Driven by nostalgia, wealthy NRIs change face of villages, hometowns they once lived
Tarsem Singh Malhi at the site of his dream hospital in Pasla
By Ramesh Vinayak
You might say the man in the shocking-yellow baseball cap and purple shorts doesn’t quite fit in. But Tarsem Singh Malhi, comfortably perched on his tractor, thinks he does. In fact, he’s quite at home. Malhi has come all the way from England to sow a dream in his native place, Pasla in Punjab, which he had left more than three decades ago-a charitable 40-bed hospital, for which he and fellow NRIs in the UK have already raised 100,000 (Rs 58 lakh).
In another part of Punjab, Datuk Mahima Singh, a 92-year-old Malaysian millionaire, nurtures similar dreams. He has laid the foundation for a Rs 10 lakh library-and-park project and floated a Rs 10 lakh corpus for student scholarships in his ancestral village, Handiaya, in Sangrur district. The villagers have responded enthusiastically-they donated the land.
Call it nostalgia-driven philanthropy or a craving for the roots, NRIs are ushering in a quiet, irrevocable change in the Punjab countryside. “It’s a humble effort to pay back what we owe our land,” says Malhi, busy levelling the field. Malhi and Mahima are part of a new breed of old Indian expatriates, affluent but earthy, who don’t just spout philanthropy-they make it happen. With a difference.
Donating for a public cause back home has never been uncommon with the NRIs. In Punjab’s dollar-rich Doaba belt, for instance, villages are dotted with religious shrines, schools, dharamshalas and rain shelters bearing plaques of NRI donations. Of late, it has also become fashionable to sponsor sporting events in rural areas. In Nawanshahr district alone, for example, as many as 137 rural sports festivals were organised last year with NRI money. In 1995, UK-based Yash Pal Vedhara spent Rs 35 lakh on the first ‘Doaba Olympics’ in Phillaur, his native town.The NRI alumni have upgraded libraries and other facilities at fund-starved institutions like the KRM DAV College in Nakodar.
But now there’s a discernible, deliberate shift in their philanthropic priorities-to need-specific, charitable health and educational facilities. “The NRIs are funding well-planned, utility-oriented projects that the natives need the most,” says J.S. Ghuman, a retired Punjab chief town planner, who was engaged by Mahima Singh to survey the village before he embarked on the project. In many cases, such as the upcoming hospital at Pasla, NRIs are themselves overseeing the project, while in other places they are roping in local experts.
The involvement-from surveying the needs, arranging contributions and monitoring the project-shows all around. Nawanshahr had no blood bank till a few years ago, professional donors being the only source of supply. Thanks to a Rs 50 lakh donation from NRIs, the town now boasts one of the best-equipped blood banks in the whole of Punjab. Says D.S. Bains, director (health), Punjab: “The NRI-aided health projects are the new lifeline of the rural areas.”
Quite a few of the NRI-aided hospitals offer state-of-the-art facilities that even government health institutions don’t. Guru Nanak Mission Hospital in Jalandhar, for instance, has facilities for laparoscopy, non-stitch cataract operation and the latest physiotherapy.What started as a one-room dispensary 22 years ago, has grown into a seven-storey, 200-bed hospital. While NRIs have been pitching in through the years, the seventh floor has come up only on donations of Rs 30 lakh from UK. “It’s not just the low charges but the high quality of medical care that attracts the patients, including NRIs themselves,” says Medical Superintendent Daljitam Singh.
Something Budh Singh, a 79-year-old Canadian national, was probably the first to realise. Way back in 1979, he floated a hospital project in his native village, Dahan, and worked on it for almost 10 years. Once the project came up, donations poured in. A Fiji-based Punjabi donated a 24-shop complex worth Rs 1 crore to the hospital trust, which also runs a nursing school, a de-addiction centre and a secondary school. Even the villagers offered 30 acres of land. “A high goodwill is paying us high returns,” says a modest Budh Singh. For him, raising funds is easier done than said: he has raised Rs 9 crore from his 13 trips abroad.
What Budh Singh probably didn’t realise then was that he had inspired a whole new trend. Many other Punjabi NRIs-mostly first-generation, once obsessed with raising palatial bungalows and building decorative archways in their native villages-followed suit.
For many others, the reason is simpler. According to Rajinder Singh, a Vancouver resident, they want to give to their native land what they had been deprived of in their childhood-quality medicare and education. Rajinder Singh left his village Chahilan three decades ago and is now funding a college there.
Take Gurcharan Singh Shergill, a resident of Mukandpur village, whose parents just couldn’t afford higher education for him. He managed to migrate to UK and worked his way up from a foundry worker to a successful businessman. The untimely death of his only son in 1992 made him realise his vision-a model rural semi-technical college in the village.He donated Rs 1 crore, while acquaintances in UK raised an equal amount. Two years ago when Darshan Singh, a Canadian resident, visited the village, he was shocked to find the youth hooked on drugs. In a bid to bring them back from the brink, he built a modern gym in the village at a cost of Rs 22 lakh.
In Mukandpur, the package often includes more than what first-generation NRIs had missed out. For instance, NRI alumni have helped introduce new courses with emphasis on entrepreneurial skills in several fund-starved colleges in Punjab. K.R.M. DAV College at Nakodar opened a computer centre with a Rs 15 lakh aid it received from NRI alumni.
UK-based Sanderson Industries, owned by Vedhara, has helped establish a dress-designing course in a college at Phillaur. “Instead of donations, we now expect tie-ups with the NRI business concerns to open new vistas for students,” says M.L. Aery, college principal and chairman, foreign cell, DAV management committee.
Behind the quest for quality education back home is also the NRIs’ growing tendency to put their wards into schools in India. Says Ranjit Singh, now a resident of Australia: “Many NRI parents want to send their children to India to study and get cultural exposure.”
The NRIs from Punjab are delivering what the perpetually fund-starved and corruption-ridden rural development schemes of the Government have failed to do.
And even government officials concede to this. “It is an amazing effort on the part of the NRIs,” says Jang Bahadur Goel, deputy commissioner of Punjab’s Nawanshahr district, which has roughly 9 per cent of its population abroad. “It is augmenting the neglected areas of the social sector.”
But appreciation is all they get. There are no schemes for encouraging the NRIs to do more. In fact, the Punjab Government recently discontinued its scheme of matching their donations with grants, arguing that it caused imbalanced development. Whatever the Government response, the non-resident do-gooders are intent on scripting their own style of development for their former homes.