June 19, 2017 / 11:27 AM / 2 months ago

Indian police thwart indigenous people in land complaints, activists say

Tribals return home after fetching water in a refugee camp in the forest area near Bhairamgarh village, about 400 km south of Raipur March 18, 2007.Parth Sanyal/Files

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous people in central India are thwarted by police when trying to file complaints about their land being forcefully taken, activists say, highlighting the enormous challenges they face in securing their land rights.

More than 80 tribal men and women in Chhattisgarh state who say they were coerced, threatened and duped into giving up their land, could not file First Information Reports (FIRs) - the preliminary step in a criminal case - last week in Raigarh city.

Some of these cases date back to 2004.

"These are poor, largely illiterate people, and they were cheated and threatened into giving up their land," said Sudha Bharadwaj, a rights lawyer who participated in a legal aid clinic to help villagers prepare their cases.

"They didn't even realise they no longer owned their land, or who the new owners were. That is why it took them so long to approach the police, who are always resistant to filing FIRs in these matters," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some villagers did not agree to a sale, while others did not receive the amount mentioned in the sale deeds. In many cases, the deeds showed they had sold larger plots of land than they had agreed to, she said.

A police official said they were conducting an inquiry into the allegations, and would file the reports when the inquiry was done.

"We did not refuse to file FIRs; we have accepted their complaints, and we are doing a preliminary inquiry to see if there is a cognisable offence," said B.N. Mina, a superintendent of police.

"The inquiry will take time, as there are 81 complaints."

Conflicts over land have risen in India as demand for land for industrial use increases, affecting millions of people and jeopardising billions of dollars of investment..

Among India's poorest states, Chhattisgarh is particularly vulnerable as it has some of India's largest reserves of minerals such as coal and iron ore.

It also has a large indigenous population which has lived for generations in the forests and mountains coveted by industries. Laws to protect customary tribal lands are often poorly implemented.

"Adivasi villagers have a constitutional right of access to justice," said Karthik Navayan at Amnesty International.

"Given the scale of the alleged abuses, the police must also investigate whether these allegations provide evidence of a pattern of wrongful dispossession of land," he said in a statement.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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