Making the law count: ten environment justice stories by community paralegals in India

Across the world, poor communities bear a disproportionate burden of the environmental cost of development. Harmful projects such as polluting industrial units, municipal disposal sites or mining projects are usually situated close to poor neighbourhoods. These communities grapple on a daily basis with environmental impacts which exposes them to toxic contamination, adversely affect their livelihoods and impose restrictions on their access to common resources and mobility. These problems severely affect their ability to live a life of dignity and safety. Communities usually strive to overturn these issues with whatever available resources and avenues they have but more than often not, they are overpowered by powerful. Many of these projects are meant to be regulated by laws that are crafted far away from the affected people. Their stated purpose or extent of implementation is known only to policy makers, the projects and few experts. They remain in the books while harmful projects continue operations for years in gross violation or non-compliance of these laws. The lack of public knowledge of relevant legal and project information hinders the ability of affected communities to uphold their rights and attain meaningful remedies or relief from these adverse situations. The CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program has developed a strong network of grassroots legal advocates or paralegals across four states in India. These paralegals are equipped with knowledge of basic law, relevant regulatory institutions, administrative processes and skills such as mediation, training and community organization. They work directly with the affected communities to help them to know the law, use the law and shape the law. They assist communities to build evidence about the impacts, approach relevant institutions and seek practical remedies for their problems. In this process, communities are legally empowered to lead the dialogue with the regulatory bodies to address these environmental challenges. This publication is a compilation of articles written by CPR-Namati’s barefoot advocates, also called as “Enviro-legal Coordinators”, about the cases they have worked on with affected communities. These stories chronicle their conviction that putting law in the hands of ordinary people can shift the balance of power in support of justice. They also show that it takes perseverance, focus and collective action to obtain justice.