Armed with a formal legal education, Shakil Ahmed is making Mumbai's (Bombay) municipal government more accountable to its citizens by calling attention to the corruption and brutality that poor Indians suffer at its hands.
The New Idea
Shakil leads the Nirbhay Bano Andolan (NBA), a one-stop group where the poor and marginalized can go for information and education on their rights. The NBA demands government accountability and offers a hands-on manual for interacting with various arms of the government. Shakil's strategy is to identify an instance of state violence against the common man or woman, publicize it, and solicit public criticism about it from common people as well as from eminent members of the judicial, legal, and political worlds. He then makes sure to keep the story in front of the media and creates opportunities for the community to voice grievances directly to the political representatives of the state. The goal, which is often achieved, is to force responsible authorities to swing into action.
Shakil's mantra is one of encouraging community self-help, telling people about their rights, and equipping them better to fight for those rights. From the queues at the ration shops to complaints at the police station, from emergency services in cases of rape and murder, to campaigns for proper implementation of a government fact-finding report, Shakil and his team of volunteers help the common people in the Mumbai slums demand their rights and exercise their power as citizens, without fearing the police, the bureaucrats, or the muscle-flexing politicians.
Most other organizations working in similar areas provide legal aid, file cases or public interest litigation where it is needed, or fight to create awareness about a specific issue. Shakil helps the NBA in all these areas, which in turn brings a level of self-empowerment to people at the grassroots level. The whole approach is geared to bringing justice to victims and, more importantly, empowering them to fight their battles in a more informed manner. In the process people learn to handle crisis situations and overcome their fear of those in power. This builds community strength both by helping the oppressed help themselves and by identifying potential leaders among the public who can continue working into the future. The NBA does not just fight the battles on behalf of the people; it empowers the common people to fight on their own.
In India the very governmental systems that are meant to protect the people often turn against them. Bureaucratic red tape on the one hand and corruption on the other have afflicted the system so much that people feel the state machinery is there to rule over them rather than to benefit them. The voice of the poor people has been suppressed, and the poor have developed fear and mistrust of the state system. People are afraid to report crimes to the authorities–they do not want to risk having the authorities turn on them. The poor, marginalized slum dwellers are at an even-greater risk–they are afraid even to ask for those rights that should come to them routinely.
The problem is fundamentally one of education. Over the years a clear need has emerged for the community to be aware of its rights, and for its people to be empowered to interact–without fear of coercion, violence or marginalization–with the mechanisms that exist to enable and protect those rights. In India a lack of awareness of and education about fundamental rights often restricts people from obtaining, or demanding, even the most basic things they are entitled to from their government. Those in power expect the people to adjust to their corrupt, violent ways; they either demand bribes for the simplest of services or blatantly deprive people of the very rights which they are empowered to protect. For example, builders often evict inhabitants without legal notice, prompting local gangsters to demand "protection money" from the poor people under the pretense of preventing further evictions. In turn, wealthy builders can offer landlords higher sums than those forcefully collected from tenants. A result is that the poor residents end up facing extortion and eviction. Money and contacts within government circles and the rich community can ensure speedy justice in the face of wrongdoing. But poor people with none of those connections most often have no recourse. As a result, the common man has not only to endure poverty and hardship, but also to live with the fear of engaging the system to try to solve the problem. There is a need for the common people to recognize their rights and have faith in their power and their confidence to make the state system work for them. People must become familiar with the workings of the state machinery. These aims ought to lead the state to adopt a more people-friendly method of conducting business that benefits everyone in India by creating pressure on state departments to be more accountable, responsible, and effective.
Shakil's first step is to keep his ears open for word of any event, regardless of its seeming political impact, that attacks the human rights of any member of the community and to investigate it carefully. He and his group of volunteers visit the scene of the crime, collect eyewitnesses, and take down accounts of the event from diverse sources. Shakil then sets out to build consensus around the issue. Roadside meetings are held to discuss and seek support from the community and a detailed account of the event is documented. Shakil then looks to amass support for his effort from groups of sympathetic resource people that include retired police commissioners, judges, government officials, and members of the press.
Once enough interest is generated in what took place, Shakil bombards the media with articles and a step-by-step account of the event. Interest in the event is kept burning until some action is taken. The communities meet their elected representatives, like local counselors and, sometimes, the chief minister of the state, and submit written petitions and documents. In some cases, the NBA plasters Mumbai with posters and handbills on issues. Depending on the community's need at the time, relevant public interest litigation may be filed in the courts. The coordinated force of Shakil's diverse actions gives poor people the strength and self-confidence necessary to fight injustice in the system and cause the system to mend its ways.
