That the Government of India lacks strategy to combat caste violence stood exposed at the State Home Ministers’ Conference on Effective Implementation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act” held in New Delhi on 17th April 2012. The conference organised by the Ministry of Home Affairs at the request of the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Mr Mukul Wasnik deliberated on the status of necessary institutional framework for the protection of the rights of the SCs/STs, registration and investigation of offences under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, delineation of atrocity prone areas and preventive action in regard thereto, and pendency and conviction rate of cases under the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The Dalits and the tribals continue to face atrocities and caste based discrimination in all spheres of life. At least 32,712 cases of crimes were committed against the Scheduled Castes in 2010 while at least 5,885 crimes were committed against the tribals during the same period. Ten states led by Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh account for 93% of the crimes against SCs, while Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha are among the 10 states which alone witness 95% of anti-tribal atrocities. Minister Wasnik said that the conviction rate on cases of atrocities on SCs and STs was between 3 and 8 per cent, while the pendency of such cases in courts was 80 to 90 per cent. The conviction rate in cases of atrocities against SCs and STs was 3.3 per cent in Karnataka, 6.4 per cent in Gujarat and 6.6 per cent in Maharashtra, while the pendency rate was 90 per cent in Gujarat, 88 per cent in West Bengal, 87 per cent in Maharashtra and 82 per cent in Bihar.
It goes without saying that the State governments have been indifferent in taking the initiatives laid out by the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Only three states have set up 'special police stations' for anti-SC/ST crimes, with Bihar having nine, Chhattisgarh 12 and Madhya Pradesh 48. Most states have not established Special Courts. The Prevention of Atrocities Act provides for periodical review of performance of special public prosecutors and of prosecution of the cases. A few states follow up on this provision.
At the heart of the non-implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act lies dichotomy of India’s approach to address caste violence: welfare vs rights based approach. The Prevention of Atrocities Act is an enabling rights based legislation while the State follows welfare approach for its implementation. The State has been vested with all the responsibilities to implement the Prevention of Atrocities Act including penalizing the public servants for dereliction of duty. However, in the last 23 years, not a single police officer in the country has been penalised for dereliction of duties under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. It is in this context the proposal of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to ensure payment of daily allowance to witnesses to present themselves in courts does make little sense. The registration of FIR is the first hurdle faced by them. It is only if the FIR is registered, the police file charge-sheet that the question of being present in the court arises. The welfare approach has also meant enhancement of compensation without any assistance for prosecution of the guilty.
While the Ministry of Social Justice and the Ministry of Home Affairs can rightly lambast the State governments for doing little, the Ministry of Social Justice has equally done little for implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Under the “Scheme of Grant-in-aid to voluntary and other organizations working for Scheduled Castes”, Ministry of Social Justice provides funds to involve the voluntary sector and training institutions of repute to improve educational and socio-economic conditions of the target group i.e. Scheduled Castes with a view to upgrade skill to enable them to start income generating activities on their own or get gainfully employed in some sector or the other. The Ministry funds programmes such as (i) opening of hostels and residential / non residential schools, ITIs, arts and craft centres, or any other income generating scheme; (2) meeting the cost of tuition fees for training in IT at institutions of repute to be selected by Ministry of SJ&E; (3) organizing Balwadies and Bal Kendras i.e. Creches to look after the deprived children of Scheduled Castes; (4) providing medical facilities to Scheduled Castes through establishment of Hospitals or Mobile Dispensaries; (5) creating awareness regarding the Government programmes and facilities providing assistance and guidance in getting various Government facilities like legal-aid, scholarships, loans and various grant etc., and other client services; (6) providing assistance for grievance redressal; (7) coaching centres for various entrance examinations and tests and other service related competitive examinations, which are not covered in Pre Examination Coaching Scheme and Taking up human rights issues, environmental issues and related to protection of consumers' rights; and (8) training of NGOs in Accounts, Management and how to apply etc. The same is true of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
Effective implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act means prosecution of the culprits. Prosecution is an expensive and cumbersome process. Justice can be done if the victims could hire lawyers from the stage of registration of the complaints to the delivery of justice.
The time has come for Ministry of Social Justice to allocate adequate and specific financial resources for the NGOs for effective implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act to reverse the current trend of low rate of conviction and pendency in trial. This will be more effective than providing arms licences to SCs and STs in 'atrocity-prone areas' to safeguard themselves and their property. If India were to provide more gun licences to address caste violence, it would further risks the SCs and STs to be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed with the armed licences.