Calcutta, Dec. 13: Months after the government shelved the pre-litigation conciliation (shalishi) bill in the face of Opposition pressure, Catholic priests have undertaken a scheme on the same lines.
Priests, part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Calcutta's social service unit, will try to make Manoharpur, a small village in West Midnapore's Dantan, about 160 km from Calcutta, 'a litigation-free zone'.
The government has given the nod to the project.
'Literacy among the poor in rural Bengal is low. Once the people there get embroiled in legal disputes, they lose peace for ever,' said Father Faustine Brank, the co-ordinator of the legal aid cell of the archdiocese, who is also an advocate.
According to Fr Brank, the priests picked Manoharpur for the project's first run because the people there had first made such a proposal.
The villagers wanted the priests to help them get over the never-ending property disputes and frequent disharmony in families.
Jesai Singh, a CPM leader in the Manoharpur village panchayat, had approached the government.
An official of the judicial department, which green-flagged the project, said the church's move would help villagers settle petty disputes without going to court.
In the Block-level Pre-litigation Conciliation Board Bill, which it was keen to table earlier, the government had proposed much the same, but through the panchayats.
The Opposition parties had cried hoarse saying these boards would be packed with CPM leaders and justice would suffer.
At Manoharpur, the priests and professional lawyers from Calcutta will take the place of panchayats.
They will visit the village soon to tell the residents the problems they might have to face if they get embroiled in lengthy legal battles unnecessarily (see box).
'We have seen that the poor are unaware of their legal rights and are being victimised because of their ignorance. So when Jesai Singh approached us, we immediately decided to launch the scheme,' a church source said.
Three rounds of meetings have been held earlier and Fr Brank said the people have responded spontaneously and expressed willingness to discontinue their court tussles and sort out disputes through discussions outside.
'We were surprised to see people belonging to all parties ' those in the government as well as the Opposition ' flocking to us and showing keen interest in our scheme,' Fr Brank said.
Trinamul Congress leader Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay said his party had opposed the bill 'to not allow the CPM to control such rural bodies'.
A CPM leader said the party had always supported the settlement of civil disputes in villages through local conciliation meetings.