The pandemic has resulted into untold sufferings, particularly for the poor and the marginalized, for which they were not prepared. Lakhs of people have lost their means of livelihood. Farmers are bearing the brunt. Daily wagers have no work, and hence no income. Thousands of migrants are walking hundreds of kilometers to reach their homes, with their small children. Hungry and thirsty, but they are still walking. Pregnant lady gave birth on the road while walking back to her village for hundreds of kilometers. Many migrants got killed in the accidents. Where are the State Agencies? Have they become Rip Van Winkle?
Instead of finding them, let's delve into it from another angle, the factor of breach of the rights and protections provided by the laws. There are almost 200 laws which deal directly or indirectly with the children. There are number of laws which deal with laborers and women. Above all, there is a Constitution of India providing Right to Life, which obviously is much more than the mere animal existence. Where have these promises and protections gone, particularly for the migrants and the poor? Did we enact welfare laws for the normal times only? Have they ceased to operate during the unprecedented times like this?
The reason for it is crystal clear. The poor and marginalized for whom these rights and entitlements are meant do not know them. They do not know how to navigate the complex administrative and judicial setup. They do not know how to access their entitlements. They do know the institutions meant for them. They do not know that their problems have legal dimensions and can be best solved in a legal way. In short, they are not legally empowered. The unresolved problems aggravate, and become complex and multifaceted legal issues with disastrous cascading effects.
In the post lockdown period, the distress may manifest itself in the form of marital disputes, issues between employers and employees, disputes between landlords and tenants, impact on rights of children as poverty may deepen. Apart from that human trafficking may also increase, an important aspect to be taken care of by the public Authorities. The indirect impact of the Covid-19 may be more lethal than the direct effect. The problems and the legal needs and issues are likely to increase. In such a scenario, Legal Services Authorities have an important role to play. They are the mandated by legislation to provide free legal services to certain categories of people including women, children persons with disabilities, persons with disabilities, industrial workmen, SC and ST and persons having annual income less than the prescribed and to make them aware of their rights and entitlements. Legal Services Authorities have presence in each and every district across the country, and have their reach till the grassroots. This massive network need to be more accessible to people to mitigate the sufferings of poor and for promoting and protecting their rights. The services of these Authorities will be required more than ever before.
During and post lockdown period, legal Services Authorities have to proactively enhance its visibility particularly in rural areas so as to make public aware of their existence and the types of services being provided free of costs. This is also imperative to instill faith and awareness amongst masses that these Institutions have not ceased to work even during lockdown. Spreading legal awareness about rights and entitlements amongst masses is also required on a massive scale. To make this happen, instead of conventional methods some other methodologies are required to be applied by the Legal Services Authorities. Legal awareness camps cannot be held in the way these were held earlier. The shift is required to make more use of other tools such as Community Radios, You tube channel, television channels, local cable TV, Bulk SMS messages, and webinars. Some of these cost saving tools have reach in rural India also, and hence can facilitate spreading of quality awareness. Most importantly, coordination with other government departments and NGOs and law colleges is the key for achieving maximum reach. This in fact is also provided in sections 5,8 and 11 of the Legal Services Authorities Act. Better coordination will not only help in making impact at the grass roots but will also reduce operational costs.
Legal aid helpline numbers need to be strengthened and popularized by Legal aid Authorities. In collaboration with the call centres, these helplines can work in a more systematic manner. National Legal aid helpline number 15100 shall be the backbone during these times. This can provide relief to many, and make people aware of the support system. It will make legal aid authorities more accessible to people. PLVs with proper training on preventive measures can compile legal needs of people of their local areas, and transmit it to District Legal Services Authorities for appropriate action.
To provide expeditious justice at the local level, mediations centers may be activated gradually, particularly to deal with marital and family disputes. In the urban areas, video tools may be used for conducting the counselling in such cases. Legal Services Clinics in far flung and remote areas can be used for mediation with appropriate social distancing and other preventive measures in place. Organizing Lok Adalats with proper precautions on a small level quite frequently instead for going for Pan India Lok Adalats is one of the steps which may help in settlement of disputes. Testing online methods of ADR in a district or so can be done, and thereafter the same can be expanded to other areas with course corrections.
More use of social media to disseminate information about the activities, and capturing the legal problems of people is needed on a large scale. The Legal Services Authorities need to collaborate with other government departments, law Colleges, NGos working at the grassroots to maximize their reach and access. Competent Legal aid and assistance should be the main focus of Legal Services Authorities, and the priorities in the changing and challenging times are required to be identified keeping in view the financially constrained environment which may emerge. The Legal Services Authorities have to identify the target groups, and work with clear goals for providing assistance to the targeted groups.
Apart from this, long term planning and restructuring in the new emerging scenario with atleast five years vision plan with measurable goals may help in taking the Legal Services Authorities to the next level in terms of quality delivery of legal services and enhancing its accessibility. Legal Services with their committed workforce are doing exemplary work during the lockdown period. Lakhs of people have benefitted with their active interventions. However, they have to focus now more on new methods of identifying legal needs of people and providing appropriate legal aid and assistance and increase its accessibility to the poorest. New sustainable tools of legal empowerment of people need to be worked out by these Authorities. Legal empowerment leads to impact. It leads to institutional corrections, and then State Agencies cannot afford to remain invisible and go to Catskill Mountain.
Author is now working as Presiding officer Labour court cum Industrial Tribunal Rohtak.
Views Are Personal Only.