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100 Years Of Pro Bono Work And How It Has Changed The Way Indian Lawyers See Their Work

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It was April 1917. The place was Champaran, Bihar. Mahatma Gandhi had reached Champaran with the idea of making a short visit to understand the plight of indigo farmers in the region. The short trip turned into a year-long fact-finding mission that culminated in the Champaran Satyagraha, the first satyagraha in India.

Before starting work, Gandhiji addressed a group of lawyers in Patna to encourage them in helping the movement. A number of lawyers volunteered and for more than a year, they toured Champaran, in teams, to obtain statements from more than 22,000 indigo farmers who were being exploited by planters. The statements formed the basis of the historic agitation. Gandhiji’s work at Champaran is well-recorded by historians, but not enough is said about the deep effect that Champaran had on the lawyers who worked with him there.

Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, who was also a lawyer who worked at Champaran, said:

Most of us who joined Gandhiji in Champaran were lawyers… But when we started working in Champaran, our whole outlook changed…When we had finished the work in Champaran, we returned home with new ideas, a new courage, and a new programme…”

Prasad wasn’t alone. Pro bono work seemed to create legends out of lawyers throughout the Independence struggle: Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, Rajagopalachari, and Vallabhai Patel, were some such lawyers.

Over a hundred years later, it seems that Prasad’s reflections on Champaran continue to be relevant in describing the impact of pro bono legal work.

In the last eight years, iProbono India has worked with at least a hundred lawyers who have provided legal advice and assistance to the most vulnerable populations. Last year, we worked with a homeless community in Rajeev Camp Delhi, who were fighting for housing after their basti was demolished for the expansion of a highway. In our work with Rajeev Camp residents in the run up to the litigation, we played the role of the secretaries and messengers to record the stories of the residents. The community was represented in court by a partner at a leading law firm in Delhi, who managed to secure housing for 14 of the families after a six-month-long court battle.

This year, lawyers in private practice are working towards providing legal representation to three other jhuggi jhopri communities, collectively adding up to over 2,500 people, who are on the verge of becoming homeless. While the work of collecting accounts and narratives from the community is done by community-based NGOs and iProbono, it is significant that the lawyers representing the communities in court often don’t have any previous experience of litigating human rights, and perhaps like Rajendra Prasad, are changed by it in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

Being involved in sustained pro bono work could hold promise for a lawyer’s understanding of the world. By seeing the legal system as a site to negotiate certain narrow goals, it becomes easier to see that the legal system is much more than just that. It embodies a form of politics; sometimes it impedes politics, sometimes it is the agent for the creation of vulnerability and sometimes, it is the only saviour.

As we have repeatedly seen in the cases involving people who suffer from extreme deprivation, lawyers engaged for the case have to acquaint themselves with the machinery that creates vulnerability – the schemes that authorize cities to “clean” out slums; the schemes that require famine-stricken people to produce Aadhaar cards to be able to access ration; the laws that allow people to be put away without trial for indefinite periods of time; the state-supported forces that breed hatred and violence; the laws that keep the most disadvantaged people exactly where they are. The machinery that creates poverty, violence, and disadvantage may be visible to only those who are looking. Lawyers are often powerfully placed to create long-lasting social and political change. What is needed then, are many more opportunities for lawyers to see the workings of vulnerability, first hand.

Hidden in pro bono work is the chance to experience the world through the perspective of a disenfranchised client and to be part of a cultural shift – a fundamental change that recasts the legal profession’s vision of itself and a lawyer’s perception of his or her own place in the world.

In short, a change that helps us see.

The access to the justice space in India has people and organisations that work on diverse projects but without connection to one another. There are no platforms for dialogue, which could have rewarding effects in building impact and scaling up access to justice efforts, nationally. There will probably never be another Mahatma Gandhi, but with more cohesion between the people working on justice, we could still learn to be good scribes and envoys to the Champarans simmering around us.

Source of quotes: A Sketch of the Development of the Legal Profession in India, Samuel Schmitthener, Law & Society Review Vol. 3, (Nov 1968 – Feb. 1969), pp. 337-382).

iProbono hopes to empower vulnerable individuals by sharing content that raises awareness around legislation, case law and constitutional provisions available to them. The article is written by Swathi Sukumar, Co-Founder of iProbono India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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