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Wednesday , November 3 , 2010
 
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BAREFOOT BENEVOLENCE

Mathamma, a landless tribal woman from Ulnoor village in the Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh, had been awarded a plot of land by the government — only to be deprived of it by middlemen. Encouraged by village elders, she filed a case in 1993 to gain possession of her land. But even after 17 years and endless visits to the court, there seemed to be no end to her ordeal.

Then one day earlier this year, Jagan Reddy, a paralegal volunteer, arrived at her doorstep and persuaded her to bring her case to the local body set up by the government to look into land disputes. The case was resolved within two months and Mathamma won back her land.

In yet another incident, a case related to a family dispute filed by a widow in Rangareddy district in Andhra Pradesh was referred to the Lok Adalat at the intervention of a paralegal volunteer and the matter was resolved amicably in a month.

To the downtrodden and the dispossessed in Andhra Pradesh, paralegal volunteers, sometimes referred to as barefoot lawyers, have proved to be a godsend. Now, four years after the Paralegal Volunteer Scheme was introduced in the state — it was started in Andhra Pradesh in October 2006 — the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa), a body constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987, to provide free legal services to the weaker sections of society, is trying to replicate the scheme across all districts and villages in the country.

Nalsa recently announced plans to provide training to around one lakh paralegal volunteers who will help poor peasants exercise their fundamental rights and make them aware of different government schemes and their benefits.

“Our aim is to create an army of paralegal volunteers who would act as agents of legal awareness and provide legal aid to all sections of people. They are expected to act as intermediaries between the common people and the legal services institutions and help remove barriers to accessing justice,” says Nalsa member secretary U. Sarathchandran.

Initially, the volunteers would be identified from the National Service Scheme units in colleges, non government organisations, social organisations and women’s self-help groups. They would be trained in the basics of law relating to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, consumers, bonded labour, senior citizens, disaster victims, the disabled and so on.

The authorities say that the scheme would be particularly beneficial to women in the villages. Nalsa would train women volunteers in marriage laws, anti-dowry provisions, the Maternity Benefit Act, Child Marriage Restraint Act, domestic violence, maintenance and labour welfare laws. “Awareness of all these provisions of the law will help an aggrieved woman approach a legal aid committee at the taluka (subdivision) level for redress,” points out Sarathchandran.

In fact, a national committee has already been set up by Supreme Court Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia to promote paralegal training and legal aid activities. The committee, together with Nalsa, organised a “training of the trainer” programme at the Chandigarh Judicial Academy in September this year. Under this programme, member secretaries of the state legal services authorities, along with lawyers and law teachers selected by the state and Union Territories legal services authorities, were trained as trainers for paralegal workers.

Each of these trainers is supposed to train around 50 persons identified by the District Legal Services Authority in each district. The three-month training is meant to produce a cadre of paralegal volunteers, who would span over 6,400 blocks in 623 districts in the country.

Andhra Pradesh, which pioneered the concept, has so far trained 6,831 people, including 179 senior citizens and 431 prisoners. Says L. Ravi Babu, member secretary, Andhra Pradesh State Legal Services Authority, “We found the scheme to be very effective in providing justice to the people. Illiterate rural folk, who were earlier wary of approaching us, are now making their voices heard through these volunteers. The volunteers, on the other hand, are also bringing to the notice of legal services authorities cases which need legal assistance. Thus they are acting as an important bridge between the government and the people.”

However, some experts feel despite its altruistic objective the programme may not yield results across the country. “It is a novel initiative no doubt, but I think it will be difficult to extrapolate the scheme across such a diverse landscape,” says Arijit Banerjee, barrister, Calcutta High Court.

There are others who point out that success of the scheme hinges on the initiative and dedication of paralegal volunteers who would have to work virtually gratis. According to Nalsa, these volunteers would only have their actual expenses, such as bus and train fares or telephone bills, reimbursed. “How proactive they will be in helping people is a question that’s bothering us. I think we would have to pick volunteers from amongst the most vulnerable sections of the society, who would be eager to work free in their own interest,” says Madhusudan Saha Ray, senior advocate, Calcutta High Court and one of the two trainers from West Bengal who received training in Chandigarh.

But then why was the scheme so successful in Andhra Pradesh? “It was due to the initiative shown by the state government which marshalled all its forces to make the programme a success,” says Ray. Agrees Veer Singh, vice-chancellor, Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, “The state’s rural development department, the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty as well as experts and students from the university pitched in to make the programme a success. As a result, we were able to help around 3 lakh poor people in the state.”

Vijay S.T. Shankardass, a barrister who practices both in India and the UK, sounds a note of optimism. “If the exercise is carried out with due honesty, it can be useful for rural people who are otherwise quite clueless as to what their rights are,” he says. After all, paralegal volunteers have been successful in providing justice to people in the US, Australia and even in Bangladesh and Malwi, he adds.

One only hopes that the scheme will find similar success in India as well.

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