New Delhi: In sharp contrast to the chaos that prevailed through all of winter session that blocked several economic reform bills, the Rajya Sabha on Monday passed, in just a few minutes, a bill to prevent and punish atrocities against individuals from scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), and ensure their welfare.

The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2015, which was passed by the Lok Sabha in August earlier this year was passed through a voice vote, with no discussion or debate. The principal Act which the legislation has amended is called the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The amended bill expands the list of atrocities and names specific offences such as garlanding with footwear or parading naked or semi-naked. It outlines the duties of public servants to enhance more accountability—including reading out to an informant the information given orally to protect those who may be illiterate—and proposes to establish exclusive courts and provides for socio-economic rehabilitation during investigation, inquiry and trial as well as relocation if needed to victims, their dependents, informants or witnesses.

Experts said that despite its delay, the legislation is the right step forward but a lot will depend on how well it gets implemented on the ground, given the limited machinery that is accountable for its implementation.

“This was something long overdue but now that it is passed by Parliament, it is one strong step forward. Offences like garlanding of an individual or sexual harassment against women from SC/ST, these are acts of dehumanizing someone and the legislation recognizes it. These offences or atrocities impinge on the basic human rights of a person and hopefully, this bill will provide as a deterrent," said Sanghamitra Sheel Acharya, director of the New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.

“It is a fact that bills alone do not really ensure that atrocities will not happen anymore but it at least provides for a tool that if one wants to raise their voice, there is something legal to fall back on. Implementation of something as large-scale as this will always be problematic because our machinery is limited and so a lot will be dependent on that," Acharya added.

Some of the other offences listed in the legislation includes assaulting or sexually exploiting a woman from an SC or ST community, wrongfully occupying land belonging to SCs or STs, forcing them to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or do manual scavenging, imposing or threatening social or economic boycott, forcing them to vote or not to vote for someone particular or abusing them by caste names in public.

“The bill adds garlanding an SC/ST with footwear, socially or economically boycotting an SC/ST to the list of atrocities which are mentioned in the Act. The bill passed by the Upper House also provides for the establishment of exclusive special courts to try offences under the Act. However, good legislative intentions are not enough if they are not backed by implementation of the law on the ground," said Anviti Chaturvedi, an analyst with PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based non-profit body.

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