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.

By Paul Salopek


On foot across the Punjab, where roads lead to escape

“Hello—wait! Don’t go that way!”

My friend Arati Kumar Rao and I are walking on a dirt road in the Punjab of India. It is extremely hot. The blazing sun beats down on our heads like a hammer. It leaves our ears ringing. Endless fields of green wheat make hazy steam all around us. We have been walking for weeks across the vast and rich Indus River plain, past blocky little villages. India is a galaxy of villages. An older man steps onto the dusty path. He warns us not to proceed.

Why, sir? He tells us that there are troublemakers ahead.

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

In India about 70 percent of people who do drugs come from places in the countryside. People from the city often think of farm life as ideal. 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 long. It is difficult to earn enough money to make a living. If you are young, if you are ambitious, you might choose instead to run away. Running away from home can be another kind of drug. While walking the farm roads of the Punjab, we meet many of these youngsters, teenage girls and boys leaving home.

“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.

It is an exam that tests English skills for visa applicants who want to move to other countries. On average, six or seven of these lively youths approach us every day. Most are well dressed. Some are in cars or riding bicycles and motorbikes. On some days more than 20 of them approach us to demonstrate their English. They name the places where they hope to live one day: New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, or, rarely, South Africa. Canada is mentioned most often, but not America. Punjab produces a lot of India’s grains and is one of its richest states. The people are known to be go-getters and hard workers. Yet, it seems the youngest and brightest in the Punjab are leaving as fast as they can.

“There is no future in farming here,” says Harpreet Singh, a middle-aged potato grower, in a village called Dhindsa. He goes on to explain their troubles with money. “Mostly you just lose year by year. I’ve lost my investment for two years in a row.” He says that mostly you don’t lose money, but you also don’t earn any extra.

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 division of human movement in the Punjab. People without jobs and resources may slow down, and may go downhill into drug use. People with more money and options can speed up and escape to other countries. This has been going on for many years, for generations. Today nobody knows how many Punjabis live across the world. Some guess that there are between 8 and 10 million. This is a third of Punjab’s current population.

Aswini Kumar Nanda is an expert in migration in the Punjab. He recently talked to the Indian Express newspaper about how migration to foreign countries has become a symbol of social position for Punjabis. He described the Punjab as the only state in North India where success leads to migration. The more land a family has, the more likely it is that some family members will move to another country.

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 it 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. The town of 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. The schools prepare hopeful students for their English exams. “Even driving a cab in Vancouver is better than staying here.”

Inside the spotless classrooms, the earnest students describe their future selves. They want to be artists, doctors, and other professions that are hard to achieve for rural kids living in the Punjab. They struggle 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.” This sentence helps prepare them for lives beyond India, where many people are vegetarians.

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

But the answer is clear: From the very beginning.


Buried under Faridkot’s blazing paved streets, there are ancient scattered pieces of the Harappan. The Harrapan were the Indus Valley civilization. It is at least five thousand years old and one of history’s earliest civilized cultures. Harappan artifacts from the Punjab have been found as far away as Arabia, Iran, and Central Asia. The Harappans were great travelers. Strangely, scientists have never found any evidence of the Harappans returning with other goods. The early Punjabis scattered to the winds and never appeared to look back. The experts do not agree on what explains it.

Media Credits

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Oliver Payne
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Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
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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