A Foreign Field

A day in the life of a Punjabi farmer in Georgia

Ramandeep Singh Palhan bought 300 hectares of land in Georgia with the money he made selling one acre in Punjab. FELIX GAEDTKE FOR THE CARAVAN

RAMANDEEP SINGH PALHAN, a 42-year-old Punjabi farmer, drove through his fields on a misty February morning. As he steered his SUV through slush formed after the previous night’s rain, he pointed to his cultivation. “Here, all of this is wheat. And all that area there is garlic,” he said. Driving further north on his farmland, he added, “We also plan to farm vegetables like tomatoes and onions.”

Passersby, dressed in formal trousers and winter jackets, stared at Palhan, who, in his traditional white kurta-pyjama and an orange turban, stood out from his surroundings. Since May 2012, Palhan has lived in the Caucasian country of Georgia, thousands of miles away from Moga, his hometown in western Punjab. “I saw a newspaper advertisement that I could invest in Georgia,” he said. “I found out that it was very cheap. I made a few phone calls, packed my suitcase and came to Georgia to check the land here.”

Palhan is one among thousands of Indian farmers, most from Punjab, who have immigrated to Georgia since the beginning of 2012. Cheap land prices and favourable farming conditions have attracted Indian farmers and proved to be a lucrative business opportunity. A hectare of land in Georgia is available for as little as Rs 50,000. The same measure of land in Punjab would cost over a hundred times as much. In Palhan’s case, the money he raised from selling just one acre in India was enough for him to buy 300 hectares in Georgia. “The profits I register from these 300 hectares will far exceed my profits in India,” he said.

Agriculture in Georgia, a former Soviet republic, suffered tremendous blows after the collapse of USSR in the early 1990s. In the past decade alone, agricultural production dropped from contributing 12.8 percent to the GDP in 2006, to 8.3 percent in 2013. With an aim to bolster domestic production, the Georgian government decided, in 2011, to allow foreign professionals with agricultural know-how to immigrate. However, local Georgian farmers, who lack financial resources for large-scale farming, have been irked by the move. The Georgian Farmer’s Union has asked the government to help local farmers instead of creating better conditions for foreign investment in agriculture.

Palhan rents an apartment in Rustavi, a town about 25 kilometres south of the Georgian capital Tblisi. “Of course, it’s very different from being back home. I live alone here. My family—two children and wife—is in Punjab. I miss them a lot. I have a few Georgian neighbours here who are jolly people, but I don’t speak their language, so it’s difficult to communicate. We also have a lot of cultural differences, but I am adapting,” he said.

There are dozens of other Punjabi farmers in Rustavi who share Palhan’s feeling of missing home. Every Sunday, they gather for a prayer meeting in Tblisi. “I am used to offering prayers and feeling calm in a gurudwara. I miss going to a gurudwara,” Palhan said, as he drove with two friends to the meeting. “We have plans of building one on our farmland, but until the construction is finished, we will continue to meet for prayers in someone’s house.”

After an hour on the road, Palhan and his friends reached the venue of the prayer meeting, a fellow farmer’s house. The meeting was led by a guru, who had been flown in to Georgia to offer spiritual support to the growing Punjabi community here. At the customary langar, served at the end of the service, Palhan chatted with other Punjabi friends. Among them was Dharamjit Singh Saini, head of Crown Immigration Services, the agency that helped Palhan set up his business in Georgia. In the past year, Saini’s agency has helped over 2,000 Punjabi farmers move their businesses to Georgia. “We are planning to open a Georgian and Russian language school in Ludhiana, at our headquarters in Punjab. That way farmers will be able to learn the language before they move here,” Saini said.

Over lunch, Palhan and his friends discussed their longing to be back in Punjab. “To tell you honestly, what I miss the most about being home is makke di roti aur sarson da saag,” Palhan said, while taking a bite of his samosa, which had been specially ordered for the langar. “We can manage making lassi here, but the rest is difficult. Georgian food is nice, but not spicy like Indian food,” he added.

An hour or so later, Palhan remembered that he had made an appointment with his family. “I keep in touch with them over email and Skype. I am in regular contact with them,” he said. It took Palhan another quarter of an hour to finish saying his goodbyes. Then, he left to return home and spend the afternoon with his family, over the internet.