AGHANASHINI RIVER ESTUARY, India—Kusuma Ambiga lives with her teenage son and aging mother in a village on the Arabian Sea in Uttara Kannada, a district in India’s southern state of Karnataka. The dwelling, a six-by-nine-foot shanty cobbled from wood, plastic, tin, and coconut palm leaves, sits next to her new, half-finished house of red laterite bricks. Its roof is only partially covered; the windows and doorways are unpaneled, with nothing between the support beams of one room and the blue sky. Although Ambiga, 38, is struggling to pay off a loan of 80,000 rupees ($1,167) she took out to build the new home—more or less the amount she makes in a year selling clams and working construction—she has yet to receive the approval from a regulatory body necessary for the local government to release a housing grant she is entitled to.
Less than two miles away, in the town of Kagal, a company called Nayak Hospitality Services Private Ltd. has bought almost 50 acres of beachfront property—in the same coastal regulatory zone where Ambiga’s housing upgrade is being stalled—to build a tourist resort. The company had no trouble getting approval to build the hotel and a two-meter-high wall that cuts off villagers’ access to a public drinking water facility and to the beach.
Mirjan Taribagilu and Kagal are among the 23 villages in the Aghanashini River estuary area whose residents often find themselves caught between badly framed laws and corrupt governance. Surrounded by ocean, the thickly forested hills of the Western Ghats range, and the mangrove-hemmed river, the estuary sustains the clam digging that many in the villages rely on to make a living.
But the idyllic scenery obscures issues that have kept clam collectors and others in the region from reaching their economic potential. Because of ambiguities in the law regarding clam digging as a livelihood, a complex and often impenetrable regulation governing coastal development, and corruption that enables well-connected interests to manipulate these elements in their favor, people like Ambiga are held back while companies like Nayak Hospitality leverage the region’s natural resources.
Now, a U.S.-based nonprofit aims to train locals in Uttara Kannada to access the legal knowledge and tools necessary to secure their property and rights. The organization’s work stems from the normative idea that the asymmetry of power and wealth can be subverted by putting the knowledge, and hence power, of law in people’s hands. It has created greater awareness among the villagers about environmental laws while kick-starting a dialogue between a community grown cynical by years of ineffectual governance and an often apathetic administration. It’s part of a movement known as legal empowerment of the poor that adds to traditional means of helping disenfranchised communities by putting the law in their hands.
Legal aid societies in Europe and the U.S. have long advocated on behalf of clients without the resources to access the tools of justice. Now, the idea is spreading to the Global South—and none too soon. Writing for the Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program in 2003, Stephen Golub, who teaches international development at the University of California, Berkeley, found that in most developing countries, “laws benefitting the poor exist on paper but not in practice, unless the poor or their allies push for the laws’ enforcement.”
Maruti Ashok Gouda, a resident of Aghanashini village, has been collecting clams for as long as he can remember, beginning as an apprentice to his mother. For a while he flirted with the temptations of the big city, working in Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, but retreated before long back to Aghanashini. “I couldn’t bear slumming with 15 men in one room. I am used to the open and uncramped atmosphere of my village,” he says.
Anyway, clams are good business. “A person can make as much as 90,000 rupees in a year by selling clams,” says Gouda, or about 10 percent more than India’s annual per capita income. Over the last decade or so, prices have almost quadrupled even as production, fueled in large part by the tourist destination Goa, about 100 miles up the coast, has more than doubled. According to one estimate by the Indian Institute of Science, a public research university in Bengaluru, the clam trade is worth more than $1 million annually.
Gouda, 27, was becoming curious about politics when he was approached by the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Namati to work as a paralegal. “Namati” is a Sanskrit word that has many meanings, including “to bow” and “to bend”; the organization defines its core values as reverence (bow) and transformation (bend). The organization was founded by Vivek Maru, an alumnus of Yale Law School and a former employee of the World Bank, with a vision to improve the lives of the disadvantaged through legal empowerment. In 2003 he cofounded Timap for Justice to provide free legal services in strife-torn Sierra Leone. Namati’s advent in 2011 was an attempt to replicate the Sierra Leone experiment in other parts of the world.
Namati’s model is to groom grassroots paralegals by instructing them in the rudiments of law and the arts of mediation, negotiation, and pedagogy. A few trained locals can then help others leverage the law for their protection and advancement while pressuring the state to enforce the laws on the books and change those that they believe are harmful. In Kenya and Bangladesh, Namati paralegals have helped more than 5,000 stateless people to apply for their legal identity for the first time, and in Mozambique they have helped fix more than 650 glitches in the health care system. Now operating in eight countries in Asia and Africa, Namati has the backing of intellectual and political heavyweights such as the Open Society Foundations, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, economist Amartya Sen, and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
The last century’s political and social movements relied on protest and litigation as weapons against injustice. Today, less confrontational strategies have emerged. Namati’s approach meshes with a trend in development aid that’s grown over the past couple of decades that asks locals what they want and helps them get it rather than telling them what they need and forcing it on them. Legal empowerment of the poor—the subject of reports by the U.N. Development Programme, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—is in vogue.
