Sunday, August 13, 2017

On "barefoot lawyers" (a/k/a paralegals) serving rural India

The New York Times ran this fascinating little piece last week about Namati, an organization that trains paralegals in rural communities in India, (villages, I suppose they would say) to help fight for rights, including clean air and other environmental rights.   Tina Rosenberg's story, part of the Fixes series, describes an environmental injustice in Bogribail, a village in India, where IRB Infrastructure Developers is the culprit.  But the reason to read this story is to learn about India's "barefoot lawyers," paralegals who are also community organizers who teach residents to press administrative agencies for relief.   Here's an excerpt about what happens next in Bogribailt, after, that is, villagers asked the government for compensation were denied:
 Villagers did not ask IRB or the government to stop or diminish the pollution, because they didn’t know that the factory’s practices violated numerous regulations. 
Then Maruti Gouda took the case. 
He’s the opposite of a superlawyer.  He is 29 and not a lawyer at all, actually — he attended college but didn’t graduate. Like his father and most of the people in his nearby village, he’s a clam harvester. 
Gouda is employed by Namati, a nonprofit organization that works in a number of countries in Asia and Africa, as well as in the United States, "to democratize law."  Vivek Maru, an American lawyer, founded the group in 2011.  Here's a quote from Namati's home page:
More than four billion people around the world live outside the protection of the law. They are driven from their land, denied basic services, and intimidated by violence.

We advance justice by helping people to understand, use, and shape the laws that affect them.
The Namati website also has this description of these paralegals:
they are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. They form a dynamic, creative frontline that can engage formal and traditional institutions alike.
The term "barefoot lawyers" is a play on "barefoot doctors," the term sometimes used for Chinese rural peasants who were trained to dispense health advice and health care during the cultural revolution.

The absolute best line of the NYT story is from Maruti Gouda's boss about the role of Gouda and his "paralegal"colleagues' key roles on their home turf:
We can always teach them the law.  We can’t teach them to be from here.
I can't help wonder about the ways in which this model might work in the United States to empower rural residents who are afflicted with environmental and other injustices.  A little cultural competency from locals, who will also be able to cultivate trust from community members, seems critical.  Unfortunately, I could not find any examples of Namati's work in the United States on the organization's website, though a search for "United States" on the website did bring up a number of institutional connections, including, for example, to the Environmental Law Institute and to studies of access-to-justice issues in the domestic context.

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