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Meet India's 'barefoot' lawyers!

September 30, 2017 08:34 IST

Geetanjali Krishna looks at how one organisation’s unique idea is helping marginalised communities to gain legal access.

Namati's barefoot lawyers

IMAGE: Namati trains selected local stakeholders to become ‘barefoot lawyers’ who can understand, use and shape the laws that affect them. Photograph: Kind courtesy Namati

In the relentless march towards development, disempowered tribal people, fishermen and forest dwellers often find their homes and livelihoods endangered by industries, ports, roads and mines.

Without access to legal guidance to fight for their rights and entitlements, such communities find themselves unable to break out of the vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty. 


A US-based non-profit, working since 2012 in some of the most backward districts of Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, may have a solution.

By training selected local stakeholders to become ‘barefoot lawyers’ who can understand, use and shape the laws that affect them, Namati, partnering in India with the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, is aiming to democratise legal access.

“We have found legal access to be an important tool for empowerment and development of marginalised communities,” says Manju Menon, senior fellow at CPR, who directs Namati’s environmental justice programme in India.

Vinod Patgar 

IMAGE: Vinod Patgar, an enviro-legal coordinator for CPR-Namati, gathered evidence of illegal sand mining that led to sinkholes in Kagal, Karnataka. Photograph: Kind courtesy Namati

Here are some case studies.

In May 2016, unplanned and unauthorised silica sand mining in Kagal, a small fishing village in northern Karnataka, created sinkholes that threatened to bring seawater into the village.

Vinod Patgar, the community’s enviro-legal coordinator, gathered evidence of the illegal mining and studied the new Sand Mining Policy, 2011.

A well-researched application to the district commissioner elicited a quick response.

A site visit by the district commissioner and an official of the mines and geology department noted the violations.

The offenders were fined Rs 6.3 lakh and had to pay for all the damages caused.

The ELC played a crucial role here and not just in filing the complaint. “Without him, the community might not have even known what its legal standing was,” says Menon.

A 'barefoot' lawyer in Vapi

IMAGE: Manisha Goswami, a young mother of two, joined Namati's environmental damage programme to battle the untreated effluent that the Vapi chemical factories are dumping in the Kolak river, affecting the lives of the fishing communities dependent on the river for their livelihood. Photograph: Kind courtesy Namati

In another case in Vapi, Gujarat, the local fishing community found effluents from the industrial zone polluting the river and the sea.

The area used to stink so badly that it was dubbed ‘the armpit of India’.

“Our two ELCs in Vapi found that the common effluent treatment plant in the industrial zone was malfunctioning,” says Menon. The ELCs studied the pollution law and mobilised the community into signing a complaint. 

Karwar in Karnataka

IMAGE: Namati helped several coastal communities in Karwar, Karnataka, who lived with the fear that their homes near the sea violated the 1991 Coastal Zone Protection regulation, which disallowed construction activity within 500 metres of the high tide line. Photograph: Kind courtesy Namati

A third case shows exactly how disempowered communities become when they have limited access to the law.

For the last 26 years, several coastal communities in Karwar in Karnataka lived with the fear that their homes near the sea violated the 1991 Coastal Zone Protection regulation, which disallowed construction activity within 500 metres of the high tide line.

“They didn’t construct new homes or rebuild old structures for the fear of attracting the government’s attention,” says Menon. “Instead, unscrupulous property developers had begun buying their land at dirt-cheap rates.”

Upon reading the regulation, Namati’s ELCs discovered that homes built before 1991 were exempted from the regulation. “With their help, people were able to successfully legalise their properties, ending years of uncertainty and dread,” says Menon.

Barefoot lawyers  

IMAGE: Educating the disempowered about their rights. Photograph: Kind courtesy Namati

At present, Namati-CPR has 15 ELCs operating in four states. On an average, they spend about Rs 3 lakh per annum on a single individual, taking into account salary, travel costs and more.

The donors include Open Society Foundation, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Skoll Foundation and International Development Research Centre.

Menon and her colleagues are refining their pedagogy constantly.

Namati’s field experiences in other parts of Asia and Africa suggest that community-based legal interventions could prove useful in several domains other than environmental law -- gender parity, access to healthcare and land use rights, to name some.  

Barefoot lawyers

IMAGE: Paralegals trained by Namati and CPR worked with the Aghanashini community to establish a union of clam harvesters. Previously, clam harvesters were not recognised by the government as fishermen and therefore unable to join any union. This resulted in clam harvesters not being eligible for government compensation schemes in the event of death or injury at work. In this picure, Jaivanth Gouda pauses before diving for clams in the estuary of the Aghanashini River,one of the last entirely free-flowing rivers in the world (Information source: Namati). Photograph: Kind courtesy Aubrey Wade for Namati

Meanwhile, the learnings from their interventions in India have been profound.

“Our experiences have shown us that since legal training is intensive, it can’t be accomplished on a mass scale,” says Menon. “It needs close range, incremental education, much of which is learnt through its practical application.”

Given adequate manpower and financial resources, it is immensely scalable. “On a human level, we’ve seen how once empowered, most stakeholders try their utmost to help others,” says Menon. 

Community building aside, this new crop of ‘barefoot lawyers’ has been able to get most of the cases resolved administratively, rather than further burdening Indian courts. 

As Namati uses its trailblazing network of grassroots legal advocates to squeeze justice even out of the most broken systems, one thing is clear -- sometimes, the most effective way to dispense justice is by putting law into people’s hands. 

To learn more, visit

Geetanjali Krishna