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TEDGlobal 2017

Vivek Maru: How to put the power of law in people's hands

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What can you do when the wheels of justice don't turn fast enough? Or when they don't turn at all? Vivek Maru is working to transform the relationship between people and law, turning law from an abstraction or threat into something that everyone can understand, use and shape. Instead of relying solely on lawyers, Maru started a global network of community paralegals, or barefoot lawyers, who serve in their own communities and break the law down into simple terms to help people find solutions. Learn more about how this innovative approach to using the law is helping socially excluded people claim their rights. "A little bit of legal empowerment can go a long way," Maru says.

- Legal empowerment advocate
Vivek Maru is the founder of Namati, a movement for legal empowerment around the world powered by cadres of grassroots legal advocates. Full bio

I want to tell you about someone.
00:12
I'm going to call him Ravi Nanda.
00:15
I'm changing his name
to protect his safety.
00:17
Ravi's from a community
of herdspeople in Gujarat
00:20
on the western coast of India,
00:24
same place my own family comes from.
00:26
When he was 10 years old,
his entire community was forced to move
00:30
because a multinational corporation
00:35
constructed a manufacturing facility
on the land where they lived.
00:37
Then, 20 years later,
the same company built a cement factory
00:42
100 meters from where they live now.
00:48
India has got strong
environmental regulations on paper,
00:51
but this company
has violated many of them.
00:56
Dust from that factory
covers Ravi's mustache
00:59
and everything he wears.
01:02
I spent just two days in his place,
and I coughed for a week.
01:05
Ravi says that if people or animals
eat anything that grows in his village
01:10
or drink the water,
01:15
they get sick.
01:17
He says children now walk
long distances with cattle and buffalo
01:19
to find uncontaminated grazing land.
01:24
He says many of those kids
have dropped out of school,
01:28
including three of his own.
01:31
Ravi has appealed
to the company for years.
01:35
He said, "I've written so many letters
my family could cremate me with them.
01:38
They wouldn't need to buy any wood."
01:43
(Laughter)
01:44
He said the company ignored
every one of those letters,
01:47
and so in 2013,
01:51
Ravi Nanda decided to use
the last means of protest
01:53
he thought he had left.
01:58
He walked to the gates of that factory
with a bucket of petrol in his hands,
02:00
intending to set himself on fire.
02:05
Ravi is not alone in his desperation.
02:10
The UN estimates that worldwide,
02:14
four billion people live
without basic access to justice.
02:16
These people face grave threats
to their safety, their livelihoods,
02:22
their dignity.
02:27
There are almost always laws on the books
that would protect these people,
02:29
but they've often
never heard of those laws,
02:34
and the systems that are supposed
to enforce those laws
02:36
are corrupt or broken or both.
02:40
We are living with a global
epidemic of injustice,
02:45
but we've been choosing to ignore it.
02:51
Right now, in Sierra Leone,
02:54
in Cambodia, in Ethiopia,
02:57
farmers are being cajoled
03:00
into putting their thumbprints
on 50-year lease agreements,
03:02
signing away all the land
they've ever known for a pittance
03:07
without anybody even explaining the terms.
03:10
Governments seem to think that's OK.
03:14
Right now, in the United States,
03:18
in India, in Slovenia,
03:20
people like Ravi
are raising their children
03:23
in the shadow of factories or mines
03:26
that are poisoning
their air and their water.
03:29
There are environmental laws
that would protect these people,
03:33
but many have never seen those laws,
03:36
let alone having a shot at enforcing them.
03:37
And the world seems
to have decided that's OK.
03:40
What would it take to change that?
03:45
Law is supposed to be the language we use
03:48
to translate our dreams about justice
03:52
into living institutions
that hold us together.
03:55
Law is supposed to be the difference
03:59
between a society
ruled by the most powerful
04:01
and one that honors
the dignity of everyone,
04:04
strong or weak.
04:07
That's why I told
my grandmother 20 years ago
04:09
that I wanted to go to law school.
04:11
Grandma didn't pause.
She didn't skip a beat.
04:14
She said to me, "Lawyer is liar."
04:16
(Laughter)
04:20
That was discouraging.
04:23
(Laughter)
04:25
But grandma's right, in a way.
04:29
Something about law
and lawyers has gone wrong.
04:30
We lawyers are usually
expensive, first of all,
04:35
and we tend to focus
on formal court channels
04:39
that are impractical
for many of the problems people face.
04:42
Worse, our profession has shrouded law
in a cloak of complexity.
04:46
Law is like riot gear on a police officer.
04:52
It's intimidating and impenetrable,
04:55
and it's hard to tell
there's something human underneath.
04:59
If we're going to make justice
a reality for everyone,
05:02
we need to turn law
from an abstraction or a threat
05:07
into something that every single person
can understand, use and shape.
05:11
Lawyers are crucial
in that fight, no doubt,
05:18
but we can't leave it to lawyers alone.
05:22
In health care, for example,
05:25
we don't just rely
on doctors to serve patients.
05:27
We have nurses and midwives
and community health workers.
05:30
The same should be true of justice.
05:35
Community legal workers,
05:39
sometimes we call them
community paralegals,
05:41
or barefoot lawyers,
05:44
can be a bridge.
05:46
These paralegals are from
the communities they serve.
05:48
They demystify law,
05:51
break it down into simple terms,
05:53
and then they help people
look for a solution.
05:55
They don't focus on the courts alone.
05:59
They look everywhere:
06:00
ministry departments,
local government, an ombudsman's office.
06:02
Lawyers sometimes say to their clients,
06:07
"I'll handle it for you. I've got you."
