Paralegals with Namati and the Centre for Policy Research’s joint environmental justice program (who are called ‘enviro-legal coordinators’ or ELCs for short) have now conducted close to 75 community trainings on India’s Coastal Regulation Zone Notification in Uttara Kannada district.
Last month, one of the program’s senior managers, Meenakshi Kapoor, held calls with senior ELCs Vinod Patgar and Maruti Gouda, and senior program manager Dr. Mahabaleshwar R. Hegde to ask them what their team has learned in facilitating these community trainings.
We realized that although their experiences are, in some ways, specific to environmental justice in Uttara Kannada, the lessons they have learned could be helpful to legal empowerment practitioners working on a variety of issues with communities across India and beyond.
To share this knowledge, we have compiled some of the questions and answers from the interviews below.
Uttara Kannada is a coastal district in the state of Karnataka in India. The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, the law that governs development on Indian coastal line, has a direct bearing on the daily lives of fisherfolk, clam collectors, and farmers who live on the Uttara Kannada coast. Residents require permission from a coastal body to repair or reconstruct their houses if they fall within the CRZ, traditional livelihoods are safeguarded, and common spaces such as boat parking, fish drying, and beach areas are marked on CRZ maps to ensure they are not built upon.
But the law’s provisions are often misunderstood. Communities are often denied permission to repair or reconstruct their houses because the village council office or the revenue office thinks the CRZ law doesn’t permit it, and local fishers occasionally find a creek that they use for fishing blocked or a proposal being considered for construction of beach resort in their boat parking area. In such situations, it becomes critical that locals can tell the difference between the actual provisions of the CRZ law and the misconceptions around it.
Enviro-legal coordinators have been conducting trainings with communities on the CRZ law, along with other laws that have provisions for safeguarding the environment and ensuring decent and safe living conditions, including the Air Act, Water Act, Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, and Environment Impact Assessment Notification.
Once armed with the knowledge of these legal spaces, the communities are able to identify cases of non-compliance by projects and/or local offices and work with the ELCs to try to mitigate the negative impacts with these progressive provisions. Together, they document the cases, identify legal hooks, file complaints with local government offices highlighting the legal violations and seek remedies to the impacts faced by them.
How do you decide which trainings to be given to which community members?
Initially, we used to randomly select villages and carry out CRZ trainings there. Observing participant turnout and participation in these trainings, over time we realized that we should pay attention to two things to decide if a training is required in a village:
- Location of the village: if the village is a coastal village, located close to a landfill site or an industry that discharges effluents, etc.
- Existing problem: if the village has reported any problems related to poor, ill, or no implementation of a law. To find this, we scan media reports related to a village, go and meet the local villagers 2-3 times before organizing a training for a group, and carry out a general exploration of the village to see if there are any clear legal violations that could cause residents any problems.
Besides these two, another aspect we have started looking at is if there are any upcoming project proposals for the area. For instance, we did an Environment Impact Assessment Notification training in a village in Ankola because a project had been proposed in the village.
These considerations ensure that participants are involved not only during the trainings but also afterwards when we start to take up cases.
How do you select the day, time, and venue for these trainings?
We leave these to the communities to decide. This results in higher turnout and better uptake of the issues discussed during the trainings. They usually prefer Saturday or Sunday. Most of our trainings have happened on Sunday evenings. Fisherfolk also prefer Amavasya [day of a new moon] as they are free on those days.
Regarding the venue, we hold the trainings wherever possible: under a banyan tree, fish auction hall, a school, panchayat office, are a few examples. Sometimes, villagers start to make formal arrangements, trying to book the community hall with chairs in rows, desks, etc. In such situations we have to tell them that this is a casual meeting. An atmosphere that is too formal prevents people from discussing freely. We prefer to sit in a circle to make it feel inclusive and encourage discussion.
What do you think about holding meetings during planned events, such as a village’s monthly meeting?
We leave it to the community members. Sometimes they prefer trainings to be held on village monthly meeting days as it is the only day when people gather together. This works well if the training is on an issue that affects all the villagers.
But sometimes they fear that if the issue to be discussed in their meeting is serious and difficult, it may take people’s attention away from the training, or that they expect a huge turnout and suspect some members could cause a disturbance. Then they ask us not to hold the trainings on such days.