Traditionally, protest and litigation were the means of securing justice. Our model explores a wide range of possibilities between the two.
Manju Menon, director, Environmental Justice Program, Namati
Namati chose the Aghanashini estuary in part because it wanted to compare the performance of its model in an area with no heavy industry to speak of with that on the highly industrialized Gujarat coast, says Manju Menon, director of Namati’s environmental justice program for India. In Aghnashini, Gouda says, clam collectors and their families were suffering from a gap in the law whereby their livelihood was not officially recognized as a job. They were in a legal limbo between fishing and farming. As a result, families of those who perished when deep-diving for clams were not receiving compensation from the state, a benefit granted to members of other professions, and clam collectors had a difficult time accessing state programs they were entitled to. Most importantly, confusion existed locally regarding the coastal regulation zone, which governs building in the region. Some believe the CRZ forbids all building or renovation of properties within its jurisdiction; properties like the hotel are assumed to be the result of official bribes. Others, including Ambiga, have trouble building on their land because they are unable to navigate the bureaucracy to get the right permits. “Securing permissions is such a tedious and uncertain process that most people either resign themselves to their fate or, if they have the resources, grease the right palms,” says Gouda. Looming over all this is the threat of the Tadri port proposed for the estuary that, according to studies by university ecologists, would spoil the biodiversity that helps sustain its 90,000 inhabitants.
Gouda managed to persuade clam collectors to form a union and get it registered. “Having a union makes us legally strong and increases our bargaining power in our struggle for basic rights as citizens,” he explains. Namati paralegals have secured CRZ permission to renovate homes for 27 clients while helping 35 more get the applications filed and processed. “I now believe that good laws, if properly implemented, can go a long way in changing people’s lives for the better,” Gouda says.
Vinod Patgar, another of the Namati-trained paralegals in Uttara Kannada, took up the case of the Nayak Hospitality property in Kagal. After much coaxing, Patgar and a few residents of Kagal persuaded the district coastal management authority officer to investigate their complaints. “He confirmed that the resort was indeed in violation of the coastal laws. He has informed his superiors about the breach, but there is no action so far,” Patgar says. “It’s a difficult one, as we believe the hotelier has the blessings of a minister.” There have been heated disputes in public meetings, but so far the agitated villagers have kept their ire in check, hoping the legal arguments Namati has made will bear fruit.
Namati’s approach, though embraced by some global NGOs, has its share of critics. Political scientist Dan Banik at the University of Oslo believes legal empowerment of the poor ignores other causes of the persistence of poverty, such as lack of economic growth or natural resources, illiteracy, political instability, and environmental degradation. Others fault it for ignoring political hurdles that may undermine equal treatment under the law and equal access to legal systems and institutions. Detractors have raised doubts about LEP’s methods and the assumptions it relies on for its strategy. Its effectiveness remains under-researched, though one study by the Asian Development Bank of its own pilot projects found that LEP had made little difference in altering the power equation between citizens and the state.
Namati maintains that for billions of people the law is “an abstraction, or a bad joke, or a threat, but not something they can use to exercise their basic rights,” according to its website. Menon says that “traditionally, protest and litigation were the means of securing justice. Our model explores a wide range of possibilities between the two that we believe would only bolster the cause of raising political consciousness among the disadvantaged about their rights as citizens.”
Menon concedes that many LEP projects tend to foist a top-down agenda on those they purport to help and seeks instead to involve communities and Namati staff in deciding which goals to pursue and how they should be achieved. “In the proposed port at Tadri, we armed our paralegals with facts about the potential impacts the port might have on their lives, and a knowledge of environmental laws that such projects must comply with,” she explains. “It’s up to their collective agency to support or oppose the project.”
The paralegals were aware of the scientific assessment that the port would devastate the estuarine ecosystem but lacked sufficient information about the project on which to base an informed position. They decided to use the law to extract full disclosure about the project. Gouda sent a legal notice to the state pollution control board, the body responsible for organizing a public hearing on the port necessary for the project to move forward, arguing the hearing should not be held because of legal irregularities. Kanchi Kohli, director of legal research at Namati, exposed flaws in the environmental impact assessment for the project and discrepancies in the development proposal itself.
Though the project seems likely to go through, Gouda hopes the plans for the port will be revised because the latest report of the expert appraisal committee acknowledged the legal failings the Namati paralegal team pointed out, in particular its glossing over of the impact of dredging on the estuary.
Namati’s single-minded commitment to LEP as the mascot of equality might appear inadequate in dealing with complex situations—like the Tadri port project—that often defy the straitjacket of legal rights discourse. Yet in smaller arenas it has achieved significant victories, as Ambiga might acknowledge. With Namati’s help, she recently received her housing grant, so she can repay her loan and finish building a roof over her family’s new home.