For decades, India’s Adivasis have borne the brunt of development-induced displacement. A range of protective laws have not prevented them from having their lands taken, their livelihoods destroyed, and their rights trampled on. But a recent amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act could change all that. Dams, mines, and industries have contributed to the rampant dispossession of India’s indigenous peoples from the lands they have traditionally lived on. The government’s Expert Group on Prevention of Alienation of Tribal Land set estimated in 2006 that 47% of people displaced by development projects are tribals. The Report of the High-Level Committee on the Status of Tribal Communities in India said in 2014 that at least 75% of displaced tribals had not been rehabilitated. Adivasi, Dalit and other marginalized communities have fought against displacement for years, but successes have been few and far between. The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), enacted to protect the rights of Adivasis, have been hamstrung by poor implementation across states.

Last year, the Indian Parliament gave India’s Adivasi communities a new tool for their struggles. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act) (PoA) Act, of 1989 – a law to protect the rights of Dalits and Adivasis – criminalizes the wrongful dispossession or interference with the lands of SCs and STs. In January 2016, Parliament passed an amendment to the Act, which states that “wrongfully” includes dispossession or interference done “against the person’s will”, “without the person’s consent”, or “with the person’s consent where such consent has been obtained by putting the person, or any other person in whom person is interested, in fear of death or hurt”. The Act obligates the police to register all complaints which allege violations of Adivasi rights. Last month, in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, 98 Adivasi men and women from Bhengari, Khokhraaoma, , Katangdih and Nawapara Tenda villages in Raigarh district, Chhattisgarh used this legislation to try to file FIRs at the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Special) Police Station in Raigarh against two private companies that had cheated and forced them out of their lands.

Find out more about Amnesty International India’s campaign for Adivasis in Raigarh here.

The police accepted 98 complaints, but have said that they will need six weeks to first conduct a ‘preliminary inquiry’ to decide whether FIRs will be registered. The mass filing of FIRs was initiated by a local group called the Adivasi Dalit Mazdoor Kisan Sangarsh, Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, and supported by various civil society organisations. Raigarh is a town that has been ravaged by mining millionaires. Today, it even has a private air strip for its corporate lords to access their kingdom with ease. Over the years, it has been hollowed out from within and without. But the Adivasis who live here have not stopped fighting for their rights. Communities had earlier filed civil complaints under Section 170(b) of the Chhattisgarh Revenue Code, which restricts tribal land from being transferred to non-tribals.

The use of the POA Act, which imposes criminal penalties for forced dispossession of land, raises the stakes. Due to a lack of awareness, the POA Act is rarely used by Adivasi communities. Even when Dalits file cases under the law, the police are known to reject complaints and not register FIRs, despite the Act making it mandatory for the police to do so. In cases like Raigarh, the police also use the pretext of a ‘preliminary enquiry’ to delay registering FIRs. The PoA Act provides for relief and rehabilitation for victims of offences against Dalits and Adivasis.

It has become an essential tool to battle the violence perpetrated against marginalised communities, but has rarely been used to combat forced dispossession of lands. The first such instance was in June 2016, when the Plachimada Samara Samithi in Kerala used the law to file a criminal case against. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a subsidiary of the US-based Coca-Cola Company, for environment pollution and over exploitation of groundwater. The Act was again used in May this year, when the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes directed the police to take action under the law in cases where tribal land was transferred to non-tribals by forgery. The order followed a dispute over the transfer of 300 acres of land in Kunkuni, Raigarh, to non-tribals, and the killing of Jailal Rathia, a farmer who had launched a campaign against the local land mafia.

The NCST can play a crucial role in protecting Adivasi rights, and must also step in as the Raigarh police had refused to register FIRs in the Bhengari case. The use of the POA Act to fight against displacement opens up a new arena of contestation over land. The law has seldom been used to hold corporates accountable for human rights abuses. The state and the judiciary have failed in many ways to curb abuses against tribals, and the POA act offers a fresh opportunity to tackle the muscle and money power of companies capturing the lands of indigenous people.

Paul Divakar

Editor’s Note: Our guest writer Paul Divakar is a Dalit activist and the General Secretary of National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) based in New Delhi. Are you interested in writing for Amnesty International India’s official blog? Please write to us at [email protected]

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Amnesty International India.