against him in a court in Patiala. Ditto his brother, Shamsher.

The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration believes that human trafficking is a $7 billion global business with links to the international arms trade, drugs, prostitution and child abuse.

Though embassies and high commissions of various countries in New Delhi and their consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are aware of the rackets run by these trafficking syndicates, which show people wanting to go abroad as athletes and artists, the law-enforcement agencies remain one step behind the gangs.

Many youth have also gone abroad posing as religious preachers.

Patiala schoolboy Dalbir Singh went missing in Britain in July last year. He had gone there as a member of a club cricket team to play in that country.

In 2005, six rowers of the Punjab Police team also went missing in the US, where they had gone for an international rafting competition. They never took part in the competition.

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