“Why doesn’t the government take action on this?”, “Why can’t something be done about this problem?”, “This is absolute injustice; urgent steps need to be taken to change the situation!” and so on and so forth. Questions, we are familiar with; but, how many times, have we tried to be the solution rather than the problem? Or better still, be the action-taker rather than the suggestion-maker?
Citizen participation is of paramount importance, especially in a country like ours, which is the largest democracy in the world; even our constitution begins with the words “We, the citizens…”. It is, perhaps, time for change – change not only in our society, but change in ourselves. A need to be more proactive as a citizen is definitely imperative. “But how can we make a difference?” or “What difference will one person’s contribution make?” are some of the commonly asked questions. Let us answer these questions and clarify these doubts with a fine example: the Good Rural Governance initiative by the S M Sehgal Foundation.
Majority of India resides in villages, so the development efforts need to catch on in rural India in order to reflect real change; however, in the current situation, in villages, many are unaware about the various schemes that the government offers for the upliftment of its citizens. Without awareness, citizens are at the losing end – neither do they know that such schemes exist nor do they know how to avail these. Questions such as: “What is RTI?”, “How to file a RTI?”, “What are the schemes available for a daughter’s marriage?”, “What is a mid-day meal and what does it include?”, “What is RTE?”, “I need to avail my pension; how do I go about it?” and so on. In order to generate awareness, the foundation holds legal literacy camps in diverse villages at varied intervals for the propagation of awareness – an imperative component for citizen participation and upholding of democracy.
Vikas Jha, director, Good Rural Governance, Sehgal Foundation explains the intervention: “It is not possible for the government to reach out to each and every citizen and generate awareness, especially since resources are limited. Besides, in a country like ours, this would not be logistically feasible. Since the mandate of the District State Legal Authority and ours is similar, collaboration makes total sense. We have been organizing trainings since about seven years now. Till August 2017, approximately forty thousand villagers have been reached across five blocks in Nuh, Haryana and two in Alwar, Rajasthan.”
Adds Navneet Narwal, program leader, Governance and Policy Advocacy, Sehgal Foundation: “With the District State Legal Authority, the generation of awareness, conduction of follow-ups on the individual cases addressed, and the build-up of confidence through the presence of eminent judges and personalities are what make this cooperation beneficial and sustainable; this is the essence of any partnership.”
On the day of the camp, multiple stalls provide domain specific information to everyone present. Besides this, the presence of a government authority like the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) adds impetus to the camp. Prior information on the organization of the camp is dispersed via mobile vans making public announcements, distribution of leaflets and door-to-door visits. Volunteers, who have been trained by the foundation over the past many years, assist in manning stalls and providing information.
“On a day we receive around 700 – 800 people from across four-five villages. The involvement of the government is crucial as this not only adds weightage to the initiative but also discourages corrupt practices. In fact, the initiative has gained so much popularity that we get quite a number of requests pertaining to the organization of such legal literacy camps. Villagers even agree to contribute towards the costs, which, on average fall in the INR 20,000 – INR 25,000 bracket per camp. Already this year, around three-four such camps have been organized,” adds Jha.
Just recently a legal literacy camp was organized in block Tauru of village Rangala, which was attended by approximately eleven hundred villagers, who made use of the platform to avail information on a wide variety of government schemes. The attendance by government officials as well as the village sarpanch, members of the panchayat, school teachers and school administrators was seen as a message which added a lot of value to the event.
“The community participation is our motivation. Villagers attend the camp with a lot of hope, especially since they are offered advice, help and service, free of cost, all under one umbrella. This time, the demand pertaining to labour department registration was the maximum, followed by pension schemes and ration card applications. I even recall how three girls got to know about the right to free legal counsel, which is what they availed, further to distress in their respective marriages,” says Arif, block coordinator, Tauru district, Haryana.
“Follow-ups, post the conduction of a camp, are important. This helps us understand emerging trends and patterns, besides gauging the effectiveness of the camp. For example, if we helped two hundred and fifty villagers fill forms and one hundred and thirty got benefitted therefrom, it helps us understand the magnitude of the impact,” elaborates Jha.
In the words of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi “I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong.” And, this is possible only when there is awareness, understanding and participation.