New Delhi: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has dispatched a letter to the Punjab government, alleging that farmers in its border areas have been administering “drugs” to migrant and bonded workers to work in their fields in order to extract longer hours of work from them.
The Ministry has asked the state government to carry out a probe on the matter and “inform” it about the action taken “on priority”.
It is not yet clear which class of ‘drugs’ the letter refers to, but could perhaps mean performance-enhancing drugs, the most common of which are steroids.
The MHA’s letter cited such a finding by the Border Security Forces, a Central entity in 2019-2020. The letter is, however, being looked at by the protesting farmers as yet another salvo by the Narendra Modi government to malign them.
Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of the BKU Dakaunda and a member of the All India Kishan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, which has been leading the five-month-long farmers’ agitation opposing the Modi government’s decision to implement three controversial farm laws, told the Indian Express, “After calling us Khalistani and terrorists, the Union government is playing yet another communal card. This survey, as per the MHA, was done by BSF in 2019-20 and it is surprising that they sat on this report till now and wrote to the Punjab Government only when the farmers’ agitation is at its peak.”
Singh appealed the MHA to withdraw the letter, adding, “We have an integral bond with our labourers. They want to create differences between us and our Hindu migrant workers of UP and Bihar who come every year to work across the state. We will meet the [district collectors] of the border districts of Punjab and convey our anger over this letter. We will produce migrant workers working in the fields of these districts as proof.”
In the letter, sent by the MHA on March 17 to the state chief secretary and the director general of police, it said that as per the BSF’s findings, 58 such labourers were apprehended by the Central forces from the border districts of Punjab. The places mentioned in the letter, as per the news report, were Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Ferozepur and Abohar.
The letter said, “During the course of questioning (of the labourers), it emerged that most of them were either mentally challenged or were in a feeble state of mind and have been working as bonded labourers with farmers in border villages of Punjab. The persons apprehended belong to poor family background and hail from remote areas of…Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.”
It alleged that “human trafficking syndicates hire such labourers from their native place to work in Punjab on the promise of good salary, but after reaching Punjab, they are exploited, paid poorly and meted out inhuman treatment. For making them work for long hours in fields, these labourers are often given drugs, which adversely affect their physical and mental condition. BSF has been handing over the rescued persons to state police for further necessary action.”
The problem is “multi-dimensional” and of overwhelming enormity because it involves “human-trafficking, bonded labour and human rights violation”, the letter told the Punjab government, according to NDTV. It requested the government to take “appropriate measures to address this serious problem” and inform the ministry “on priority” about action taken.
A senior Punjab police officer confirmed the contents of the letter to the Indian Express, but described the findings as “far-fetched”. The officer expressed surprise at the letter and said the issue was never raised during regular meetings between the state police and the BSF.
In a statement issued on the matter, Prem Singh Chandumajra, former MP of the Shiromani Akali Dal, a former ally of the Modi government, said, “Such letters from the Home Ministry will also send a wrong signal across the country and create an atmosphere of confrontation.”
State BJP person in charge of the farmers’ unions in Punjab, Harjeet Singh Grewal, called the letter “purely an administrative” matter, and told Indian Express that “doing politics over this is not right”.
Every year, Punjab uses about six lakh migrant labourers in its fields, mainly from UP and Bihar.