In the August 8th copy of the New York Times,  Pulitzer Prize winning writer TINA ROSENBERG captured the work of paralegals working for environmental justice in India. The article, shared below, originally appeared in the “Fixes” section.


Mahabaleshwar Hegde, left, and Maruti Gouda, center, speak with Devidas Gouda, vice-president of the clam collectors union, in Karnataka State, India. Photo: Aubrey Wade/Namati

BOGRIBAIL, India — A David and Goliath story: Two years ago, a road-construction company called IRB Infrastructure Developers established an open-air factory just across a path, and upwind, from this village in Karnataka State, in southwestern India. Here stone-crushing machines pulverize piles of rocks while other machines mix crushed stone with hot tar, cement and chemicals.

It is monsoon season, when heavy rains shut down the machines for long stretches and tamp down the dust. When I visited on July 29, the air seemed fine. But the rest of the year the machines work 16 to 18 hours per day, swathing the village in the fine dust of crushed stone.

Just outside the factory fence — which is low and porous, meant to keep people out, not to keep dust in — I met Ravi Gouda, one of the villagers most active in trying to stop the pollution. He transports goods by rickshaw for a living, and like everyone in the village, he is also a farmer.

Bogribail residents grow rice and trees: cashew, banana, coconut and mango. Ravi Gouda said the dust has hindered the flowering of the trees, damaging the harvests. It also has contaminated the villages’ open wells.

And the dust does who-knows-what to the lungs of the 250 people who live there. We will never know the extent of harm, since no one can afford to travel to, let alone see, a specialist. One building closest to the plant is a nursery school.

Until recently, Bogribail had been asking IRB and government officials for compensation for these problems, and had gotten nothing. Villagers did not ask IRB or the government to stop or diminish the pollution, because they didn’t know that the factory’s practices violated numerous regulations.

Then Maruti Gouda took the case.

He’s the opposite of a superlawyer. (He’s also no relation to Ravi Gouda; many people in the area have that family name.) He is 29 and not a lawyer at all, actually — he attended college but didn’t graduate. Like his father and most of the people in his nearby village, he’s a clam harvester.

Since 2014, though, his employer has been Namati, a nonprofit organization that works in several Asian and African countries and the United States to democratize law. Around the world, four billion people lack basic access to justice, said Vivek Maru, the American lawyer who founded the group in 2011. (Disclosure: Namati gets some funding from the Open Society Foundations and had early support from its Justice Initiative, where my husband works.)

The movement has taken a cue from the rise of community health workers, one of the most important developments in global health. India, Ethiopia, Ghana and other countries are training thousands and thousands of villagers to provide basic medical care where doctors are scarce — a practice that began in China’s Cultural Revolution, when rural peasants were trained to give health care and teach preventive health practices.

China called them barefoot doctors. Now Maruti Gouda is a barefoot lawyer (sometimes actually barefoot).

“We can always teach them the law,” said his boss, Mahabaleshwar Hegde. “We can’t teach them to be from here.”

Even in countries like India that have good laws, law is often merely poetry, ignored in the real world. Lawyers are too expensive to be a widespread solution. But lay people with a few weeks of training are not expensive. Namati’s paralegals in Africa and Asia make about $200 per month.

“Law starts out as a total abstraction, or even a threat,” said Maru. “But you can understand what it says, use it to solve a problem you face, and use it to shape institutions.”

Community paralegals have a long tradition across the globe: they were crucial in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, for example. Today, Namati convenes a Global Legal Empowerment Network, with more than 1,000 member organizations, most of them tiny. They help vulnerable people understand, use — and then change — their countries’ laws.

In India, Namati’s paralegals, in collaboration with an Indian research organization, the Center for Policy Research, focus on environmental justice in four states. Hegde, who has a doctorate in marine biology, supervises four paralegals in Karnataka, where the issues are mainly coastal.

Which brings us back to Maruti Gouda. He and the other paralegals got three months of training, covering local environmental issues, how they affect people, what the law says, and how government institutions work.

They can’t go to court, of course. Instead, they teach people how to press administrative offices for their legal rights. In workshops, they explain the law. Maruti Gouda learned about Bogribail’s problems last year when he was in a nearby village conducting a workshop about the law governing management of solid waste, after an upstream landfill contaminated the water.

In the cases they undertake, the paralegals assemble briefs just as lawyers do. Maruti Gouda visited Bogribail numerous times to understand the dust and its effects, and to teach residents the laws and regulations about pollution. He helped them collect photos and other evidence. He held discussions about remedies. The most active residents, like Ravi Gouda, became community partners.

