For a passage to Australia

Down under...Young, aspiring Indians court danger in order to gain permanent residency

For a passage to Australia

Tejender Singh argues that driving a taxi in Australia is no less safe than walking the streets of Delhi at night. DH photo / gayathri nivas

Indians living in Australia describe Australians as “White 33333Indians” to denote 3they are almost like themselves - simple, unaffected. Some others call them “truly blue” (blooded) because they respect and reward hard work. Blend the two viewpoints and you discover a people, who are mostly warm, forgiving but extremely focussed and unrelenting when it comes to following the rules of the game. 

That’s Australia for you. A far cry, so to speak, from the “racist” country that it has been caricatured as, following the spate of violent attacks on Indians since 2008. Young, aspiring Indians, who wittingly or unwittingly courted danger or devious methods to win permanent residency rights. A PR, to them, is a Protected Route to wealth, success, even riches. Yes, the real story about battered Indians in Australia is more about immigration and risky behaviour, than about racism.

What about the talk of Australian insecurity about Indians taking away their jobs, their space in general? Ben (Benjamin Peter), a software engineer from Wollongong University, the first Australian I met on the plane from Singapore to Sydney, did not bode even an iota of ill-will towards the 50 Indian engineers his company had hired in Wollongong. He was rather unsparing about fellow Australians. “Aussies are easy-going and do not like to work on weekends and holidays, unlike Indians,” he insists.

Drug abuse and drinking are serious issues with the youth, leading to increasing knife crimes. Some Indians may have fallen victim to the growing gun and knife culture of the big cities, he says.

‘P’ platers

Add to this the “P” platers or motorists as young as 16, armed with temporary driving licence, speeding in powerful, big cars. A large “P” on their vehicle number plates indicate their novice status, but the law, stringent as it is, is unable to curb this motor mania. Many Indian youngsters get killed in motor accidents, leaving their parents numbed when their body returns in a box  within weeks or months of their arrival in Australia. Strangely, these self-inflicted tragedies have failed to move the media as much as the so-called “racist” attacks.

Croatian taxi driver Marco is the next person to certify Indians as “very nice”. In tribute, he waives off two dollars from my fare. Has he experienced the recent violence unleashed on taxi drivers? “Yes, occasionally by Australian passengers,” he replies but will not generalise. “Violence has no nationality. When people get upset, they react,” he reasons.

Tejender from Jallandhar, Punjab has been driving taxis for three years in Gold Coast, the tourist Mecca, and in Canberra, the clean, mean capital territory.  Home to government offices, the Parliament and some premier universities, crime is rare here, much less “racist” fears.

Melbourne is the hot spot then? “Is it safe to walk the streets alone in Melbourne?” I ask Tejender. His reply embarrasses: “Can you walk in Delhi, decked up, after 8 pm? All big cities have their dark underbellies, which are best avoided.”

Meet Vineeti Janat, widow with two little boys, a gazetted officer. She made Australia her home by choice. “I live life at my terms here,” she says, partying with friends and also playing Ms Cupid for a colleague-couple at a Spanish parlour on Friday night. But then, it is safe haven, Canberra.

Vineeti plays “Rakhi sister” to scores of Indian youngsters, who feel lost and homesick in Oz. She has many true lies to debunk: “Remember Nitin Mahajan, whose death the media called ‘racist’ killing. He committed suicide because he was penniless,” she reveals.

Immigration lure

True, lured by the immigration system as it stood before the new restrictions came in February, fanned by the promises of agents, Indian students hope to find permanent residency in Australia. To them it means more than the right to live. It holds out the promise of a chance to help their parents escape a life of toil.

But once there, reality comes knocking sooner than later. With jobs no more easy to find, violence preventing them from working late, the money they bring from home runs out, consumed by college fees, food and rent.

