Philanthropy and access to justice in India


Srijoni Sen


The most successful experiments in social reform in India have been driven from ‘below’. Prominent examples include the Right to Information grassroots movement that resulted in landmark legislation, and the ‘social audit’ process in MNREGA, India’s ambitious ‘right to work’ programme guaranteeing 100 days of employment. Participatory approaches, where citizens demand accountability and change, have enjoyed greater sustained impact compared to top-down efforts which see citizens as beneficiaries rather than participants.

Governance, therefore, cannot be left to the government alone. It touches upon too many critical reform areas – healthcare, education, reducing corruption among others. Efforts from civil society organisations, supported by philanthropy, have tackled this from many angles in India – whether it be efforts to increase transparency in government functioning, report and tackle corruption, or throw light on the way elections are contested.

A first step towards a demand for better government, though, is knowledge of what the government has already promised, and of the rights a citizen enjoys. Can I be arrested for criticising the government online? Does my child have the right to get into the neighbourhood school?

In a country the size and complexity of India, access to knowledge of this kind is not an easy task. Social, economic, and cultural barriers exacerbate the problem of lack of legal awareness. Several laws are passed every year, intended to help improve the lived realities of vulnerable sections of society, but the lack of awareness of laws makes this very difficult to achieve.

Lack of awareness also feeds into lack of implementation. When communities are unaware of their legal rights and entitlements, it makes it easier for the state to ignore its obligations and duties. We believe, that informed communities, who know how the law works for them are better placed to engage with the state and safeguard their rights.

This is why, when Indian philanthropist Rohini Nilekani approached us with an idea of creating an India Water Portal, like the India Water Portal that her foundation Arghyam had set up, we were intrigued, as it fell right into our line of thinking and work. She was keen to finance an open access platform that would help citizens to better equip themselves with knowledge on the legal and justice system and make it easy for society and the law to be more in sync than it is now. We did some brainstorming and fashioned the idea of Nyaaya.

The Nyaaya website.

Launched in November, 2016, Nyaaya is creating India’s first free, open resource documenting every law in India. Critical legal topics such as criminal justice, marriage and divorce, the basics of property law etc. are explained in simple language. While the content is currently mostly in English, we will soon be expanding to the top eight Indian languages, starting with Hindi. Content creation is volunteer driven, with strong editorial control by the core team.

Nyaaya was warmly received upon launch, with tens of thousands visiting the resource in the first few months, and hundreds writing in to volunteer – not only lawyers, but programmers, designers and teachers. Our chief goal over the next year, however, is much wider dissemination, especially of the Hindi content, through mediums like regional newspapers, community radio and grassroots paralegal networks.

A particular challenge that we anticipate, however, is that while we can enhance general awareness this way, specific legal aid intervention is usually required for meaningful access to justice. To address this, we hope to build networks with both government and private legal aid organisations, directing specific legal queries from marginalised communities to these resources.

Mobilising effective referral networks, however, will require much greater collaboration among philanthropists, universities, legal aid organisations and government actors, than we have seen so far. It is sine qua non, however, for improving meaningful access to justice in India.

Srijoni Sen is the CEO of which is incubated at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

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