Punjab may be moving ahead with legislation to stop travel agents from cheating youth with the lure of foreign pastures, but such touts are now baiting young girls into the multibillion immigration racket.
The revelation that girls and young women are being targeted has come after some of them were rescued from foreign shores this month. The tragedy for these cheated women was that not only were they not taken to the promised destinations for lucrative jobs, but were also being forced into prostitution in other countries.
'This is an alarming development and the centre and state governments should take action immediately. Our daughters from Punjab are being forced into prostitution in other countries,' former federal minister Balwant Singh Ramoowalia told IANS.
His Lok Bhalai Party (LBP) has been spearheading the campaign against unscrupulous travel and immigration agents in Punjab.
LBP activists rescued four Punjab girls from Singapore and other countries where they were stuck after being duped by immigration agents and were being forced into prostitution. The LBP had to seek the help of the Indian high commission in Singapore to get the girls freed.
Presenting four such girls before the media, Ramoowalia said some of the girls were sent to jail on false cases like theft to pressurise them to join the prostitution industry in other countries.
Veerpal Kaur of Dhurkot village in Jalandhar district talked about the harrowing time she faced in Singapore in the last few months.
'I was promised a lucrative job. Initially things went off well but later the agent in Singapore started threatening me that if I did not join the flesh trade, I would languish in jail for years. They even got me implicated in a theft case and I had to spend some time in jail. I refused to join the prostitution ring but there are other Indian girls who were not so lucky,' Kaur said.
She had paid over Rs.50,000 to an immigration agent to reach Singapore.
Her ageing parents said they had committed a folly by sending their daughter abroad and would not do it again. 'We want strong punishment against the travel agent,' her father said.
With the demand for trained nurses, chefs, hostesses, nannies and other such services on the rise in Western and other countries, women are the new targets for unscrupulous travel and immigration agents in Punjab.
Kanchan from Chamkaur Sahib in Ropar district and Manpreet Kaur from Patiala, both of whom were also duped by travel agents, said they had paid Rs.160,000 and Rs.195,000 respectively to a Chandigarh-based travel agent to go abroad earlier this year.
Mandeep Kaur from Faridkot district said she had paid Rs.500,000 to a travel agent in Delhi to go abroad.
Every year, thousands of youth from Punjab end up languishing in the jails of countries in Africa, Asia and Europe after being duped by immigration agents. Some 283 South Asians, including 170 Indians, mostly from Punjab, had lost their lives in the Malta boat tragedy on Christmas night in 1996 after their ferry capsized in the sea off the coast of Malta.
Ramoowalia said the LBP was trying its best to check the activities of immigration and travel agents who wanted to cheat innocent youth from Punjab in the name of sending them abroad.
'We have got some of them arrested. We have also been able to force some agents to refund nearly Rs.1.8 million to people who were cheated by them,' he added.
The LBP has also initiated a campaign to help those women in Punjab who have been cheated in marriage by NRI grooms. Typically, these grooms come to Punjab and marry here but never take their wives with them.
'There are over 15,000 such cases of fraud NRI marriages where women have been duped,' Ramoowalia pointed out.