A potentially massive dispute is brewing - between the Ministry of Home Affairs and a group of farmers from Punjab - after the ministry alleged that 58 "mentally challenged" people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were working as bonded labourers in farms in border districts of the state.
In a sternly-worded letter to the Amarinder Singh government, the ministry said the labourers were from poor families living in remote areas of their home state, and had been "forced to work in inhuman conditions". State authorities were asked to deal with the "serious" problem.
"BSF (Border Security Force) found these 58 people who were brought to Punjab with the promise of a good salary. However, they were exploited, given drugs and forced to work in inhuman conditions," a letter addressed to the Punjab Chief Secretary stated.
According to the ministry's letter the labourers were rescued from Punjab border areas like Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Ferozepur and Abohar between 2019 and 2020.
"During questioning it emerged that most were either mentally challenged or in a feeble state of mind... had been working as bonded labourers with farmers in border villages of Punjab... belong to poor families and hail from remote areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh." the ministry's letter said.
The letter also flagged concerns over human trafficking; "... syndicates hire such labourers from their native place to work in Punjab on the promise of a good salary but, after reaching there, they are exploited, paid poorly and meted out inhuman treatment."
The labourers are often given drugs to force them to work for extended hours, the letter added.
According to the ministry the BSF has handed over the 58 rescued people to state authorities.
"Keeping in mind the multi-dimensional and overwhelming enormity of the problem... which involves human-trafficking, bonded labour and human rights violation... you are requested to take appropriate measures to address this serious problem," the Punjab government has been told.
The state has been directed to work on this issue on an "urgent" basis and report action taken.
A copy of the letter has also been sent to the Union Labour Secretary, with the request to issue suitable instructions to all states, particularly Bihar, UP, Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, to ensure people are not duped by false promises for better job prospects.