13/08/2019 3:31 PM IST

The Curious Case Of Punjab's 'Illegal' Travel Agents

Many of the 'illegal' agents on a list released by the MEA have actually been granted licences by the Punjab government.

SHAMMI MEHRA via Getty Images
Devotees carry model aircraft to offer at a Sikh temple in Jalandhar, also known as 'Hawai Jahaaz Gurdwara' or Aeroplane Sikh shrine. Those who want to travel abroad sometimes leave model aircraft bearing the logos of international airlines at the temple in the belief that it will ease the granting of visas to travel out of India.

CHANDIGARH: A list of ‘illegal’ travel agents, released by the Ministry of External Affairs last month, has left the Punjab government in a bind.

The list, which was published without any prior consultation with state governments or travel agent associations, has not mentioned any reason for terming these agents illegal. Punjab, which has long struggled with the problem of unscrupulous agents taking advantage of desperate people who want to migrate overseas, is third on the list with 76 names.  

But many of these ‘illegal’ agents have actually received licences from the government in Punjab, which has put in place The Punjab Travel Professionals’ Regulation Act (PTPRA) 2014 to clamp down on illegal migration.

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Many of these travel agents, who find place in both Punjab’s list of licensed agents as well as the MEA’s roll of ‘illegal’ ones, run travel agencies, IELTS coaching institutes and consultancies in the state. 

Their names along with their company’s title, addresses and contact numbers are displayed  on the website of every district even at the time of publishing this story. 

The PTPRA makes it mandatory for all travel agents or those running ticketing or consultancy business to register with the government. Those who have been in the trade for over five years have to pay a licence fee of Rs 1 lakh and those who have not completed five years have to pay Rs. 25,000. There are also provisions of fine/imprisonment if these agents are found violating the law.

The arbitrary publication of the list, therefore, has raised questions over two things: a.) how the MEA concluded that the over 503 agents on the list were ‘illegal’ and b.) the provisions of the PTPRA Act under which they were granted licence to work in Punjab. 

The worst affected will be the people who have given their hard-earned money to the dubious agents on the list after checking their credentials from the website.

Since the list of agents was not accompanied by any directions for the state governments, there is now an uneasy state of limbo—will the Punjab government ask the ‘illegal’ agents to whom it gave licences to refund the money they had taken from customers or write to the MEA for more evidence?

Mohali is No.1

Mohali district has topped the Punjab list, with 31 illegal travel agents out of 76 in the state, while Chandigarh’s figure is 22. Punjab is third overall after Maharashtra (86) and Delhi (85).

Mohali Deputy Commissioner Girish Dayalan said efforts are on to identify the ‘illegal’ travel agents mentioned in the MEA list and who were granted licence by the state government. He, however, added that the district administration has not received any further details from the central or state government.

“We have not received any  information by the state or the centre government pertaining to the offences committed by them or any directions to take any action against them. We are verifying the facts and if not found something substantial may write to MEA to seek evidence to take action against them, “ said Dayalan. 

Some of the agents, including Rudraksh Group Overseas Solutions, Heera Consultation and Services and Unicorn Overseas Solutions, are mentioned in both the MEA’s list as well as that of the licensed travel agents of Mohali.

More so, even though over 58 cases had been registered earlier against The World Key immigration firm (also on the MEA’s list), the authorities took months to strike its name off the list of licensed agents. Cheating cases have also been registered against Seabird and Unicorn Overseas, which continue to be among the licensed agencies listed on the website.

The plight of Punjabis trying to illegally make their way to foreign countries received international attention in June after a 6-year-old girl died of heat stroke while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

More shockingly, in the absence of any directions from MEA and the reluctance of the state government to take any action against these ‘licensed’ travel agents, the agents are openly running their businesses in the region. Their websites proclaiming that they are among the “best travel agents in the region” continue to attract hundreds of students everyday. 

When contacted by HuffPost India, Rudraksh Group refused to comment while the others could not be contacted despite repeated attempts. Many of the contact numbers on the list were found to be out of use. 

Scenes of desperation

alex_ugalek via Getty Images

The plight of Punjabis trying to illegally make their way to foreign countries received international attention in June after a 6-year-old girl died of heat stroke while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Last month, two video clips that did the rounds on social media showed two Punjabi families, including young children, crossing a border, probably between US and Mexico. 

A report in The Times of India pointed out that while Punjabi men have taken risks to cross shores for years, often landing up in jails, the inclusion of women and children in the groups is a relatively new phenomenon

Hundreds of Punjabis have also, over the years, died in incidents such as boats capsizing—in the most infamous incident, 283 people, mostly from Punjab lost their lives in 1996 when they were transferred from a ship to a small boat that capsized in the Mediterranean near Italy. A 2015 report in The Indian Express said that charges were yet to be framed against the 29 accused — all travel agents — in the case even after two decades.  

Factors such as poverty, low wages, rising unemployment, drug addiction, farmer suicides and incidents of violence and terrorism have led to many young students in Punjab desperately looking for ways to migrate overseas, often attracted by word-of-mouth success stories.  The number of institutes offering IELTS coaching has also shot up over the past five years.