Punjabis and their rise as an Indian-origin trucking community in the U.S.

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The U.S. trucking industry is so massive that not only does it cater to myriads of different verticals, but also houses different ethnicities under its roof, who are part of the industry as truckers, owner-operators, fleet owners, and even as people in gas stations, truck stops, and maintenance sheds. In this mix, the Punjabis or rather the Sikh population have built themselves a bastion in the North American trucking market that is second to none.

Though the terms ‘Punjabi’ and ‘Sikh’ look quite interchangeable, they are essentially entities that cannot be compared on the same breath, as its akin to reasoning out between apples and oranges. Punjab is a geographic region, that is split between the countries of India and Pakistan, the meaning which translates to “the land of the five rivers.” Sikhism however, is a religion that originated in the Punjab region in the 15th century, with most of the followers of the faith living in the Indian part of Punjab.

In a land as diverse as India, the Sikhs have gotten a reputation that is one of the most vibrant in the country. Apart from their delectable chicken tikka, paneer butter masala, and lassi that bring people to a standstill in their dhabas (read – truck stops and motels), the Punjabis are also known for their riveting dance artform called Bhangra and their stronghold in the Indian trucking industry.

The dominance of Punjabis, ergo the Sikhs in the trucking sector is so profound that it is now a running stereotype in India which gets translated into interjections in Bollywood such as the video below.

The idea is so prevalent that in South India, a region where even the seemingly ubiquitous Bollywood has failed to enter, the often understood caricature of a North Indian trucker is a person with Punjabi roots.

The U.S. is home to half a million Sikhs, of which the Sikhs Political Action Committee estimates that around 150,000 of them work in the trucking industry – which makes the sector an overwhelming favorite amongst their populace. The statistics are interesting, to say the least. 90% of all the Sikhs in the trade are truckers, and Indians, in general, are ahead of other Asian nations, controlling nearly half of all Asian-owned trucking businesses in America. And as per the findings of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA), California is the ground zero of the Punjabi bulwark, with 40% of truckers in the region being Sikhs.

The migration of Punjabis straight into the U.S. trucking lore was by all means gradual. Before there was any visible mark of Punjabis in the U.S. trucking trade, its peer far north inside the Canadian borders was feeling the surge. The initial migration of Punjabis into North America began in the early 20th century, with the first immigrants settling down in British Columbia. Nearly 5,000 South Asians made their way to Canada before their immigration was banned in 1908 – of which 90% was the people were Sikhs. However, over the years, once immigration laws were amended again, scores of Sikhs descended upon Canada, with them now constituting about 28% of the Indo-Canadian population.

Entry into the U.S. has been comparatively easy from its northern end of the border, as Sikhs made way from the Pacific North West down to the West Coast – another reason for their dominance in the state of California. The Punjabi truckers have gone great lengths into assimilating with the regional truckers, with them supporting local causes and even protesting against the ELD regulations that came into force this year. Indian truck stops are ever-growing across main trucking lanes, bringing in the concept of dhabas to North America, and serving truckers with delicious Punjabi cuisine.

When the first Sikh truckers mushroomed in the U.S., they were riddled with communication problems, which were often accentuated by the hard life on the road. The Sikhs were subject to occasional racial attacks and felt were dished out more violation tickets than that were given to an average White American. This led to Sikhs fanning out across the breadth of the industry, taking up jobs in truck brokerages, shipping companies, and as subcontractors to Californian farmers. However, the tide has changed now, as second-generation Sikh drivers speak native American English and play by the rules effortlessly.

The U.S. trucking industry in the middle of an upheaval, as dwindling average earnings behind the wheel and long hours on the road, are making the sector unattractive to the millennials looking to enter the field. But with the Sikhs, the trucking profession is a source of prestige, as it has come to define their lifestyle both in North America and back home in India. With pressing trucker shortages expected in the near future, the Sikh community might be the golden goose the industry has long yearned for.

Vishnu Rajamanickam

Vishnu predominantly covers technology stories from within the logistics and transportation space. He connects with key stakeholders within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from thought leaders in the freight space.

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