For decades, Punjabis have pursued their idea of paradise — acres of fertile land, a tractor ploughing it, and a happy farmer watching — beyond their State and in other countries. The latest entrant to the list of countries is an unlikely Georgia, a part of the Soviet Union in the past and now an independent nation.
Scores of immigration agencies that dot Punjab’s towns are now showing their prospective clients imaginative videos of lucrative farming opportunities in a country once known as the birthplace of Russian leader Stalin.
With shrinking land holdings that have become increasingly unviable in their home State, many Punjabi and some farmers from neighbouring Haryana, too, have begun exploring the possibilities of buying up cheap land in Georgia that has made available some 40,000 hectares of newly privatised land for farmers and entrepreneurs from other countries who can help rejuvenate its largely agriculture-based economy.
The draw, says Satwinder Singh of Margind village near Amritsar, is that land in Georgia is currently cheap. “By selling a couple of acres here, farmers can buy up several hectares of fertile land there.” He and a few other farmers from neighbouring villages have jointly invested in 200 acres in Khaketi region about 150 kilometres from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to test the waters. “Most Punjabis are investing in groups to minimise risks,” he says.
Even though this is the first year that Indian farmers in Georgia have harvested a crop, mostly wheat, conservative estimates put the number of Indian farmers there at around 2000. Prospects of a boom are luring not only the average farmer but also the canny investor looking to make a profit by re-selling land at a premium.
Among them is Dubai-based Pradeep Singh who has bought up a couple of thousand hectares in different parts of Georgia and has begun advertising in India. “Approximate land prices range from $2,200 to 8,000 per hectare and a foreigner keen on farming can buy land from 50 hectares onwards. Many Punjabis are growing sunflower and wheat and we are now trying to tap the grape growers of Maharashtra also, because Georgia is known for its grape and citrus, used for its famous wines,” he told The Hindu in an email response.
Georgia is only the most recent chapter in a long history of migration of farmers from Punjab. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many Punjabi farmers — Jats — migrated first as policemen and soldiers and later as railroad workers as part of the British empire.
In the 80s, Punjabi farmers bought land in Bolivia, which, says Swarn Singh Kahlon, author of the book Sikhs in Latin America, was the first case of farmers buying land in other countries and migrating as farmers. Mr. Kahlon says the migration was triggered by the problems Punjab was facing then — terrorism and the resulting hostility from the government. Sikh men living and working alone in Dubai and the Middle East bought lands in Bolivia so that they could take their wives and children and live as family in that country.
But, the Bolivia experiment failed. Though land was cheap, it had little irrigation. So when the rains failed, farming collapsed, says Mr. Kahlon, adding that the Bolivian government did not support in marketing the produce. Georgia, too, has its potential risks and only time will tell if a thriving community of Punjabi farmers will take root in that country.