I was in Kolkata for the last five months. After completing my post-graduation in Pondicherry, I had headed home to prepare for government job exams. But somehow I was unable to concentrate on my studies and was tired of 19 years of an ‘ivory tower’ education format. I needed to breathe, to stop and give my brain a rest. I often wondered how much I will be able to impact the society even if I get a government job. I had no experience outside my classrooms except a few mandatory internships.

It was October; I was going through my Facebook notifications where I saw two statements, ‘Apply now’ and Change starts with you’. After clicking on the link, I was directed towards the homepage of India Fellow, and four months later, I was in Udaipur sitting with 20 other people equally clueless as to what contribution will we make during the fellowship, what will be the outcome of this journey after 13 months, of training young individuals and having them experience working with grass-root level organisations.

Before I forget to admit, the training period in Udaipur gave me some of the best days of my life. We played like kids every morning, had powerful discussions and brainstorming sessions, post which our nights or rather mid-nights ended with dinner, gossip and occasionally, some munchies. Subsequently, after the induction training, we all headed towards our host organisations, with which we have to work for a year, to understand how things work in the social sector.

I was given an opportunity to work with Chaitanya; a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on community based micro finance institutions in Maharashtra. Their vision is to have ‘a Gender just, equitable and self-reliant society where women have access to and control over financial and other resources.’ Their way of working is by forming a hierarchical structure of Self-help Groups (SHG) or Svayam Sahaayata Samooh, at the bottom, clusters or Vibhaag in the middle and federations or Sangh at the top.

An SHG, here, is a small voluntary association of 10-15 women, usually from tribal communities, who come together for the purpose of solving common problems through mutual help. In Chaitanya, the method of forming such groups is simple. Once an SHG is formed, the staff trains them on saving money, conducting monthly meetings, keeping a financial record, giving and receiving loans among the group and calculating interest on that.

After 5-7 SHGs are formed in an area, they all are grouped together as a cluster with the same functions of savings, monitoring and borrowing money but now they can borrow a larger amount as there is an increase in the lending capacity of the cluster due to their size. The top most level is of Federation where all the SHGs in a particular region, if they reach a mark of 100, are grouped together to keep the flow of money intact with higher lending capacity. At this level, the work doesn’t just happen on the financial front but clusters and groups also come together to work for social issues in their area, such as water crisis, garbage management, alcoholism, and breakout of an illness.

As a part of this system, one department of Chaitanya works on providing legal aid to their SHG members and other distressed women in their region. Known as Legal Jankars or ‘Kayda Jankar’ in Marathi, they form a separate unit which functions in order to guide the aggrieved women. The legal Jankar (someone well informed about the laws) is selected after a comprehensive process,

  • comprising of written exams of 60 marks,
  • a practical exam of 20 marks, and
  • a personal interview of 20 marks.

After this, a woman is given a certificate for successful completion of the course followed by twelve months of training at one day per month. Post that, she is taken for field visits to a police station, block district officer, local courts and magistrates to build their confidence in order to deal with the government officials.

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The Jankar is chosen by a federation through voting. The candidate has to be literate and hold the post. She should not be more than 40 years old. Once she is selected, a Counselling Centre Committee is set up to work on the issues revolving around marriage, sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, Right to Information and so on. The counselling happens twice a month at the Counselling Centre.

One of the leading examples is of Junnar taluka in Pune where the government has started supporting the organisation in dealing with such cases, because they believe that the locals feel more comfortable with people from their villages or communities. Also, the legal Jankars help the distressed people to get speedy and inexpensive justice. This would have costed them their life if they would have approached a professional lawyer or a government official directly.

The procedure is simple. The woman in need, comes to the counselling centre with her problem, talk to the Legal Jankar about her issues after which the Jankar analyses the severity of the issue and takes a written report from the aggrieved person. A simple warning letter is issued to the accused to come to the centre, failing which they are issued two more subsequent letters and both the parties are called to solve the problem with mutual understanding. However, in case the accused chooses not to answer any of the letters, they are called by the police or legal officer of that area. The matter is then taken up by the higher authority or government officials and is then solved by mutual understanding, penalty or in extreme cases, by extreme punishment such as imprisonment.

To conclude I would say that as far as my observation goes, this NYAY wing of Chaitanya is doing a significant job in helping poor people access justice by making them aware of their rights and duties. If every organisation at grassroots sets up such a system, it will be a relief for people who couldn’t otherwise bear the misery of economic and political burden for getting justice.

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