A voice for the marginalised communities
Jayshree Satpute is a human rights lawyer and co-founder of Nazdeek. Satpute is a legal advocate in human rights pursuing cases in the Supreme Court and High Courts of India related to injustices to slum dwellers, refugees, women labourers, care of orphaned children, juveniles, Right to Information (RTI), and related issue areas. Adib Shamsuddin from Law Desk talks to her on the following issues during her recent visit to Bangladesh
Law Desk (LD): Tell us the background in brief of your work. Also, what are some of the key challenges you faced in being the voice of marginalised community in India?
Jayashree Satpute (JS): I would like to start from the time when I only litigated. I was doing cases on urban housing rights, reproductive health and other socio economic rights, when I found the lawyers working on such cases to be very few. For instance, there was this case that we were working on and we managed to get a stay order. Eventually people got to know about us and whenever there was an issue of housing rights we would get a call. As it happens with cases of housing rights, often multiple houses are related to the case and eventually the number of clients increases. After one point, I found myself exhausted and desensitised, and that was an awakening call for me. I realised doing all that work by myself was not enough, we need more lawyers on the team. And hence one of the challenges I face is that there aren't enough of us.
The other challenge is with clients below poverty line; they do have a genuine case but when you ask whether they have filed one, the answer will be almost always no. Most, even though their case is strong, they depend on oral accounts. You have to do more than your part to ensure justice, and that includes doing research and everything that is needed to build the case. Now you do that too, you eventually win the case and then handover the decision to the client. But the client doesn't seem to comprehend its meaning. To him/her the document is a piece of paper!
Hence, I found the legal language and lack of awareness of rights among the communities a bit of problematic. Even if we get them a decision in their favour, lack of knowledge prohibits them from taking steps to implement it. So my stance became the bottom up approach. When you talk of socio-economic rights lawyers can't expect their clients to come to them like corporations, rather they have to leave their comfort zones to make themselves accessible.
LD: While working, did you face any discrimination because of your gender, socio-economic norms etc.?
JS: I do. In some of the courts I have appeared, judges would not make eye contact with me but they will do so with my opponent lawyer who is not even deliberating! Also, when you work associated with socio-economic rights, you tend to be labeled. What I do to tackle this is I ask some of my colleagues from the court, who don't do this type of work, to take these cases pro-bono. As a result, I get to spark interest in them towards the type of work I do, which helps in preventing the blanket generalisation. It has also helped in making the bench see that there are many lawyers doing these cases pro-bono, and not just for publicity.
LD: What was the driving force that inspired you to become the voice for the voiceless?
JS: I profess myself as someone who is not the voice for the voiceless but someone who wants to strengthen their voices. There is no beginning as such but what I can tell you is that money has never driven me. I always wanted to do something innovative and not anything like the concept of living to earn and earning to live. I did not have an inclination to accumulate something which I cannot take along after I die.
I regard myself as a conscious person who was fortunate to get education, who was fortunate enough to make her own decisions and help others on the way. I just wanted to send the message that to do good for others, you need not be special.
LD: Tell us about your experience of the Laxmi Mandal Case.
JS: Under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, every citizen has right to life which has been subsequently elaborated by the Supreme Court as right to life with dignity. The definition of right to life has also been extended to include health care as a fundamental element. At the time of the case, health care to survive child birth was yet to be recognised as a right by any court. Laxmi Mandal is the pioneer in the sense that it is one of the first reported cases in the world to recognise health care during child birth as a fundamental part of right to life.
This case was brought on behalf of a woman stricken by poverty, after she died as the result of being refused adequate maternal healthcare. Previously, she was forced to carry a dead fetus in her womb for five days after being denied medical treatment at several hospitals because her husband was unable to show a valid ration card for medical services. Similarly, there was a woman named Fatema from Central Delhi. During her labour, she sought medical assistance from a Government Hospital but she too was denied healthcare. So, we filed a petition stating State cannot deny health care during pregnancy for lack of identification. The High Court of Delhi concurred and found that there was a failure to properly implement the pre and post natal services which should have been available to her. In both cases, the aggrieved parties received compensation. After the decision, there were a number of cases both in India and other countries, who cited the case.
LD: Your experience with marginalised communities transcends almost across whole of South Asia. What can we do as citizens of sovereign nations, to ensure rights of overlooked groups?
JS: I would speak in reference to law schools, since I have been invited by one and also since I am a lawyer by profession. I would say there lies a duty with teachers, law students and practitioners to be proactive, to do pro bono cases and to volunteer for legal aid services. From my few days stay here in Bangladesh, I have observed that people here too are just as unaware of their rights as people in India. Here rights are seen more like privileges. Hence, perspective needs to change for which education can be a contributing factor. From the training we do, what I can tell you is that we start with civic education and then comes rights perspective. We start by making a person realise how health is his right, how housing is his right and so on.
LD: What achievements have Nazdeek accrued so far? Tell us about its future plans.
JS: Nazdeek is a word derived from Urdu, it means to come close. It is a legal empowerment organisation. The concept is to bring access to justice closer to marginalised communities. Since maternal mortality rate and infant mortality is very high among tree plantation workers due to poor working and living conditions, we started working for their rights. While working, we realised that if we do not delve into the labour rights issues, problems are not going to be eradicated, as workers are not even paid their minimum wages. We have been working there for the last five years among students, women workers. As a result, the community now has an increasing sense of awareness about health care, food and fundamental rights. We feel that not every violation of right needs to go to court, there are administrative complaint mechanisms that avail your rights without needing involvement of courts.
We feel tea plantation workers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal have similar socio-economic conditions and we want to improve the life of workers working there. I personally feel that if the countries work together, we can raise awareness among those involved in plantations, be that regarding legal aid or something else. Nazdeek also wants to expand across India and explore its possibilities.
LD: Thank you for your time.
JS: You are welcome.