Bringing justice close: an experiment in accessing justice with technology
Legal empowerment enables poor and marginalized communities to be partners in development and decision-making, and new technologies make it possible for women in India to speak out against systemic problems.
India’s legal and policy framework provides for a range of social benefits and entitlements to ensure that poorest citizens can live a life with dignity.
Over the last two decades, a movement has been brewing for grassroots justice to bring law out of the courtrooms and into the hands of the people. At a time when space for dissent is shrinking and capitalist interests of governments have taken precedence over rights of citizens, legal empowerment is paving the path for poor and marginalized communities to be partners in development and decision-making. Legal empowerment takes many forms, making use of innovative ways to ensure that constitutional rights and entitlements can be accessed in a meaningful and informed way.
New technological tools are one type of innovation that helps legal empowerment efforts reach difficult spaces. Nazdeek—a grassroots rights organization focusing on access to justice in India—has been working with tea plantation workers in Assam and slum dwellers in Delhi since 2012, with the mission to address systemic issues through community led policy and legal advocacy.
India’s legal and policy framework provides for a range of social benefits and entitlements to ensure that poorest citizens can live a life with dignity. Some of these rights are enshrined in the Constitution, while others have been achieved through social movement struggles. However, the implementation of these laws and policies remains very poor due to factors like inadequate resource allocations, entrenched discrimination, corruption, and inefficiencies in the service delivery infrastructure.
Due to such widespread and ongoing implementation problems, people across the country still lack adequate access to critical services such as food, clean water, sanitation facilities, and essential healthcare. This is particularly true for Dalit, Adivasi (indigenous) and Muslim women who bear the burden of a deeply patriarchal society, divided along caste and communal grounds and economic status. They are routinely deprived of access to the essential services that they need the most. The existence of high maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as child malnutrition, are key underlying indicators of entrenched gender discrimination. The health and wellbeing of women and girls, including the quality of nutrition and healthcare they have access to, have a major impact on their chances to survive pregnancy, and of their children being healthy. Indeed, India’s Infant Mortality Rate (41 according to NFHS-4) still lags behind some of the poorer countries in Asia and other regions (e.g. Bangladesh 31, Nepal 29 and Rwanda 31).
Due to such widespread and ongoing implementation problems, people across the country still lack adequate access to critical services such as food, clean water, sanitation facilities, and essential healthcare".
With this background, it’s not surprising that women lack access to effective channels to communicate their grievances and seek improvements in accessing their rights and benefits. Existing grievance mechanisms are rarely accessible to marginalized citizens, who, as key recipients of government’s social policies, are the ones most in need of a channel of communication with agencies in charge of providing services. Moreover, community members often do not have the means and capacity to effectively monitor and document violations of their rights to legal entitlements, or to identify systemic gaps in service delivery. The lack of monitoring mechanisms and avenues to seek redressal can push communities into further marginalization and deprivation, exacerbating their already dire living conditions.
Therefore, engaging women in monitoring government services is a crucial step to guarantee a more dignified life, and break the cycle of marginalization. In 2007, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India supported a pilot project in community monitoring which clearly affirmed that monitoring efforts involving community members led to increased engagement between citizens and government departments. More broadly, monitoring can also be a way for marginalized groups to articulate their priorities and inform government planning on issues that affect their lives.
With this vision in mind, Nazdeek partnered with community paralegals in Delhi and Assam to develop effective and accessible strategies for monitoring essential services that they are legally entitled to, seek redressal of individual right violations, and collectively advocate for systemic improvements. We established a community monitoring system which harnesses the power of technology to make monitoring more accessible to paralegals, while at the same time allowing them to collect and manage large amounts of data.
To set up the technology, Nazdeek partnered with International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination. Through this partnership, community paralegals and Nazdeek developed a coding system which assigns numeric codes to a range of food, health, water and sanitation entitlements. Through the system, paralegals report cases of rights violations faced by them or their fellow community members, by texting relevant codes through SMS. Nazdeek staff then receive the SMS and verify the reports through phone calls or field visits.
The data is gathered on an open-source Ushahidi platform, smsforjustice.org (Delhi) and endmmnow.org (Assam), made publicly available and periodically discussed in meetings between paralegals and relevant authorities.
Using a simple SMS technology to build leadership amongst women has been an important way to overcome the challenges that women conventionally face when dealing with tech literacy, compounded with gender norms that inhibit their access to technology. The tool has enabled women from marginalized communities to monitor and report instances of violations and also allowed for collection of data in inaccessible communities like tea plantations. This system allowed Nazdeek’s trained paralegals to collect data on a large scale over a sustained period of time, and to identify systemic issues in the delivery of health, food, water and sanitation services.
Based on analysis of the data collected, we are able to decide on strategies most effective to address a certain issue. For instance, some lead to grievances being filed with relevant government departments, others lead to identifying gaps in critical information, and in some cases, they form the starting point for community-led strategic litigation. An example of this is a recent Public Interest Litigation filed for the timely implementation of a crucial maternity benefit scheme that will impact all pregnant women below poverty line across the country.
Participation of community members is essential in ensuring accountable governance. A number of laws in India essentially call for a decentralized mechanism that addresses day to day grievances of people around vital public goods and services. To fulfill this promise, collective modes of organizing must be put in place so that the aspirations and wants of marginalized communities can be reflected. Women need to be made equal participants in these processes so that their voices and needs are acknowledged and addressed.
[The reports based on the data collected by the communities can be accessed here: Women Lead the Way: Monitoring and Improving Government Services and Facilities in Delhi (2018); SMS For Justice: Women Demand Vital Services in Delhi (2017); No Time To Lose: Fighting Maternal and Infant Mortality Through Community Reporting (2015)]
*** This article is part of a series on technology and human rights co-sponsored with Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and University of Washington Rule of Law Initiative.
Shreya Sen is a feminist researcher and human rights activist working on labour rights and access to justice issues with marginalized communities in South Asia.