Power to the people

August 29, 2003

Hasan Suroor outlines an initiative in India that aims to provide recourse to the law for ordinary people.

Vast numbers of Indians have no idea about their legal rights and do not know where to turn for legal redress. The degree of ignorance even among the urban educated class is widespread, with the result that, despite a plethora of laws, people feel vulnerable and unprotected. Now, the Nalsar University of Law (Nalsar stands for National Academy of Legal Studies and Research) in Hyderabad has launched a project aimed at making law more accessible to ordinary people - housewives, workers, students, prisoners and even sex-workers, a particularly vulnerable group.

The main aim of the Legal Education and Awareness Programme (Leap) is to demystify the law and explain it in simpler terms to the layman. "Leap essentially addresses the issues of a legal system whose basic premise is ignorantia juris non excusat, a premise that does not take into account the layman's lack of knowledge and the absence of access to legal knowledge," says Nalsar director Ranbir Singh.

The programme not only seeks to prepare people to deal with real-life legal problems but also helps them to avoid falling foul of the law. "As 21st-century lawyers, it is our moral responsibility to keep people from getting into trouble rather than getting them out of it, and our task is to relate law to people's own specific situations," Singh says.

Nalsar students are assigned to separate target groups. Recently, they conducted a session with a group of housewives who wanted to know their legal rights relating to divorce, inheritance, adoption, domestic violence and rape. The discussion was illustrated with examples from popular TV serials and films to make it interesting and easier to understand. Similar sessions have been held with other vulnerable groups, including domestic workers and labourers. "To make a legal awareness project successful it is important to use popular presentation strategies such as puppets, street theatre and television programmes. In the end, you have to sell law to the people by making it interesting," one Leap worker says.

Currently, Leap is engaged in identifying schools and colleges in Hyderabad for presentations and interactive sessions on basic legal principles. There is talk of extending the programme to management institutes, corporate and government offices and trade unions. Areas covered by the programme range from consumer protection and environmental issues to guardianship, voting rights, sexual harassment and people's right to information.

The university also runs a separate legal education/aid programme especially for villagers. Land and property disputes are endemic in villages, and litigation is not only expensive but also time-consuming. The Nalsar programme is committed to making villages litigation-free zones by advocating alternative dispute-solving mechanisms and strengthening the traditional nyaya panchayat system, under which all disputes are referred to a council of "wise men". The project was launched in August 2000 by adopting four villages that accounted for the bulk of the cases pending in local courts.

"We believes that litigation-free villages will not be achieved only by solving disputes but by creating legal awareness among villagers and strengthening the grassroots justice system of nyaya panchayat, " the university says.

Nalsar says that there has been an "overwhelming" response to its projects, and their "success" shows that there is scope for more. Singh emphasises the role universities can play in helping people secure social and legal justice by making them aware of their rights. Academic institutions are a source of knowledge to the community, he says, and universities owe it to society to share their knowledge and experience to make it more just.

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