PUNJAB DOWN UNDER
Woolgoolga or Woopi as the locals call it, had at one time, the largest Sikh community in Australia. The city is famous for banana cultivation and is also known as the mini Punjab in Australia. About one-half of the people in the city comprise of descendants of Sikh banana plantation workers. The large settlement of Sikhs in Woolgoolga has been the focus of curiosity and attention of journalists, historians, sociologists and others. In 1999, Woolgoolga Neighborhood Council received funding for a project “to put together an account of local Punjabi Sikh community” as part of a celebration of Australia’s Centenary of Federation in 2001. Australian born Punjabi Sikh Rashmere Bhatti and American scholar of Sikh communities in multicultural societies outside India, Verne Dusenbery jointly worked on the project and co-authored a book, A Punjabi Sikh Community in Australia. This book gives a “portrait of a Punjabi Sikh community having weathered the White Australia Policy and coming to terms with evolving Australian multiculturalism.”
After the start of the World War II, there was an acute shortage of labor in Australia. Punjabi Sikh migrants who had been working as hawkers, cane cutters or on other jobs, were able to gain regular employment. The banana production around Woolgoolga and Coffs Harbor had become a commercially viable crop and needed more workers. A few Punjabis who mostly have been agriculturalists in India, willingly filled the need for more laborers on the banana farms. They had frugal habits, lived in the sheds on the plantations, worked very hard and acquired considerable farming skills. Over a period of time, they converted their hardships into opportunity and their sacrifices into success.