by Jane Schukoske, CEO
In a developing country like India, there is a lack of equal opportunity and protection to a large segment of the population, including the poor, minorities, women, and other disadvantaged groups. Though successive governments have made a genuine effort to bridge the gap of inclusive and equitable growth, there exist barriers and biases against the poor. The system is complex and requires that the poor survive through informal structures rather than what is their entitlement by right.
Poverty in India results from disempowerment, exclusion, and discrimination of these marginalized and disadvantaged groups. Legal empowerment is built on the concept of human rights, and its proactive use can spur development by strengthening the voices of communities at the grassroots level. Thus the premise: every individual must have access to justice and remedies to foster legal empowerment. An inclusive approach has the ability to ensure that the poor and the marginalized have identity and voice.
Poverty, or its alleviation as such, finds no direct mention in the Indian Constitution, though it is clear that the path it follows is akin to a welfare state model. The constitution as such mandates the state to follow/ formulate legislations and development policies that are collaborative and point to accelerated growth with an inclusive model.
Poverty alleviation under the legal ambit has a role to play in the following spheres –
1) Constitutional adoption of poverty alleviation schemes – These are reflected in legislations that bring out the broad perspective of the state and its effort in providing development policies and plans to tackle the issues therein. For instance, social laws on caste, land reforms, child labor, gender equality, etc., have a direct impact on poverty alleviation. Similarly, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA) looks to provide guaranteed wage employment to rural households to do unskilled manual work.
2) Role of the judiciary – The judiciary has the task of keeping checks and balances on the executive (State) to ensure that the poverty alleviation agenda is followed in letter and spirit. Its role in this area has been visible in several key judgments focuses on poverty alleviation, such as the right to food, child labor, farmer suicides, street vendor rights, etc.
3) Role of the Executive (State) in providing a level playing field – The role of the State in this endeavor cannot be underplayed. It is their responsibility to incorporate safety-net programs to ensure that the efforts in poverty alleviation and vulnerability reach the targeted poorest and promote inclusive growth. Creating a framework of rules and optimizing strategies that function in independence is key to success of policy.
The Legal Framework for Marginalized Groups in India.
Though many people do not know about it, there is a law in India that provides for marginalized groups to receive free legal aid. That includes legal awareness training as well as legal aid for disputes in court, legal aid for disputes to be negotiated in Lok Adalats (People’s Courts, a forum to promote voluntary settlement of cases out of court). The law is the Legal Services Authority Act 1987. Under it, each district in India has a Legal Services Authority (LSA) required to organize legal aid camps, among other activities. They report to State LSAs, which report to the National LSA.
Many, many people are entitled to free legal aid in India. Women, children, and people with disabilities are entitled to free legal aid. Members of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes (and, in Haryana and Punjab, Backward Classes), and “economically vulnerable persons” (Haryana’s website states the income cutoff is Rs.1,50,000 per year for lower courts) are entitled to free legal aid. People in custody, including jails, prisons, and protective homes for trafficking victims, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric facilities, are entitled to free legal aid. Victims of human trafficking or forced labor, of natural or mass disasters, and of ethnic and caste violence are all entitled to free legal aid. And there are more categories as well.
What Can Be Done?
How can legal aid help the rural poor with the main problems they face? Legal literacy camps can raise awareness on schemes for Mid-Day Meal, Public Distribution System, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee, Integrated Child Development Services, Right to Education and Social Security Programs. They can explain how citizens can use the Right to Information Act. And of course there are a host of other laws to protect the public interest. Such camps are held by LSAs and NGOs in rural areas to get out the word.
Knowing the huge number of people who need legal awareness in India, the LSA system enlists the help of paralegal volunteers and law students as well as lawyers. Paralegal volunteers are people trained by legal services institutions to help the poor. They can explain to rural communities the application process for government schemes and appeal process if benefits are delayed or denied. Every law school and law college is required to have a legal aid clinic to work for the community in the nearby area. The LSAs are to establish legal aid clinics in villages and clusters of villages and law students can work with those clinics, too. And Haryana, for example, has a toll-free Helpline, 1800-180-2057, that citizens can call.
Is this LSA system a tool for raising legal awareness of the rural poor of their legal entitlements and how to claim them? Absolutely! Rural development NGOs can get out the word of this right to legal awareness so that more people seek legal aid. Law schools can further engage with LSAs to boost the human resources to help roll out this vision. Citizens who are eligible for legal aid can help this system work by visiting legal aid camps and clinics in their localities.
The Way Forward
The success of legal empowerment and reforms depends on political will and commitment from the government besides other stakeholders. Poverty alleviation as a development agenda is dependent on equality, non-discrimination, participation, and accountability. Legal empowerment of the poor should look at enhancing the capacities of the poor to know and claim their rights. Legal aid is a major step in this direction and can remove impediments in accessing justice.
Legal empowerment and aid to the poor can contribute to poverty eradication through strengthening identity, voice, representation, and uncertainty for the poor, especially for those who toil in the informal economy.
Legal aid means free legal assistance to the poor persons in any judicial proceedings (civil or criminal) before the court, tribunals or any authority. It is provided to the needy from the lowest court to the Supreme Court of India. Legal Aid Counsel represent such needy persons before the lower courts, high courts and also before the Supreme Court of India.
With the 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).