Walking Through a Youthful Exodus in India

Walking Through a Youthful Exodus in India

On his long trek through Northern India, Paul Salopek discovers copious evidence of drug use on the farm roads of the Punjab. Aspiring migrants, predominantly Punjabi youth, flock to English language schools. Content warning: The following text contains references to drug use.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

This article is part of a collection called Out of Eden 10th Anniversary: Human Migration. It is also included in the Idea Set, Exploring Human Migration With the Out of Eden Walk.

By Paul Salopek


On foot across the Punjab, where roads lead to escape

“Hello—wait! Don’t go that way!”

We are walking a dirt canal road in the Punjab of India, my colleague Arati Kumar Rao and I. It is devastatingly hot. The sun clobbers our heads like a blazing hammer. It leaves our ears ringing. Endless fields of green wheat exhale a sigh of hazy steam all around us. We have been walking for days, for weeks, across the vast and fertile Indus River plain, past blocky little villages (India is a cosmos of villages) when an older man steps onto the dusty path. He warns us not to proceed.

Why, uncle?

“There are miscreants ahead.”


“Idle boys,” the old man explains. “Some use drugs. Please, come rest at my house. Then you can follow the main road.”

And it is true.

Here at the beginning of my long walk across northern India, I have stepped over many discarded glass ampules of antihistamines, tranquilizers, and other drugs used in combination with methamphetamines or heroin. Kumar Rao and I have just passed an intoxicated shepherd, his pupils constricted to pinpoints, tottering slack-jawed along the canal trail.

In India about 70 percent of drug abusers come from rural backgrounds. City dwellers often romanticize the agrarian life. But days on Punjabi farms are not easy. The work is hard and repetitive. Time rolls by without seeming to bring change. The hours can be flat as the white sky overhead. There are many economic stresses. If you are young, if you are ambitious, the temptation to take drugs—to dull your disappointment, to escape your boredom, to retreat deep inside yourself while not moving—is powerful. Or you might choose instead to run away. Exile can be another kind of narcotic. We meet many of these horizon-eyed youngsters, teenage girls and boys in flight, while walking the farm roads of the Punjab.

“May I practice my English, sir?” they ask me. “I am studying aisles.”

Aisles? What can this mean? Perhaps they are training to be grocery clerks? To stock the aisles in supermarkets?

“I-E-L-T-S,” they politely correct me: the International English Language Testing System.

A standardized exam. It tests English proficiency for visa applicants, for emigration. On average, six or seven of these energetic youths, most well dressed, some in cars or astride bicycles and motorbikes, accost us every day. On some days more than 20 approach to flex their English. They name hoped-for destinations like prayers: New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, or, rarely, South Africa. Canada is mentioned most often. Trump’s angry America—never. It is as if the Punjab, India’s fabled breadbasket and one of its richest states, whose people are renowned go-getters, hustlers, hard workers, were experiencing a mass evacuation of its youngest and brightest.

“There is no future in farming here,” says Harpreet Singh, a middle-aged potato grower in a village called Dhindsa. “There aren’t enough subsidies to have a decent life. There is no insurance against losses. Mostly you just lose year by year. I’ve lost my investment for two years in a row. At best you break even.”

Singh wasn’t suffering: His lands are big, he drives a good car and wears expensive sunglasses. He has a 12-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old boy. Still, he plans to send both to study in Canada.

Such is the strange apartheid of human movement in the Punjab: The poor and jobless can opt to slow down, decelerate into static drug use; the wealthier can speed up into escape orbit. This has been going on for many years, for generations. Today nobody knows how many Punjabis live across the world. Estimates hover between 8 and 10 million. This is a third of Punjab’s current population.

“Migration to foreign countries has become a question of identity for Punjabis. It has become a status symbol,” Aswini Kumar Nanda, a migration expert at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, in the Punjab, recently told the Indian Express newspaper. “Punjab is the only state in North India with a paradox. Development leads to migration. Higher the land holdings, higher the migration among such families.”

Kumar Nanda’s center recently surveyed 166 Punjab villages. Only one had not sent migrants abroad.

Arati Kumar Rao and I limp into the market town of Faridkot.

We reach its outskirts behind a horse cart piled with old bearded Sikh men in yellow robes who grip ceremonial spears. They tease us for walking in the awful heat. Faridcot has a battered three-star hotel called the Trump Plaza and 96 private English language schools.

“If they could afford it, probably 100 percent of our kids would leave,” says Gulabi Singh, the director of one of the schools, which prepare aspiring migrants for their English exams. “Even driving a cab in Vancouver is better than staying here.”

Inside Gulabi’s spotless classrooms, the earnest students describe their future selves: artists, doctors, identities hard to achieve for rural kids living in the Punjab. They wrestle with a sentence on the whiteboard: “Some people think that killing animals for food is cruel, but others claim that animals are a necessary part of the diet.” It is to prepare them for lives beyond their Hindu and Sikh vegetarianism.

How long have we been doing this? I ask myself.

But the answer is clear: From the very beginning.


Under Faridkot’s sweltering paved streets, deep under its fake Trump Plaza motel, ancient river sediments carry the scattered remnants of the Harappan, or Indus Valley, civilization. Five thousand years old. Even older. One of history’s earliest urban cultures. Harappan artifacts from the Punjab have been found as far away as Arabia, Iran, Central Asia. The Harappans were great travelers. Strangely, archaeologists have never found any evidence of a return trade. The proto-Punjabis scattered to the winds and never appeared to look back. There is no consensus among experts to explain it.

Media Credits

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Oliver Payne
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Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
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Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

April 25, 2024

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