by Navneet Narwal
A collaborative effort by Sehgal Foundation and District Legal Services Authorities (DLSA), Nuh
Increasing legal knowledge about their rights can empower citizens to lead dignified lives as promised in the Constitution of India. In order to achieve this vision of legal empowerment, the Indian Parliament adopted the Legal Services Authorities (LSA) Act in 1987. LSA forms the basis of the three-tier system of legal aid in India, including National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), State Legal Services Authority (SLSA), and District Legal Services Authority (DLSA). Though the Indian government has rolled out many good welfare programs, the recipe for success requires effective and efficient implementation at the grassroots level. One way this can be realized is through enhancing legal empowerment through the collaboration of DLSA, regional/local law schools, civil society organizations, and gram panchayats. The Good Governance Now! (GGN) initiative, part of the Governance and Policy Advocacy program of Sehgal Foundation, creates awareness among rural communities regarding legal empowerment programs that help citizens to secure their rights as envisioned in the Constitution. DLSA has the mandate to provide free legal services to eligible citizens through Legal Care and Support Centers and organize Legal Literacy Camps and Lok Adalat (Public Court) under the Legal Services Authority Act.
Partnership paves the way
To help realize the potential of legal empowerment and develop a model replicable throughout India, Sehgal Foundation began a collaborative initiative with DLSA, Nuh, Haryana, to host legal literacy camps throughout the district. In this series, a legal literacy camp was organized at Nuh district of Haryana. The camp, titled National Labour Rights Consultation, was held at Mini Secretariat, Nuh, on June 15, 2016, under the guidance of Haryana State Legal Services Authority (HSLSA), Panchkula. The idea behind organizing such a camp was to inform rural citizens and make them aware of their rights and entitlements with specific emphasis on twenty-two key government programs ofLabour Department, Haryana, which include health insurance, financial help for marriage of children, purchase of a house, and so on. Prior to this camp, a one-day training of trainers for sixteen field staff was organized at DLSA office in Nuh. They were given information on the entitlements and requirements to get benefits under the above-mentioned government programs by the officials of the Labour Department and Secretary, DLSA. A week before the camp, the Sehgal Foundation field team mobilized the community through meetings organized in fifty villages in all the five blocks of Nuh district. Door-to-door visits were done to disseminate information about the camp such as its importance, objectives, relevance to their lives, and other logistics details.
Mr. Sunil Chauhan (Joint Secretary, HSLSA), Mr. R. K. Yadav (Additional District Session Judge), Mr. Sunil Shoeran (Chief Judicial Magistrate), Mr. Narender Singh (Chief Judicial Magistrate and Secretary, DLSA), Mr. Dinesh Shashtri (District Education Officer), Sudhir Kadyan (Additional Director, Labor Department) and sarpanches of thirty-six villages participated in the camp—a total of 939 people from various villages including 612 males and 327 females. Of the 939 participants, 569 registered their names by filling out appropriate forms and submitting necessary documents along with prescribed fee to avail their benefits under programs of the Labour Department. Basic infrastructure was set up for the convenience of the villagers. Registration stalls were set up separately for males and females. Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials were distributed including a pocket booklet of contact numbers and addresses of grievance redressal officers of government departments and a four-page pamphlet imparting information on government programs like Swachh Bharat Mission, National Food Security Act, and so on. Individual stalls were set up for sharing information related to government programs. Governance team members and volunteers staffed the stalls and shared information related to various social security programs.
For the first time, nineteen government departments—Education, Agriculture, Labour, Horticulture, Health, District Rural Development Agency, National Rural Livelihood Mission, Food and Civil Supplies, Mewat Development Agency, Animal Husbandry, and others—jointly set up stalls in the camp to disseminate information and interact with villagers. Officers from HSLSA, DLSA, and the Labour department shared information about various programs and details of helpline numbers at district and state levels. Students of Maharashtra National Law University who were interning with Sehgal Foundation during that time participated as well in the camp. They interacted with the villagers and government officials, including DLSA officials who visited the camp, and also learned about the organization of such camps. The camp provided a hands-on learning opportunity for students to interact directly with rural citizens and learn about their problems. Inspired by the success of the collaboration, students expressed willingness to replicate the same by engaging both DLSA and students of clinical legal education at their university in their areas of work in Maharashtra.
Organizing legal literacy camps is no doubt crucial, but information dissemination at a half-day event is not enough. Success comes from following up on the complaints registered and applications filed through the camp and for rural citizens to access justice. This can be facilitated with the help of paralegal volunteers and legal aid clinics operated by DLSAs. Paralegal volunteers can visit the complainants to track the progress of their complaints and guide them through the documentation processes needed for accessing their rights.
The role of the gram panchayat is critical as well, because they are key stakeholders in the process of getting entitlements and mobilizing people. These local bodies have a better understanding of local issues and can help make the camp more inclusive. They may also help in follow-up and cooperate with village individuals and groups to address the gaps of service delivery within their capacities. Sarpanches and panches of villages should be invited to the DLSA institutions and law schools to help build stronger relationships.
Legal literacy camp platforms act as catalysts to help citizens engage constructively with the government and access their basic rights and entitlements, which are key for their survival and well-being. Collaborative efforts by DLSAs, law schools, civil society organizations, and gram panchayats can ensure access to justice for rural communities.
(Navneet Narwal is Program Leader, Governance and Policy Advocacy at S M Sehgal Foundation)