Stanny Jebamalai is using legal aid as a starting point for establishing a grassroots human rights movement among tribal people in western India. By training tribal men and women to become paralegals, Stanny gives tribal communities the tools they need to fight for basic human rights, both in and out of court.
The New Idea
India's adivasis, traditionally non-Hindu people also known as tribals, have often been denied the rights and benefits they deserve as citizens. Through a broad grassroots movement, Stanny is helping them access the justice system and giving them the tools they need to fight for their fundamental rights. Stanny sees that although legal aid programs for remote tribal communities have sought redress in individual instances of abuse, preventative measures must be taken to curb abuse and strengthen the protection offered to tribals by the legal system and other public institutions. Stanny is building a machine with three moving parts: human resources, in the form of paralegals and lawyers who work in the courts; people's organizations that sustain and lead tribal rights campaigns; and a coordinating organization that trains activists and arranges mass events. By educating tribal women and men to be paralegals, Stanny and his staff at the Law and Human Rights Center (LAHRC) are creating a corps of community organizers who help tribals understand and assert their rights as Indian citizens. The paralegals also support professional adivasi lawyers who are defending tribals in court.
As organizers, Stanny's field staff help establish citizen-led organizations that move from individual intervention to collective action. Self-funded, self-led and largely self-replicating, the people's organizations are the beginnings of civil society organizations for those with limited or no access to the government and the citizen sector.
India's adivasis are a minority community and lack many human rights and basic services provided to others in Indian society: education, health care, electric power, water, and sanitation systems, to name a few. They experience displacement due to river dam projects and, often, dispossession of land.
Frequently, they are the victims of violence and intimidation from state personnel like police and forestry officials.In the state of Gujarat, where Stanny works, adivasis constitute approximately 15 percent of the population–twice the national average. Like tribal communities elsewhere in India, they are poor, live mainly in forests, and find their rights as citizens have little value. Efforts to access the legal system, one crucial element of citizenship, are often thwarted. Those who challenge abuses seldom get very far, as corrupt judges and unscrupulous lawyers intentionally draw out cases and overcharge tribal clients.
While several city-based legal aid centers conduct investigations and periodically visit the villages of tribal people, there are no mechanisms for ongoing participation and sustained intervention. Individual interventions are the norm and their success fails to have large-scale impact. Further, these ad hoc efforts neglect to look at the underlying problem–the absence of strong institutions that can spur collective action.
While all legal aid centers need paralegals to work on cases, Stanny envisioned a new function that would go far beyond taking depositions and filling out forms. He began a training program that would prepare paralegals to immerse themselves in the life of the tribal community. Referred to as "paralegals-cum-community organizers," they go beyond individual cases to engage communities in collective social analysis of the realities adivasis face and the rights due to them.
Since 1993, the Center has trained three hundred paralegals, half of them women, who have helped settle almost two thousand cases out of court. Stanny's paralegal training program lasts eight to twelve months and teaches criminal, civil, labor law, and women's rights. The Center selects its most outstanding, committed paralegals and sends them to law school with donated scholarship funds.
To date, Stanny has educated twenty-four tribal lawyers through this program. As many more tribal lawyers begin practicing, additional legal aid centers will be established. Tribal communities need more than legal support, however. Rather than focusing solely on individual cases, Stanny is also creating a network of citizen's organizations that lead and support adivasi rights campaigns. Stanny envisions them as permanent institutions dedicated to tribal people's rights, with ownership in the hands of the adivasis. The Center's field staff set up organizations, which unite adivasi communities to take collective ao with eighteen thousand members from more than three hundred villages. Through these organizations, tribals have won increased access to forest land and inclusion in government employment programs. They have also raised awareness of their unique culture among government officials, local non-tribals, and political parties. Tribal women have gained respect and decision-making powers within their communities through Stanny's efforts to give women equal representation in all levels of the organizations.
Stanny is now spreading his work beyond Surat in Gujarat by employing a two-fold strategy. Firstly, he is promoting LAHRC as a model and resource for other organizations. Secondly, he is highlighting the role legal aid can play in stimulating citizen's organizations. Stanny also focuses on creating high-quality programs and training materials that are applicable to new places, organizations, and communities. He is careful to avoid turning LAHRC into a centralized organization as its effectiveness lies in its ability to support, but not lead the civil society organizations. Stanny is quick to point out that real spread and growth should be measured in terms of organizations which spring up through tribal peoples' efforts and not of external agencies.
Born to landed Catholic farmers in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, Stanny grew up in a culture steeped in the traditions and conflicts of caste and race. He sensed the injustice, but wasn't sure how to intervene until he was close to finishing school. He left home to become a priest after hearing an inspiring lecture by Jesuit fathers who were working with tribals in Gujarat. Wanting to benefit more than one church congregation, and Christians and non-Christians alike, Stanny decided to study law.
In 1987, he joined a legal aid center run by the Jesuits. Deeply impressed by the struggle of tribal peoples displaced by government projects, Stanny found himself at odds with the system and its representatives–corrupt judges and apathetic lawyers. Returning to school to earn a Master's degree in law, Stanny found a new sense of purpose. He emerged from graduate school determined to serve tribal people who were denied the justice promised to them by law.
In 1991, Stanny arrived in Surat to work with a legal aid center. Finding the staff far removed from the realities of tribal people, Stanny made it mandatory for them to spend at least three days in the villages to get to know their clients. Three years later, he realized he had to do more than improve one legal aid center and started training tribal lawyers and paralegals to bring lasting change to India's justice system.