06:10
Paralegals have a different message,
06:12
not "I'm going to solve it for you,"
06:15
but "We're going to solve it together,
06:18
and in the process,
we're both going to grow."
06:20
Community paralegals
saved my own relationship to law.
06:23
After about a year in law school,
I almost dropped out.
06:28
I was thinking maybe I should
have listened to my grandmother.
06:31
It was when I started
working with paralegals
06:34
in Sierra Leone, in 2003,
06:36
that I began feeling hopeful
about the law again,
06:39
and I have been obsessed ever since.
06:43
Let me come back to Ravi.
06:47
2013, he did reach
the gates of that factory
06:50
with the bucket of petrol in his hands,
06:54
but he was arrested
before he could follow through.
06:56
He didn't have to spend long in jail,
07:00
but he felt completely defeated.
07:02
Then, two years later, he met someone.
07:05
I'm going to call him Kush.
07:09
Kush is part of a team
of community paralegals
07:10
that works for environmental justice
on the Gujarat coast.
07:14
Kush explained to Ravi
that there was law on his side.
07:18
Kush translated into Gujarati
something Ravi had never seen.
07:22
It's called the "consent to operate."
07:26
It's issued by the state government,
07:28
and it allows the factory to run
07:30
only if it complies
with specific conditions.
07:32
So together, they compared
the legal requirements with reality,
07:36
they collected evidence,
07:40
and they drafted an application --
07:42
not to the courts,
but to two administrative institutions,
07:44
the Pollution Control Board
and the district administration.
07:48
Those applications started turning
the creaky wheels of enforcement.
07:52
A pollution officer
came for a site inspection,
07:59
and after that, the company
started running an air filtration system
08:02
it was supposed to have
been using all along.
08:06
It also started covering the 100 trucks
08:10
that come and go
from that plant every day.
08:13
Those two measures
reduced the air pollution considerably.
08:17
The case is far from over,
08:22
but learning and using law gave Ravi hope.
08:24
There are people like Kush
walking alongside people like Ravi
08:30
in many places.
08:36
Today, I work with a group called Namati.
08:37
Namati helps convene a global network
08:40
dedicated to legal empowerment.
08:43
All together, we are over
a thousand organizations
08:45
in 120 countries.
08:48
Collectively, we deploy
tens of thousands of community paralegals.
08:50
Let me give you another example.
08:55
This is Khadija Hamsa.
08:58
She is one of five million people in Kenya
who faces a discriminatory vetting process
09:01
when trying to obtain a national ID card.
09:07
It is like the Jim Crow South
in the United States.
09:10
If you are from a certain set of tribes,
09:14
most of them Muslim,
09:17
you get sent to a different line.
09:18
Without an ID, you can't apply for a job.
09:21
You can't get a bank loan.
09:24
You can't enroll in university.
09:26
You are excluded from society.
09:28
Khadija tried off and on to get an ID
for eight years, without success.
09:32
Then she met a paralegal
working in her community
09:37
named Hassan Kassim.
09:40
Hassan explained to Khadija
how vetting works,
09:42
he helped her gather
the documents she needed,
09:46
helped prep her to go before
the vetting committee.
09:48
Finally, she was able to get an ID
with Hassan's help.
09:51
First thing she did with it
09:55
was use it to apply
for birth certificates for her children,
09:57
which they need in order to go to school.
10:00
In the United States,
among many other problems,
10:05
we have a housing crisis.
10:09
In many cities,
10:13
90 percent of the landlords
in housing court have attorneys,
10:14
while 90 percent of the tenants do not.
10:19
In New York, a new crew of paralegals --
10:22
they're called
Access to Justice Navigators --
10:25
helps people to understand housing law
and to advocate for themselves.
10:27
Normally in New York,
10:32
one out of nine tenants
brought to housing court
10:34
gets evicted.
10:37
Researchers took a look at 150 cases
10:39
in which people had help
from these paralegals,
10:42
and they found no evictions at all,
10:44
not one.
10:48
A little bit of legal empowerment
can go a long way.
10:49
I see the beginnings of a real movement,
10:53
but we're nowhere near what's necessary.
10:58
Not yet.
11:01
In most countries around the world,
11:02
governments do not provide
a single dollar of support
11:04
to paralegals like Hassan and Kush.
11:07
Most governments don't even recognize
the role paralegals play,
11:11
or protect paralegals from harm.
11:14
I also don't want
to give you the impression
11:17
that paralegals and their clients
win every time.
11:19
Not at all.
11:23
That cement factory behind Ravi's village,
11:25
it's been turning off
the filtration system at night,
11:27
when it's least likely
that the company would get caught.
11:31
Running that filter costs money.
11:34
Ravi WhatsApps photos
of the polluted night sky.
11:36
This is one he sent to Kush in May.
11:40
Ravi says the air is still unbreathable.
11:44
At one point this year,
Ravi went on hunger strike.
11:48
Kush was frustrated.
11:51
He said, "We can win if we use the law."
11:53
Ravi said, "I believe in the law, I do,
11:56
but it's not getting us far enough."
11:59
Whether it's India, Kenya,
the United States or anywhere else,
12:02
trying to squeeze justice
out of broken systems
12:08
is like Ravi's case.
12:11
Hope and despair are neck and neck.
12:13
And so not only do we urgently need
to support and protect
12:18
the work of barefoot lawyers
around the world,
12:22
we need to change the systems themselves.
12:25
Every case a paralegal takes on
12:29
is a story about how a system
is working in practice.
12:32
When you put those stories together,
12:37
it gives you a detailed portrait
of the system as a whole.
12:39
People can use that information
12:43
to demand improvements
to laws and policies.
12:45
In India, paralegals and clients
have drawn on their case experience
12:48
to propose smarter regulations
for the handling of minerals.
12:53
