The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 (POA Act) addresses atrocities committed against caste and tribe groups identified in the Constitution of India. The POA Act identifies and criminalises 26 acts of caste-based discrimination, exclusion and violence. These include the denial of economic, democratic and social rights, discrimination, exploitation and abuse of the legal process.
This post will discuss the status of implementation of some significant features of the POA Act in the State of Andhra Pradesh.
The Devadasi/Jogini System
The Devadasi/Jogini system is a ritualised, religiously sanctioned system of prostitutes faced primarily by Dalit women. Section 3(k) of the POA Act criminalises the Devadasi system. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone, a field study conducted in 2003-2004 across 12 districts where the Jogini system was likely to be prevalent, established the presence of approximately 25,000 Joginis. Most (90%) of them belonged to the Dalit community and approximately 90% were living in the poorest regions of Telangana. This situation bears testimony to the inadequate implementation of the POA Act.
Section 3(j) deals with manual scavenging, another casteist practice that is very much prevalent in modern India despite legislation that abolishes and criminalises the practice. The NCRB data does not state the number of manual scavengers in different states. The National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), which is working under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, has issued state-wise data of people involved in manual scavenging in which it reported that Andhra Pradesh houses 1721 manual scavengers. The article also states that the Central and state governments are deliberately not identifying manual scavengers. This reveals a lack of commitment of the government to eliminate all practices of caste-based occupational fixity, driven by discrimination.
State Governments must establish special courts to dispose of cases under the POA Act within two months. Further, District Magistrates must set up district-level vigilance and monitoring committees (DVMC) to review the implementation of the Act on a quarterly basis.
Andhra Pradesh has set up 23 special courts in each of its districts. The State government identified 8 districts/ areas as atrocities prone districts/ areas. Exclusive Special Courts have been set up in all 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh – this is unlike any other state in India. However, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes annual report 2015-2016 noted that the mandated State and District Level Vigilance and Monitoring Committee (DVMC) meetings are not being held in the state of Andhra Pradesh for last 2 years.
At the state level, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2015 reveals that the conviction rate for cases of atrocities against SCs in Andhra Pradesh is relatively low, at 7.6%, compared to states such as Uttar Pradesh, where it is 54.1%. It is important to note that this conviction rate does not take into account the number of cases withdrawn from the trial before judgement is pronounced, in which case the conviction rate would be even lower for atrocity cases.
Despite the deterrent provisions of the Act, atrocities against SC/ST persons continue at a disturbing level besides having high acquittal rates, low conviction rates and poor coordination between the enforcement authorities at the State and district level.
The total number of cases registered as per the NCRB data in the state of Andhra Pradesh under the POA Act in the year 2014 are 2114, 2263 in 2015 and 2335 in 2016. Andhra Pradesh contributes to 5.7% of the crimes and atrocities committed against the SC/STs. The pendency rate of cases at the end of 2016 was 54.6%.
According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment report 2013, on the status of implementation of the POA Act, SC/ ST Protection Cells have been set up in 28 States/UTs but there is no information available on their substantive activities, progress and outcomes pertaining the mandate assigned to these cells.
Rule 9 of the PoA Rules provides for the appointment of nodal officers for coordinating the functioning of the District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police or other authorized officers. According to the Ministry of Social Justice Empowerment 2013 report on the status of implementation of the POA Act, such officers have been appointed in all the states. However, no data is available in the public domain to analyse how well these officers are performing in terms of their outreach to the SCs.
With no information about the quality of functioning of the protection cells and designated officers, it is impossible to gauge the effectiveness of these mechanisms or to even check the vision and approach towards and with which they are driven.
The POA Act is far from perfect. The Act is limited to specific forms of caste-based discrimination that were more common when the legislation was enacted (eg. Denial of access to certain places, forceful drinking or tonsuring etc). Thus, it fails to address contemporary forms of discrimination faced by SC/ST persons. Furthermore, analysing the implementation of the POA Act cannot provide a complete picture of caste-based atrocities and discrimination as it is limited to the specific caste-based acts addressed in the legislation.
Nevertheless, the implementation of the legislation, even as it stands, continues to be lacking in Andhra Pradesh. Despite setting up of special courts to try cases under the act, the pendency rate of the cases is 54.6% and the conviction being dismal at 7.6%. For better implementation of the POA Act in Andhra Pradesh, it is necessary for there to be more legal awareness, so victims can use the law, and better sensitisation of police officers and public officials to enforce the rights of SC/ST persons.