Punjab’s Migration is Not Just Economic — It’s Climate-Based.

Welcome to the first of our Voices from the Community series, where we’ll be featuring posts from community ​members on key issues and their intersections.

Over the past few days, South Asians around the world have organized in solidarity with Punjabi farmers to demand justice and better protections for their land and labor rights. (Check out these U.S. based solidarity actions organized by Jakara Movement, SALDEF, and Sikh Coalition).

In light of the recent protests, we’re highlighting this piece by Kirndeep Singh, a researcher and recent graduate from Columbia University, ​which explores the impact of climate change on the mass exodus of Punjabi farmers from their homelands.

To submit your own piece, email sruti@saalt.org.

Gurmeet Singh holds a photo of his granddaughter, Gurupreet Kaur, who died of heatstroke in Arizona in June 2019. The 6-year-old and her mother had just crossed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Last summer, when major news outlets reported on the tragic death of a young Punjabi family while crossing the southern American border, communities across the country joined in disbelief of the horrific tragedy. The emotions invoked by Gurupreet Kaur’s traumatic story have only invited further reflection.

Why would anyone travel from India through South America to escape to the United States? To the Punjabi community, the answer is all too familiar.

The desperation to leave, illusion of unattainable wealth abroad, and loss of economic prosperity taunts them until they are forced to risk their lives and illegally come to America. It took an incomprehensible tragedy for major news outlets to write about the diverse composition of immigrants in ICE facilities and focus on Punjab’s dreary reality; a once-thriving farming community, which now faces a bleak economic future. In some ICE detention centers in California 40% of detainees are from India, and an overwhelming majority are from Punjab. Yet, the media coverage echoed a falsely uniform narrative alleging that migration from Punjab is purely economic.

This undated image from Tucson Sector Border Patrol shows the desert terrain close to Arizona’s boundary with Mexico near Lukeville, Arizona.

The exodus from Punjab is one of the world’s first large-scale climate migrations. But individuals leaving Punjab face the convergence of multiple crises; while searching for a better future on less polluted lands, they are also running from the increasingly privatized industry of farming. Pollution in the area has led Punjabis to have the highest cancer rates in India, with ninety patients per 100,000 diagnosed. These elevated rates are attributed to contamination of water supplies by fertilizers, which are predominantly used by industrial farms to produce large quantities of grain which prioritize profit over people. In turn, small-scale farmers risk fatal illness to tend to smaller lands. They are left unable to sustainably cultivate their land, forcing thousands to flee each year and fueling the migrant crisis in America.

Of the 680 migrants detained in early August at the federal prison in Victorville, 380 were Indian nationals, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

India’s exploitation of Punjab’s environment dates back to partition in 1947, when control of the eastern rivers of Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej went to India, and management of the western tributaries of Jhelum and Chenab went to Pakistan. The central government inequitably split Punjab’s water without considering its regional leaders or farmers, who consequently became reliant on groundwater. Today, this forced reliance has invited risk, making the state more susceptible to climate change, which has only been worsened by the government’s delayed opening and closing of local dams. The once abundant groundwater has also been overexploited and is no longer safe to live off due to high levels of uranium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. It is now estimated that, in 20 to 25 years, Punjab will become a desert state. Partition alone did not assault Punjab’s water. With the completion of the Bhakra Dam project in 1963, which was first conceived by British colonizers in 1908, life sustaining water was explicitly directed away from Punjab. The redistribution of water to the neighboring states of Delhi and Rajasthan was highly contested and detrimental to Punjab, yet the central government once again ignored Punjab’s needs — despite its violation of Article 162. These systematic refusals to foster Punjab’s wellbeing have not only put the state at risk of environmental collapse, but also validated a system in which statehood can be contested by a central government.

Still, Punjab has long been referred to as India’s breadbasket, given that 60% of the total rice and 45% of wheat in India has been produced by Punjab alone. To keep up with India’s demands, Punjab’s farmers gave up traditional farming in the 1960s and 70s and started using strategies identified by the Green Revolution. This Revolution comprised of three parts: first, a new variety of grain was introduced from Mexico; second harsh fertilizers and chemicals were used on the grain; and third, adjustments were made to the irrigation systems. At the height of the Green Revolution, Punjab was a key part of the fight against starvation in India, but a lack of foresight allowed it to exist at the expense of Punjab’s natural and economic resources.

The Green Revolution relied on providing farmers with loans with which to pay for expensive irrigation techniques. The government designed these policies to encourage debt, as, in contrast to prior decades, these loans were long term, difficult to pay back, and had steep interest rates. With less support, those who could not handle the burden of this debt turned to migration and, in grave cases, suicide.

Over the past 17 years, the Punjab government estimates that over 3,000 farmers have committed suicide — a number that is only exacerbated by the coronavirus. This is still a conservative estimate, compared to conflicting claims from non-governmental organizations who believe that the suicide rate is significantly higher. Even before the pandemic, farmers struggled to survive of their land, often living under the poverty line. As health risks increase, farmers’ struggles have only worsened, while demands for agricultural products have increased. The encouraged use of loans to pay for expensive irrigation, the influx of chemical fertilizers, and the use of foreign grain, which required higher amounts of water, were not feasible to begin with, and are now deadly.

Today, Punjab’s farmers are left with one choice, leave and become climate migrants or stay and watch the land of five rivers become a desert.

The continuous mistreatment of the land and history of resource negligence by the central government — which is rooted in religious and cultural discrimination — has forced a once-thriving farming community to vacate their now heavily-polluted ancestral lands (as seen in October and November), resulting in the influx of Punjabi migrants detained by ICE

Detail of an illustration by Anmole Ebrar, available for purchase.

As South Asians, we have a responsibility to ensure that the migration is no longer framed as an exclusively economic decision. It is instead one of the world’s first large scale climate migrations. Our Punjabi community members are fleeing in search of a better life, free of pollution and the constant fear of their land becoming a wasteland. Continuous exploitation and failure to label them as climate migrants will only exacerbate Punjab’s environmental justice crisis — and we must demand that our leaders in the U.S. and our allies abroad recognize, condemn, and combat environmental abuse.



South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)

A national social justice org working on policy analysis/advocacy on issues affecting the South Asian community: immigration, post 9/11 backlash. www.saalt.org