In Kenya, paralegals and clients
are using data from thousands of cases
12:57
to argue that vetting is unconstitutional.
13:02
This is a different way
of approaching reform.
13:07
This is not a consultant
flying into Myanmar
13:10
with a template he's going
to cut and paste from Macedonia,
13:13
and this is not an angry tweet.
13:17
This is about growing reforms
from the experience of ordinary people
13:21
trying to make the rules and systems work.
13:24
This transformation in the relationship
between people and law
13:29
is the right thing to do.
13:35
It's also essential for overcoming
13:38
all of the other
great challenges of our times.
13:41
We are not going to avert
environmental collapse
13:46
if the people most affected by pollution
13:51
don't have a say in what happens
to the land and the water,
13:54
and we won't succeed in reducing poverty
or expanding opportunity
13:58
if poor people can't exercise
their basic rights.
14:03
And I believe we won't overcome
14:07
the despair that authoritarian
politicians prey upon
14:11
if our systems stay rigged.
14:16
I called Ravi before coming here
to ask permission to share his story.
14:20
I asked if there was any message
he wanted to give people.
14:27
He said, "[Gujarati]."
14:31
Wake up.
14:35
"[Gujarati]."
14:38
Don't be afraid.
14:40
"[Gujarati]."
14:42
Fight with paper.
14:44
By that I think he means
fight using law rather than guns.
14:45
"[Gujarati]."
14:49
Maybe not today, maybe not this year,
maybe not in five years,
14:55
but find justice.
14:58
If this guy, whose entire community
is being poisoned every single day,
15:04
who was ready to take his own life --
15:10
if he's not giving up on seeking justice,
15:12
then the world can't give up either.
15:15
Ultimately, what Ravi calls
"fighting with paper"
15:19
is about forging a deeper
version of democracy
15:22
in which we the people,
15:27
we don't just cast ballots
every few years,
15:28
we take part daily in the rules
and institutions that hold us together,
15:30
in which everyone,
even the least powerful,
15:37
can know law, use law and shape law.
15:40
Making that happen, winning that fight,
15:45
requires all of us.
15:48
Thank you guys. Thank you.
15:50
(Applause)
15:52
Kelo Kubu: Thanks, Vivek.
16:01
So I'm going to make a few assumptions
16:03
that people in this room know
what the Sustainable Development Goals are
16:06
and how the process works,
16:09
but I want us to talk a little bit
16:12
about Goal 16: Peace, justice
and strong institutions.
16:15
Vivek Maru: Yeah. Anybody remember
the Millennium Development Goals?
16:20
They were adopted in 2000 by the UN
and governments around the world,
16:24
and they were for essential,
laudable things.
16:29
It was reduce child mortality
by two thirds, cut hunger in half,
16:31
crucial things.
16:35
But there was no mention
of justice or fairness
16:36
or accountability or corruption,
16:39
and we have made progress
during the 15 years
16:41
when those goals were in effect,
16:44
but we are way behind
what justice demands,
16:46
and we're not going to get there
unless we take justice into account.
16:49
And so when the debate started
about the next development framework,
16:53
the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,
16:56
our community came together
around the world
16:59
to argue that access to justice
and legal empowerment
17:02
should be a part of that new framework.
17:06
And there was a lot of resistance.
17:08
Those things are more political,
more contentious than the other ones,
17:10
so we didn't know until the night before
whether it was going to come through.
17:13
We squeaked by.
17:17
The 16th out of 17 goals
commits to access to justice for all,
17:18
which is a big deal.
17:22
It's a big deal, yes.
Let's clap for justice.
17:24
(Applause)
17:27
Here's the scandal, though.
17:29
The day the goals were adopted,
17:31
most of them were accompanied
by big commitments:
17:34
a billion dollars
from the Gates Foundation
17:38
and the British government for nutrition;
17:40
25 billion in public-private financing
for health care for women and children.
17:42
On access to justice,
we had the words on the paper,
17:46
but nobody pledged a penny,
17:49
and so that is the opportunity
and the challenge that we face right now.
17:52
The world recognizes more than ever before
17:56
that you can't have
development without justice,
17:59
that people can't improve their lives
if they can't exercise their rights,
18:02
and what we need to do now
is turn that rhetoric,
18:05
turn that principle, into reality.
18:09
(Applause)
18:12
KK: How can we help?
What can people in this room do?
18:17
VM: Great question. Thank you for asking.
18:20
I would say three things.
18:23
One is invest.
18:25
If you have 10 dollars,
or a hundred dollars, a million dollars,
18:27
consider putting some of it
towards grassroots legal empowerment.
18:30
It's important in its own right
18:33
and it's crucial for just about
everything else we care about.
18:35
Number two,
18:38
push your politicians and your governments
to make this a public priority.
18:39
Just like health or education,
access to justice
18:45
should be one of the things
that a government owes its people,
18:48
and we're nowhere close to that,
18:51
neither in rich countries
or poor countries.
18:53
Number three is:
be a paralegal in your own life.
18:55
Find an injustice
or a problem where you live.
19:00
It's not hard to find, if you look.
19:03
Is the river being contaminated,
19:05
the one that passes through
the city where you live?
19:06
Are there workers getting paid
less than minimum wage
19:09
or who are working without safety gear?
19:11
Get to know the people most affected,
19:13
find out what the rules say,
19:16
see if you can use those rules
to get a solution.
19:17
If it doesn't work, see if you can
come together to improve those rules.
19:21
Because if we all start knowing law,
using law and shaping law,
19:25
then we will be building
that deeper version of democracy
19:31
that I believe our world
desperately needs.
19:34
(Applause)
19:39
KK: Thanks so much, Vivek.
VM: Thank you.
19:40

