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Shanta-ji rang me from her mobile. She said her neighbors – hundreds of below poverty-stricken families living in a basti (slum dwellers settlement) in Nangloi, Delhi — were starving and in need of care. She shared stories of poor pregnant women being denied access to life-saving medical care and being forced to deliver at home, on the streets, or in inadequate facility conditions. Stories of women like Geeta, a 25 year-old mother of three, who delivered her son Deepak in an overcrowded, filthy health centre and was forced to pay thousands in out-of-pocket costs for transport, medicine, and postnatal care, despite policies mandating free and comprehensive treatment. Stories of families whose ration cards were arbitrarily cancelled, or ration shops closed for weeks on end, and when open charging 3 to 4 times the legal rate. Stories of women like Premlata, a 39 year-old mother of seven whose family earned less than Rs 3000/mth ($54 USD), and had been denied food and kerosene rations for nearly 14 months. It was a community spiraling into deeper levels of hunger and despair.
Too often these conditions are seen as fatal outcomes for the poor, rather than systemic violations of human rights.
With stories like these, it’s not surprising that India — the world’s largest democracy – is the hunger capital of the world. The country also boasts a “shocking” rate of maternal deaths as noted in the Mission to India Report by former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, with the highest number of pregnant women dying from preventable causes than anywhere else on the planet. The statistics persist despite legal obligations to protect an individual’s rights to reproductive health and food, and a myriad of schemes designed to improve the lives of the poor and marginalized. Too often these conditions are seen as fatal outcomes for the poor, rather than systemic violations of human rights.
But not in Nangloi. Led by the indomitable spirit of Shanta-ji, a widowed mother of 2 who carried with her an unwavering belief that dignity was not negotiable, the community sought accountability and redress. They partnered with us at the Human Rights Law Network, and together as a team of human rights advocates and community members, we documented stories, collected data, and organized around the use of the legal system to improve access to health and food.
As a team of human rights advocates and community members, we documented stories, collected data, and organized around the use of the legal system to improve access to health and food.
Together we filed a strategic legal petition, Premlata w/o Ram Sagar v. Govt. of NCT Delhi, W.P. (C) 7687/2010, in the Delhi High Court. The petition highlights the inextricable link between nutrition and safe motherhood, and seeks increased accountability in the delivery of services. Building upon the landmark decision we’d obtained in Laxmi Mandal v. Deen Dayal Harinagar & Ors. W.P. (C) 8853/2008, the first decision in the world to recognize maternal mortality as a human rights violation and award constitutional damages, we claimed that the denial of food and maternal health benefits violated constitutional and human rights to reproductive health, food, and equality. Community members addressed their grievances directly to the Court, with moving declarations:
We heard that the court is above everybody else. The biggest of the people have to bend before it. But we have seen that instead of following Courts orders the Food department is making fun of it. We are poor people if we are not getting justice here, where shall we go?
Together we convinced Justice S. Muralidhar to recognize the violations as contravening Article 21 of the Constitution of India, and to issue landmark orders. A 3-day “camp” was ordered where hundreds of families submitted their grievances to government officials. Corrupt ration shops were closed. Existing shops were compelled to increase surveillance and periodic reporting. Compensation, medical benefits, and rations were provided to petitioners like Premlata and Geeta, who became community voices urging others to engage in the fight for justice. A network of grassroots activists was established to monitor compliance of court orders and policies. A community was engaged and empowered.
Premlata offered a progressive vision for future advocacy: the power of grassroots strategic litigation coupled with the building of community-based networks to increase accountability.
And we realized then the need for more cases like Premlata. Not only across India, but also across South Asia. Premlata offered a progressive vision for future advocacy: the power of grassroots strategic litigation coupled with the building of community-based networks to increase accountability. It moved myself and 2 other women human rights advocates, Jayshree Satpute and Francesca Feruglio, to establish Nazdeek. Nazdeek provides on-the-ground legal support to grassroots organizations engaged in social and economic rights advocacy in South Asia, particularly in Nepal and India. It builds upon our collective work in which we obtained landmark orders in areas of health, housing, and food, but experienced challenges with implementation and a need for stronger support networks between local, regional and international actors.
We’re launching our pilot campaign in India, working with Tea estate workers in Assam to expand access to health and nutrition, with a second campaign planned on the right to food in Nepal in 2014. We’ll be working with local partners to develop strategic litigation and strengthen community capacity to engage in legal advocacy. Leveraging the power of transnational networking, our interventions will be informed by effective cross-border strategies, with an aim of building a vibrant, South Asian network on social and economic rights. Together with communities like Nangloi, we’ll be developing tools to demand accountability and secure justice. And as a member of the Global Legal Empowerment Network, Nazdeek looks forward to sharing our stories, strategies, and impacts with advocates from around the globe.
Sukti Dhital is Executive Director of Nazdeek, a newly established human rights organization that provides on-the-ground legal support to grassroots groups engaged in social and economic rights advocacy in South Asia.