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Unleashing the legal system in rural India

May. 23, 2017 / Blog Ginny Baumann / @Freedom_Fund

FSS is an organisation based in a remote district of Bihar, a state in northern India, and with Freedom Fund support FSS has formed 16 Community Vigilance Committees and 46 Livelihood Promotion Groups to tackle the root causes of debt bondage and child trafficking. Recently, visiting their work in these villages, we found out how using legal approaches has become a vital part of strengthening resistance to trafficking.

At first, Bhagrashan, the FSS paralegal officer, used to sit at the legal centre, in the hope that program participants in need of legal support would come to him.  It didn’t take him very long to figure out that no one was coming.  So instead, he began going to lots of the FSS Community Vigilance Committee (CVC) meetings in different villages.  During the meetings, he helped people complete forms for their identity cards and apply for the employment guarantee scheme.  Over time, bigger issues started coming to the surface, as people realised that Bhagrashan knew what he was talking about and could get things done.

It helps that Bhagrashan comes from the same caste grouping as many of the members of these CVCs, who face severe discrimination. He is one of the very few who has graduated with a bachelor’s degree.  The community members feel safe sharing their challenges with Bhagrashan because he can relate to their experience.

Now, sitting with us in the legal aid centre, he has more than a full caseload. He has demonstrated a new best practice of using the district’s “grievance redressal” system to ensure that officials take quick action on trafficking cases and on the processing of social security entitlements.

During our visit, Bhagrashan is meeting with an older labourer whose 14-year-old son had been taken two years ago.  The labourer explained that his wife had died and he was desperate for money to pay for the death rituals.  A local trafficker approached him, promising to get his son a job, enabling the son to help the family’s financial position. Agreeing to this, the father sent his son with the man. The trafficker sold the son to an employer and the boy ended up working in a shop and on a construction site in Jammu state.

The father got anxious and contacted the trafficker, begging him to bring the boy back. The trafficker said he would, but then every time the father came to see him, he simply hid away. The father spoke to the boy several times, but each time during the conversation, the supervisor would snatch the phone and turn it off.

When the father went to the police, he says they scolded him and sent him away.  So he went back and met the inspector, but the inspector ignored him.  For a while, the man simply despaired, having lost both his wife and one of his children.

But then he met the president of one of FSS’ Community Vigilance Committees.  The president said he should come to the legal aid centre and file the case.  Then the whole CVC sat together to find out the truth and verify the facts.  Collectively, the CVC resolved that they would support the case and they accompanied the man to go to the hearings at the district grievance redressal system.  The CVC visited the Superintendent of Police, and said that if nothing was done they would complain to the higher levels of the police.  The legal case was filed.

Finally, the police visited the trafficker, and the CVC also pressured him.  After a while, the trafficker found the boy and brought him back, but not wanting to get caught and charged, the trafficker left him on the road 8km away from his home, giving him Rs.5,000 ($74).  Interestingly, the trafficker left him at the junction between two police jurisdictions, in the hope that it would not be clear which of the police stations should take action.  The boy was lost and had to be helped by passers-by to get back to his father’s house.

The father is happy to have the boy back, but worries that even after a few weeks, the boy is still not talking about what he went through.  He’s not ready to go back to school, and FSS is arranging counselling for him.

There are many more cases, including some where workers were beaten and only provided with food but no money.  Bhagrashan doesn’t just take up their cases for them; he helps the whole CVC to understand how to use the district level hearings and how to get the legal cases filed.  Recently, 13 people have received compensation.

These are not high profile legal cases with costly lawyers on both sides, but in this region, the constant stream of persistent demands for justice is strengthening the role of officials and police, and it could fundamentally change the balance of power between traffickers and communities.