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About the speaker:

Vivek Maru - Legal empowerment advocate
Vivek Maru is the founder of Namati, a movement for legal empowerment around the world powered by cadres of grassroots legal advocates.

Why you should listen

More than four billion people around the world live outside the protection of the law. Vivek Maru founded Namati in 2011 to grow the movement for legal empowerment, building cadres of grassroots legal advocates, also known as "community paralegals," in ten countries so far. The advocates have worked with more than 65,000 people to protect community lands, enforce environmental law and secure basic rights to healthcare and citizenship. Namati convenes the Global Legal Empowerment Network, more than 1,000 groups from 150 countries who are learning from one another and collaborating on common challenges. Thanks to their work, access to justice is part of the UN's new global development framework, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

From 2003 to 2007, Maru co-founded and co-directed the Sierra Leonean organization Timap for Justice, a pioneering model for delivering justice services in the context of a weak state and a plural legal system. From 2008 to 2011, he served as senior counsel in the Justice Reform Group of the World Bank. His work focused on rule of law reform and governance, primarily in West Africa and South Asia. In 1997–1998 he lived in a hut of dung and sticks in a village in Kutch, his native place, in western India, working on watershed management and girls' education with two grassroots development organizations, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghathan and Sahjeevan.

More profile about the speaker
Vivek Maru | Speaker | TED.com