One of Shakil's battles serves as a prime example of his effective strategy. Shakil pushed the Democratic Front government into implementing the then three-year-old Sri Krishna Commission report, which indicted 15 police officers for conduct during the communal riots that rocked Mumbai in 1992-93. Shakil, along with his teammates, led a long, winding campaign on the issue that included poster coverage, signature drives and consensus building among eminent members of the city. Their efforts made this an election issue in the 1999 Indian General Elections and helped the community demand that votes go only to those political candidates who would punish the police culprits in the riot.
Shakil's main thrust has been to keep public interest in the issue burning in everyone's mind. He has published a short booklet outlining the report and the steps that were taken by activists and lawyers and communities to put the report in place and compel the government to take action on it. By distributing these booklets at every meeting he attends and at conferences and workshops, he is building visibility on the issue among diverse groups. By encouraging small bookstore owners to sell it at a minimal price, he is bringing the issue to a large section of the population that had been unaware of it.
Shakil has leveraged this campaign to consolidate the NBA's position as the leader on this issue. This, in turn, has led the group to establish a wider network of members and supporters previously unaffiliated with any social movement or organization. Shakil and his team have also networked with prominent Indians–so much so that Justice Suresh and retired municipal commissioner J.B. Desouza endorse the NBA as an organization that is seriously fighting injustice against the common man. The comprehensive work done by the team at the NBA has established goodwill among journalists, who now routinely call the NBA office for information on relevant topics.
Improving the NBA's visibility has also helped Shakil to create media interest in smaller cases of human rights violations. This has worked in two ways. First, increasing people's awareness of their rights and building their confidence in facing authority has helped community members to create social and legal pressure to reduce corruption and violence and increase government efficiency. Second, the knowledge that there are people who are now willing to ask questions and monitor activities has spurred officials to deter crime and corruption and produce results.
In addition to improving the NBA's capacity to fight for its constituents, Shakil works to build the community's capacity to fight for itself. He identifies local leaders in every area who, in turn, educate their own neighborhoods on their rights and on how to deal with the proper authorities. These leaders familiarize their fellow citizens with various official procedures, departments, forms, and follow-up actions, along with the legal, social, and political aspects of their problems, so that community members can solve their problems and overcome their challenges themselves. These local pressure groups are created in every slum area where the NBA works. Shakil also hopes to create more youth volunteers to entice those youngsters who would otherwise easily be attracted to lives of violence and antisocial activities. He plans to counter these violent forces with a team dedicated to improving the way the government meets the needs of young people.
In yet another aspect of his effort, Shakil has also been providing legal aid in his capacity as a lawyer. He has handled some 15 cases this year and is acting as a consultant for the criminal law unit of Ashoka Fellow Colin Gonsalves's India Center for Human Rights and Law. Boundaries between issues do not restrict Shakil's work. His objective is to enable communities to handle their own problems, so that he can render himself obsolete in a given location and then move on to a new area in need. Shakil's work has already spread to nine major slum areas in Mumbai, and it is slowly spreading throughout Maharashtra.
Shakil comes from a poor family that was always among those who had their rights ignored and denied by the government. This personal experience gave him both the insight into the problems poor people face in their day-to-day lives and the motivation required to work toward the realization of rights for common people. Working as a mechanic in his uncle's scooter-repair workshop and as a carpenter with his father, Shakil paid for his own education starting in the seventh standard, while simultaneously contributing to the family's income. While studying for his master's degree in commerce, Shakil coordinated business for a scrap-iron dealer in Bombay. He was shocked at the shabby way his employer treated the laborers who worked under him and at the workers' lack of awareness of their own rights and privileges. This created a lasting impression. In spite of immense pressure from home to earn an income, he ultimately left his well-paying job in protest and went off to Latur with a few friends to help in the relief effort for earthquake victims.
In the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that ravaged the city, a group of people in Mumbai got together to form the Dahshatwad Birodhi Kriti Samiti (Society for Alleviation of Fear) to clear the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that had gripped the city. This was later rechristened Nirbhay Bano Andolan, which literally means the "Do not be afraid movement." In 1994, when Shakil returned from Latur, he went to a meeting of the Nirbhay Bano Andolan and became an active member. He soon became the movement's mainstay and its core organizer. He has managed to remain the invisible strategist behind both the Andolan's obvious victories and its smaller successes. Shakil studied law and got his LL.B. degree in order to devise better, more effective ways of helping the common people seek legal aid in communal as well as individual matters. In 1995 he joined the Socio-Legal Information Center (SLIC) as a legal advisor, a skill that he also finds handy for his voluntary work with the NBA. He lives in Mumbai with his parents and sisters.