Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Nari Adalats

Redefining social justice

This Article originally appeared in The Gujarat, in 2012.

Not very long ago, our cook Rekha used to come accompanied by a shy, pretty teenage girl, her niece Kajal. While helping her aunt with the kitchen chores she would take an occasional peep at the television, evidently enamoured by the shiny sari clad bejeweled protagonists of our daily soaps. It wasn’t hard to tell that she harboured sweet dreams of marital bliss, of escape from the rigours of the monotonous domestic work she part took in.  One day, Rekha broke the news of Kajal’s grand wedding to us. She couldn’t stop singing paeans of the doting husband Kajal had found for herself.

Less than two months later, grim-faced, she asked my mother for a day off saying that she had to pay a visit to Kajal’s in-laws. She brought the girl back home. Kajal had been subjected to acute physical and mental torture for dowry.

Our history is replete with incidents where women have suffered in silence. Sadly, such stories have never made the headlines and have been easily forgotten after evoking momentary sympathy.

In modern times while laws of the state have striven for an egalitarian society, sadly gender equality has remained a myth. This might be contested, by stating that more and more women are standing up for their rights. But such cases are rare restricted only to the educated or instances where some women’s organizations take up the cause.

However, while sifting through documents for scripting an advertisement, I came across a news story on Nari Adalats and how their remarkable success in Gujarat is being lauded nationwide. As I read on I realized that Gujarat is leading the nation in women’s emancipation too. It has been continuously taking proactive steps to ensure social and legal justice for women throughout the state.

 Modeled on the Lok Adalat concept, Nari Adalats are block level autonomous tribunals of women operated by them for addressing their grievances. These bodies are supported by Mahila Samakhyas of each district. 42 of them have been sanctioned throughout the state with the oldest ones in Vadodara district which started in 1995.
As I learnt that today there are a total of 7 Mahila Adalats in Vadodara, namely Waghodia, Chota Udaipur,Pavi Jetpur, Naswadi, Sankheda, Dhaboi and Kamati talukas of Vadodara which  meet every Monday in the Taluka Panchayat office premises of their respective blocks, I decided to visit one of them to get a firsthand experience of the proceedings of a Nari Adalat.

Eager to witness the process of law reaching out to a common woman, I met the District Project Co-ordinator, Parulben Pandya, of the Mahila Samakya in Vadodara district. She told me, “Earlier, the Mahila Samakyas had representatives (CRPs- Cluster Resource Persons) visiting each village interacting with the women and discussing their problems. They motivated 5 women from each village to form a sangh and these sanghs from all the villages in a block came together to form a federation which started conducting the Nari Adalats. The sangh members were given three months of legal training towards this.” 

Loaded with this much information and accompanied by a CRP (Ketalben) and a camera person, I reached the Waghodia Taluka Panchayat, to attend its weekly 12 to 4 Nari Adalat hearing. On the first floor of the old building, huddled together in a circle were around 30 women of all age groups including 2 infants. Sighting the familiar Ketalben the group erupted into cheerful cries of greeting and queries about the new person, that being me. A register was quickly pulled out to record my attendance and other necessary details. A loud and confident voice asked me for an introduction assuring they would let me participate in the proceedings which would follow later. 

The first case was a fresh one I was told. A young girl with a wailing infant stepped in.  Rashmi, was a Rajput girl from Jambuwada. She was married early because of an ailing mother and financial troubles. Soon after the wedding her husband started threatening to kill her. He sold her stree-dhan(belongings she had brought with her from her parental house) and has been absconding for three days with their one year old daughter. The adalat members comforted the weeping Rashmi and decided to issue a notice to her husband. I was curious about what would happen if he chose to ignore it. “Some of us will go to his house and ask him to appear at the Adalat. If he still refuses the police will co-ordinate with us. ” was the united reply. In any case if the second party refuses to respond after repeated reminders, some members of the Adalat go with policemen from the local thana to make sure that both the parties are heard. Accordingly, they arrive at a consensus, I was informed.

The second case was, to my surprise an appeal by a man Mukeshbhai, for child custody. The seemingly flustered man showed pictures of his four year old daughter in his wallet. He said his ex-wife was refusing to let him meet his daughter for the last 7 months. They had got a divorce on the condition that the mother would let the father meet his child every two months, failing which the custody could be contested. The Adalat members listened with rapt attention almost sympathizing with the man’s story. Suddenly, one of them sitting close to the petitioner pointed out, “Are you sure you can take care of a 4 year old with your meager income?” The enraged man went on the defensive, now hurling abuses at the estranged wife and saying, “What I do with my child is my business alone, I do not want to educate her beyond primary school as she would follow in her mother’s footsteps. I would make her look after my aging parents; you just get me my daughter.” I shifted at my spot feeling uncomfortable with the tension in the air. To my utter delight, far from being intimidated, the women around me did not as much as flinch. Their composure was comforting. They simply said, “Start an account for your daughter with the federation and deposit a monthly sum of Rs.1000, if you agree we take your case further. Your time is up for today.”

By this time I wanted to pay a visit to the police station having spotted it in the same campus before. A couple of members enthusiastically escorted me. At the station the Assistant Sub-Inspector, I.S. Pandav, greeted us warmly. “They have shouldered half of our burden; crime against women has reduced by more than 50% in the locality ever since the behens of Nari Adalats have taken up the onus.” said ASI Pandav, full of admiration for these gritty women.

Back at the adalat, the members had by then, successfully counseled a couple into reconciliation. I asked if they would keep a tab and check if the matter was fully resolved. They told me each case was allotted a follow-up period of two years and the members personally went and checked if all was well. I further asked what if that was not the case and the matter had worsened in the meantime.  “We are not here to give out punishments. If a matter needs more than discussion and counseling, we hand it over to the court of law” I was told. The best part is that the contesting parties pay a nominal amount of Rs.251 (only if they can afford to), while filing a case and that is all they have to pay. This money goes to the Nari Adalat fund and is used to sponsor the trips the members needed during follow-ups.

All this while I was so engrossed in the proceedings, I did not feel time pass by. Amidst hugs, farewell and invites to visit again, I left the building premises overwhelmed by this simple mechanism of empowerment. A striking example of the innate ability of women to manage kitchen to court with equal élan, I pondered. Watching these champions of social equality, I was confident that justice could finally be brought to Kajal.
 Madhurima Mallik

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