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Sikhs from India saved the Italian parmesan cheese industry

by Bharat Duggal

Sikhs from India saved the Italian parmesan cheese industry

May 19, 2021

Around 1980s, plenty of Sikhs moved out of the country in search of another home. They came from a place of green pastures and looked for greener ones. Plains, farmlands, and cattle; they moved around in search of these until they reached Northern Italy. Here's how immigrant Sikhs from India became the backbone of Italy's most famous cheese-making industry.

In the 1980s insurgency in Punjab, thousands of Sikh immigrants were looking for a place with the hope of better employment prospects and found the po valley of northern Italy to be similar to Punjab with its warm climate, lack of mountains, and abundant agricultural opportunities. 

While thousands of Sikhs entered this city, this was also the time when the Italian youth was planning to leave the city to look for jobs in other cities. 

The youth turned their backs on what was considered menial and unskilled work such as looking after cows in a dairy farm. As a result, the future of the Italian parmesan cheese industry looked grim. 

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Fifty-seven-year-old Lal Madan, right, makes Parmesan cheese in the Italian village of Gainago Torrile in Parma province. He leads a team of five workers from India and, having spent more than 20 years learning his craft, is the most experienced among them. [Erik Messori/CAPTA/Al Jazeera]

SIKHS TO THE RESCUE

With the major wave of immigration, some Sikhs went to work in factories and the circus but the majority chose dairy farming. While the immigrant workers were impressed by the handsome wages, their employers were impressed by the respect and skill with which the Indians handled their animals. 

To the industry’s rescue, the Sikhs decided to stay put and continued their work in the dairy, becoming the backbone of Italy’s most famous Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan) cheese-making industry.  

The love of farming and innate skills that the Sikhs brought became the key to the renaissance of Italy’s parmesan cheese and proved to be pivotal to its continued success till date. 

SAVIORS OF THE CHEESE INDUSTRY

Fast forward to today, according to BBC, Indians currently make up about 60% of the parmesan-producing workforce, majority being Sikhs. The area’s mayor Elena Carletti told BBC, “it would be impossible to think of this industry without the support of people from India”. 

Not only have the sikh immigrants proved to be saviours of the parmesan industry, but they are also respected for the noble deeds they performed when the region faced troubles. When the area was hit by earthquakes in 2012, the Sikh community cooked and took food to the victims twice a day. 

The Sikhs’ hard work and love of farming proved to be pivotal to the continued success of Italy’s export of parmesan cheese. Noting their contribution, Khushwant Singh, the internationally renowned author, wrote in 2013, “it is the only patch of land where Italian is spoken in a punjabi accent and cows understand only Punjabi.” 

Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation and love from the local people. To support the immigrant population, the municipality was the first in Italy to grant permission to build a gurdwara, which over time, has become Europe’s second largest one. 

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The small traditional Parmesan cheese factory where Madan, Gursharn and Singh work produces 5,000 handmade wheels of Parmesan cheese each year.

WHIFF OF CHANGE IN THE AIR

According to the youth media company ‘homegrown’, the relationship between the employers and the immigrant workers has only gotten better over the years.  

However, despite the estimated 2,20,000 Sikh immigrants who inhabit the po valley, there seems to be a sense of change in the air.  

Initially, a shift in the economy of Italy, with several white-collar jobs opening up, was one of the main reasons why the Italian youth decided to give up agriculture and go for better-paying desk-jobs instead.  

Now, decades later, these aspirations have trickled down to the Sikh immigrants––who have different dreams for the coming generation. 

Some people have also complained that many of these Sikh immigrants are subjected to inhuman treatment and racial discrimination at their workplaces. 

TOI reporter Alkesh Sharma, wrote an article in which he described that “from faraway, Italy appears as el dorado, but once the Punjabi immigrants set foot on Italy’s shores, reality sets in, and it’s a monstrous one for many.” 

He added that “influential local mafia clan and unscrupulous landlords are exploiting gullible Punjabi youths who are landing in Italy with glittery dreams of building a dream career.” 

The Sikhs have proved to be vital to the continued success of the parmesan industry, but due to prospects of higher paying jobs and reports of inhuman treatment, many are now shifting to other sources for work.  

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