Pooja Aiswal, a 22-year-old trainee beautician, lives with her family in a tiny brick house in Bhim Nagar, a slum on the margins of India’s capital New Delhi. The densely-packed homes on her street are separated by a narrow alley with an open sewage drain running through it, around which children play and women chat. The slum has one community toilet for more than 5,000 people.
About half of New Delhi’s population of 18 million live in slums like Bhim Nagar, characterized by poor housing and inadequate water and sanitation facilities. But the residents of Bhim Nagar consider themselves lucky. Here, at least, women don’t have to walk far from home to fetch water – outside every house is a tap connected to a regular water supply.
Until a few years ago, only a few taps served the whole community. But with support from the New Delhi-based charity Nazdeek, which teaches slum dwellers how to access benefits they are entitled to, Bhim Nagar’s residents pushed the government to make clean water easily accessible to everyone.
“Most slum dwellers are unaware of various government schemes available to them,” says Nazdeek co-founder Jayshree Satpute. “They are routinely denied basic entitlements such as maternal benefits because they simply don’t know how to attain them. Our focus is to address gaps in service delivery and increase access to justice by building the legal capacity of community members, so that they can demand their basic rights from the government.”
In December 2016, Nazdeek partnered with the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination to develop the program SMS for Justice, which trains women who live in slums to become paralegals, so they can represent others who are being denied their rights. Then they use text messages to report the injustice to Nazdeek, which takes the matter to the local government.
“Since most women stay at home, making them aware of their rights gives them a sense of ownership,” says Satpute. “They love to participate on matters that are directly related to improving their lives. Such participation is usually denied to women in villages.”
Aiswal is one of six women in Bhim Nagar who has trained as a paralegal through the program. For more than three years now, she has spent her free time walking around, meeting women in the community and taking note of the problems they face when trying to access essential government services such as subsidized rations or free hospital treatment. She makes a special point of speaking with pregnant women to advise them on accessing maternal health benefits.
Based on feedback from paralegals, issues are assigned codes, which the women use to report back to Nazdeek by text message. If one of the paralegals hears a pregnant woman is being denied a free medical check at a government hospital, for example, she verifies the case and then sends a text using a three-digit code to indicate where the alleged violation took place, followed by another code, “45,” which stands for “patient did not receive full set of check-ups during pregnancy.”
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Rekha Devi, 30, had approached Aiswal to help her get a government card for subsidized rations of wheat, rice, oil and sugar to feed her family of four. But even after she got the card, the shopkeeper wouldn’t give her any food. “I was refused ration and humiliated,” Devi says. “I asked Pooja [Aiswal] to accompany me. After she spoke with the shopkeeper, he started giving me poor quality ration that was not suitable for consumption.”
Aiswal then lodged a complaint against the shopkeeper under the code “54,” which indicates “ration is of poor quality.” The Nazdeek team verified the case with Devi and took the issue to the concerned government department. The shopkeeper received an official warning call. Devi now gets her rations.
Simran Sachdev, the program officer for Nazdeek, says that when the group is dealing with a rights violation, it first files an online complaint with the government. If the problem isn’t resolved, they take it to court. “The program not only helps in creating a large database documenting the loopholes in the government delivery system, but the fact that complaints are registered through SMS acts as evidence in case a litigation has to be filed in court,” says Sachdev.
When Anita, another resident of Bhim Nagar, was pregnant, Nazdeek found out she wasn’t getting the 3,000 rupees she was owed under a government maternity benefit scheme. Authorities had also not informed her of other nutritional, medical and cash benefits available to her. Nazdeek filed a writ petition with the Delhi High Court on behalf of five women from the slum. The court ruled in favor of the women and they received their maternity benefits.
“As a result of the legal empowerment trainings and petitions, women in the community are now more confident to seek redress,” says Sachdev.
Aiswal says the program has increased her standing in the community and given her new confidence in her abilities.
“I could not complete my studies because of poverty, but through the training I received, I feel very empowered and strong,” she says. “I am proud that even men in the community look up to me for help whenever they have problems.”