Living in shared accommodation in the more affordable suburbs, even a train trip to the city seems a luxury. The rent for a two-bedroom flat is over $1000 a month. The social security for the jobless covers the expenses only partly, says Vivian, Chennai-educated doctor on a spouse visa. “I just found a job in casualty and need to pass some tests. The progression is slow but sure,” he adds confidently.

When the pressure gets too much, many starry-eyed youngsters fly back to India in the hope of returning later. If they do not, they will have wasted tens of thousands of dollars of their parents' money. If they go back, their parents will have to take a new loan to fund them.

Only affluent parents can afford to pay their children’s fees in good universities. Some get scholarships and work their way to permanent residency. The well qualified ones arrive with a work visa. But the vast majority land in Australia with barely adequate funds, are shocked at the cost of living and get into trouble.

The trains are full of them, they attend colleges, good and bad, they compete with other young people for low wage work. They protest on the streets about violence and safety in taxis, the Indian media cries “racism”.

Students go to study cookery, hairdressing, automotive maintenance, multimedia, accounting. But that's not what they really are there for. More than 80%  are there for another prize - permanent residency.

There are 91,440 Indian students in Australia, according to  Australian Education International. (About 20,000 more have finished studying and are on visas seeking PR.) Majority are Sikhs, come from Punjab, the 'bread basket' of India. Shrinking farm incomes, rising living costs and elusive jobs are forcing their parents to take risks and give their families a chance. They borrow against their farms to send their children abroad. They entrust their children to agents and to Melbourne's vocational colleges, which charge fees of $15000 to $20000 a year for two-year diplomas.

The trend of Indian students travelling to Oz really took off in 2001 when the John Howard government decided to allow foreign graduates to win PR as skilled migrants. Then in 2005, students migrated in large numbers and an entire industry sprung up, fed by education agents in India.

The agents spin stories of luxury and success, the ease of migration and tell prospective students their living costs will be covered by working. Rarely is this true. Under immigration laws, international students can work only 20 hours a week. Jobs are hard to find and they try to upstage one another by offering to work for less. Unscrupulous employers, including Indian, can pay as little as $4 an hour as against the statutory $16 an hour.

Despite the difficulties students keep going. "I earn Rs 20 lakh a year here; can I earn so much in India?" asks Gold Coast taxi driver Teg Pratap Singh.     

Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ announcement of new restrictions to the system has left thousands in limbo. Many already there will be granted two years’ grace to find employer sponsors. If they can’t find one, they will have to return .

Back in Bangalore, Meru taxi driver Rehman, driving me home fired a rapid round of questions on my Australian experience. He signs off asking: “Look at me, the number of taxis have increased and trips cut. Can I find a job (in Oz)?”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
(Some names changed on request.) 

Point of order

*Neeraj Bharadwaj, 23, gambled away his money at a casino. With no home or hearth to go to, he slept outside Melbourne Aquarium. He was mugged around 4 am on Easter Monday.

*Cab driver Sukhwinder, drove five Australian girls from South Port to Surfer’s Paradise in Gold Coast. When he charged $30, the girls refused to pay. His Canadian boss advised him on wireless to take the girls “for a ride” till the meter ran up the fare amount. He did and was hauled up for “kidnap”. On bail in India for his sister’s wedding, when he returns he will have to fight not just the case but for survival as well.

*A hospitality management student from Punjab, asked to taste 15 different wines, drank 15 glasses of wine and passed out for two days.

Counterpoint

*‘Curry against violence’ campaign: Aussies trooped to Indian restaurants to express their solidarity.

*Substandard vocational colleges to face the axe, 40 in Victoria alone.

*Efforts on to curb knife crimes by increasing police powers,
launching “Knives scar lives” campaign and amnesty for people to hand in knives.

AMIT DASGUPTA,
Consul General, Sydney: The problem really lies with the private education providers and education agents. Not all of them but there are a very large number of them who are not kosher and a proper regulatory mechanism is needed to make sure they follow the line.

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