Meeting with a few key persons from the village 2-3 times prior to holding trainings is useful. It helps in finding out what issues affect the village which helps us finalize the topic of the training. It also helps in deciding the day, time and venue of the training to ensure a good turnout and large impact.
What do you think is a good number of participants for an effective training?
25-50 participants are good. If there are fewer members, it is a waste of our efforts. We have even gone from door to door in villages to ensure participants. If there are more than 50 people we find that chances of a disturbance or members getting distracted are much higher.
How do you conduct these trainings? Please run me through a training.
Trainings can last from 1 to 3 hours. In general legal trainings, we first give our introduction; tell them about Namati, about the kind of problems we have tried to address in the past. We give examples of problems faced by other villages that are similar to the problems observed in the concerned village. Then we talk about the law. In the end, we discuss specific problems raised by the community members. We have realized that the most effective trainings are when the ELC teaching section is kept shorter and the community discussion segment is longer.
Do you use any teaching aids- pamphlets, charts, etc.? Are they helpful?
Usually, we do. We have used pamphlets and/or charts for all our trainings except for the Water Act (we didn’t have any pamphlets on the Water Act – we only had a copy of the law.) Pamphlets are useful but ultimately it depends on the situation. In general training pamphlets are needed. They help in keeping the members focused and help them understand the materials better. But in situations where community members have faced problems pertaining to the topic of the training, they focus even without pamphlets.
What difference do you see between street plays and community trainings? How do you decide which method would suit better in a particular situation?
Street plays are good to establish a specific message. Messages that are non-controversial and universally accepted such as “Save the ocean”, “Say no to coal” are better conveyed through street plays. But community trainings are better for topics in which we want community members to engage and think critically. They offer more of an opportunity to interact. After street plays, people usually don’t ask questions. Members watching the play may leave in between. There are lesser chances of this happening in community trainings. Street plays are good tools for awareness creation but not for sparking discussion.
Initially, when we used to conduct street plays, we were new to the issue, we also didn’t have much to talk about with the community members. Street plays worked well then. But now we have a lot to discuss and we like to have the participants engage and think.
Also, in street plays, because of their entertaining nature, ELCs are not taken seriously.
Another thing to add here is that street plays are an art form requiring a different set of skills and conversation style; they focus a lot on performance. Not all ELCs have such abilities and given the issues we want to discuss with the communities now, it may not be a good use of resources to spend time and energy in building this skill in ELCs.
How do you see legal empowerment happening in these trainings? Can you share how the community members grow/change because of the trainings?
CRZ trainings have been useful. For instance, after the training the community members know about different zones. Once they have attended the trainings, they don’t fear the CRZ law anymore, they don’t see it as the problem. They know in which zone their house and fish area are located. They know how to obtain clearance for house repairs. Of course, if they are undergoing a problem, their interest is more!
In the case of a Solid Waste trainings, they did not know there was such a law. They didn’t know they could complain about the problem of waste dumped in their village area.
These general trainings are useful in that they bring different kinds of problems to us. ELCs get exposed to newer kinds of problems as we are reaching out to a new group. It also helps us to identify cases and establish a rapport with the village for future work. Community members for the first time see the possibilities of the law and how they can use it to protect their rights.
What recommendations would you give to others who hold similar legal trainings?
- Be fully prepared; be well-versed in the concerned law. Community members can ask any sort of questions in these trainings. We should be able to give satisfactory answers to them.
- Use pamphlets for general trainings (they are not needed later when you hold trainings that address a specific case in the village since participants will already be focused).
- Observe the participants. Try to gauge their interest level and adjust accordingly. Sometimes for them, the issue is more important than the legal details. If that is the case, then give more time to the issue and gently weave the law in.
- Gathering information about the village you plan to hold the training in is useful: scan media reports, visit the village first and talk to members of the community. If you find a problem concerning the law, the community members will be more interested in the training.
- Use a casual approach – it helps community members open up and share their problems. We just sit in a circle and talk.
- Spend less time on teaching and more time on discussing the problem. Teaching should not be for more than an hour. Discussions can go on from 1 hour to 3 hours. Discussions are important because our aim is not just ensuring that people know the law as it is written, but that they are able to use it and eventually view it critically.
- A good number of people for an effective training is 25 – 50.