Maruti Gouda searched government records — finding, for example, that the company’s government-issued license to emit pollution had expired in June 2016, and had not been renewed.

Even if it had, however, the license required the plant to control noise and dust by building a high wall and sprinkler system, whle also planting a border of trees. In addition, the company was required to keep its stonecrusher units 500 meters from houses. The plant was violating all these rules.

Maruti Gouda has worked on 18 cases, with some notable wins. He helped clam harvesters get government recognition as fishermen and with it, access to protections like a union, workers’ compensation and credit.

A decade before, he said, two people had died collecting clams, and their families had been struggling to win compensation ever since. With his help, the clam collectors managed to get government recognition within a few months. He’s now a member of the new union and a local hero. “Now they can carry out clam collection without any fear,” he said.

Hegde said that so far, Namati paralegals have achieved their goals in 30 percent to 40 percent of cases, and their track record is improving with experience.

How Namati wins anything is a mystery, since neither the paralegals nor their clients have political or financial clout. It helps that, unlike in the IRB case, Namati doesn’t often face a powerful opponent. The problem is more often petty corruption or bureaucratic sloth or ignorance — against which persistence often pays off.

Community organizing skills also help, for example in the nearby village of Chandumath. There, farmers lost several years’ income when saltwater flooded their onion fields and rice paddies because the government had left a dam half-finished.

Villagers might have been able to solve this on their own had they gone to the government and made their case. But they didn’t. “We have so many disputes that we wouldn’t have been able to come together by ourselves,” said Chokku Gouda (yes, another nonrelative), a rice farmer who gave his age as around 70. “We wasted two or three years by not communicating well.”

When Maruti Gouda organized the villagers, the government agreed to finish the dam. The rice paddies are again a gleaming green.

Manju Menon, co-director of Namati’s India work, said that as paralegals get better at planning strategies and developing evidence, they are taking on more cases against moneyed interests.

One key to success? “We don’t ask for very much,” Hegde said.

The villagers of Bogribail want the stonecrushers to move about 200 meters (650 feet) further from the village, and IRB to build a windbreaking wall and water sprinkler to contain the dust. They also want compensation for damage to their crops and health.

Last November, Maruti Gouda and the community partners wrote the first of five detailed letters to the district’s deputy commissioner and the regional branch of the state pollution control board. They have also made four visits. They asked the government to force the plant to comply with the law, and to set out the remedies the village chose.

In January, company representatives came through Bogribail with compensation to villagers for crop damage — 100 rupees (about $1.60) for each coconut tree, 300 rupees for each mango or cashew tree.

With no further discussion, they came through again with money in June — 6,000 rupees per person (about $100), for damage to health. This includes children in the nursery school, who may be in for a lifetime of medical problems.

“Every time local officials feel under pressure, they suggest to the company that something should be paid out,” said Menon. “There doesn’t seem to be any basis to it, except that they would like the pressure to ease. It’s a very arbitrary decision to pay them some amount of money to shut them up.”

The letters to the pollution board also had an effect of sorts. They pointed out that the company’s license had expired. And because of the villagers’ evidence of harm, the board did not renew it. That’s a good ruling. But IRB has ignored it — with impunity, it seems.

The deputy commissioner, S.S. Nakul, told me that a local member of the pollution control board recently wrote a report about the factory. “There are no major violations,” he said. Which is curious, since there is no evidence that the factory’s practices have changed. The report has not been made public, and he declined to provide it. He said that because the report found that the plant is complying with the law, the board is about to renew the factory’s license to discharge pollution.

No major violations?

“In the case of highway construction,” he said, “the restrictions are reduced because of the important nature of the work.” He declined to answer any other questions by phone and did not reply to emails.

In answer to numerous phone calls and emails, IRB sent this statement: “All obligations set by the nodal agency are being followed at the best possible means and ways. However, while expressing our serious concerns on the issues raised, we assure that they would be looked into and resolved amicably.”

The villagers of Bogribail have taken the case to the state and even to the regional office of the national government. But their responses have been to tell the district commissioner to take care of it, said Hegde. “There’s a lot of paperwork, but no change on the ground,” he said.

Bogribail may lose this case, since power usually trumps poetry. But Namati has won cases like it around the world. The effect is likely cumulative — each time villagers learn about or try to use law, it rights the balance a bit for next time. “Power is so concentrated,” said Vivek Maru. “Legal empowerment is giving a voice to people who have been historically powerless. The bigger picture is that this is about a deeper version of democracy.”


Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.” She is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.