Nagma Begum, 33, who lives in a Delhi slum, was constantly tormented by two neighbours. They would get drunk, leer, chuck garbage at her house, and threaten her. If she protested, things got worse. On one occasion they even hit her.
"I was briefly hospitalised after that," she says. Nagma Begum, who works as a domestic help and has five young daughters, lived in fear. Her husband, a daily wage earner, could do little to help. She complained to the police in October, but nothing happened. She was in despair. "I did not know what to do," she says.
Like many poor people, Nagma Begum did not know that the state provides free legal aid to the underprivileged under the auspices of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), constituted under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987.
The law seeks to uphold the constitutional right to equality before the law. NALSA also organises Lok Adalats for amicable settlement of disputes. NALSA's policies are implemented by state and district legal services authorities.
NALSA Member-Secretary U. Sarathchandran says: "The poor silently suffer the violation of their rights or deprivation of their entitlements because they lack the power to react or demand their right. NALSA intervenes to empower them."
NALSA is not just about providing lawyers for free.
"Often, for the poor, justice is not court-related," says Sarathchandran. For instance, a poor person may be unjustifiably deprived of her entitlement to a BPL (below poverty line) card, needed to claim benefits under government schemes. Technically, she can go to court if denied a legal entitlement, but this may be impractical. However, the legal services authority can intervene.
"Instead of the poor approaching us, we have been reaching out to them through community paralegal volunteers since 2009," says Sarathchandran. Volunteers from the community are trained in the law and welfare schemes, and serve at the state, district and taluka levels. They identify cases in the community that need attention, and provide help or refer them to NALSA's legal counsellors.