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 a dirt canal road in the Punjab of India. It is brutally 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). 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.”

In India about 70 percent of drug abusers come from rural backgrounds. City dwellers often romanticize farm 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 as flat as the white sky overhead. There are many economic difficulties. If you are young, if you are ambitious, you might choose instead to run away. Exile can be another kind of drug. 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 skills for visa applicants for emigration. On average, six or seven of these energetic youths approach us every day. Most are well dressed. Some are in cars or astride bicycles and motorbikes. 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. Punjab is India’s fabled breadbasket and one of its richest states. The people are known to be go-getters, hustlers, and hard workers. Yet, it is as if the Punjab 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. He goes on to explain the economic uncertainties. “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 division of human movement in the Punjab. Unlucky people without jobs or enough money may choose to slow down into static drug use. People with more money and options 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.

Aswini Kumar Nanda is an expert in migration for the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development. He recently talked to the Indian Express newspaper about how migration to foreign countries has become about identity and social position for Punjabis. “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. 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 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 blazing paved streets, deep under its fake Trump Plaza motel, ancient river sediments carry the scattered remnants of the Harappan. 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, and Central Asia. The Harappans were great travelers. Strangely, archaeologists have never found any evidence of a return trade. The early Punjabis scattered to the winds and never appeared to look back. There is no agreement among experts to explain it.

Media Credits

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Oliver Payne
Text Levels
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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