India: Pavitri Manjhi, Women Human Rights Defender in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, working against illegal Adivasi land dispossession

For decades, Adivasi communities in India have suffered disproportionately from development-induced displacement. Their mineral-rich lands have been frequently taken over without their consent, which amounts to a crime under India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, a special law to protect Dalit and Adivasi rights. Frequently, Adivasi communities have not received adequate compensation and rehabilitation. The powerful actors carrying out these abuses – state-owned companies, private companies, and those acting on their behalf – have faced little scrutiny from political parties or the national media.

In Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, some Adivasi communities have fought for years against what they say is the illegal takeover of their lands – through coercion, fraud and misinformation – for two private companies. Pavitri Manjhi, the sarpanch (elected head of the village council) of Bhengari, Raigarh, has been on the frontline of this campaign.

5Pavitri Manjhi
Pavitri Manjhi © Amnesty International

Pavitri Manjhi says her own family, like other villagers, were coerced into selling her land to agents acting on behalf of TRN Energy Private Limited, a subsidiary of Aryan Coal Benefication India Limited, which operates a 600MW coal-fired thermal power plant in Raigarh.

She said, “When the villagers refused to sell their land, the mediators said that the state government had already given the village to TRN Energy Private Limited. And if they did not sell their land, the company would occupy it and dump iron, ash and coal over it, and villagers would get nothing.”

Several members of local communities in the villages of Khokhraaoma, Katangdi, Bhengari and Nawapara Tenda, many of whom are not formally literate, told Amnesty International India that they had been forced into selling their land to people acting as agents for TRN Energy.

Some villagers alleged that they had not been paid the amount mentioned in the sale deeds, or had been paid only part of it. Many said that their land had been sold at prices far below the market value. Some also said that they had been first told that only part of their land would be sold, but later found that all their land had been registered as sold. Some of the plots of land sold appear to currently be under the possession or use of TRN Energy. Amnesty international India wrote to TRN Energy on 27 April 2017 seeking their response to the allegations of Adivasi communities. The company has not responded to date.

After she was elected as sarpanch in 2012, Manjhi mobilized villagers to file official complaints against the company before local authorities alleging wrongful dispossession of Adivasi land. For her activism, she faced threats, intimidation and harassment by local strongmen. She suspects that these men were acting on behalf of TRN Energy Pvt Limited. Manjhi says she reported these threats to the police, who refused to register a criminal case.

In 2016, the Chingari Trust, an NGO which recognizes women fighting against corporate crime every year, gave her and five other women activists from the region the “Chingari Award” for their contributions to the struggle for Adivasi land rights.

Under international human rights law and standards, states have an obligation to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent on decisions that affect them. However the consent given by Adivasi villagers to the sale of their land, coming as it did after coercion and misinformation, was neither free nor informed. Unfortunately the state authorities who failed to prevent these violations are now failing again, by not providing adequate remedy.

3An Adivasi affected man signing his complaint before submitting to the police against illegal purchase of his land by private companies
An Adivasi affected man signing his complaint before submitting to the police against illegal purchase of his land by private companies. © Amnesty International India

In 2017, Pavitri Manjhi and other activists set up the Adivasi Dalit Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh, a community group, to use the provisions of India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which criminalizes the dispossession of Adivasi land without their consent. On 14 June 2017, the movement supported 98 Adivasi women and men from four villages in Raigarh – Khokhraaoma, Katangdih, Nawapara (Tenda) and Bhengari – to file criminal complaints about their displacement using the Act, against middlemen they allege were acting on behalf of TRN Energy, and government officials who registered sale deeds. The police accepted the complaints, but have since refused to register First Information Reports (the first step of a criminal investigation).

 

Pavitri Manjhi and other activists plan to now move court, asking for directions to the police to register the cases and begin criminal investigations. They also plan to approach India’s National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, and the central Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Pavitri Manjhi’s struggle for justice and dignity continues to inspire activists in Chhattisgarh and beyond. You can help her and Adivasis in Raigarh by signing this petition: https://www.amnesty.org.in/show/blog/the-adivasis-fight-back/

 

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