“We were supposed to be open 10 am till 1 pm, but by nine a line was starting to form. Even when we were packing our things at six-thirty, people were still arriving to file complaints.”
Ram Nath Jha was one of the main organisers of our first mobile anti-corruption and legal advice centre in India. These one-day events bring experts and local law student volunteers out into rural areas to advise and support citizens who are facing corruption in their daily lives. Held in a village where many live far below the poverty line, we had expected crowds of hundreds. By the end of the day, the total had reached 2,500.
Among them was 65 year old Ruti*. Making her way through the crowd until she reached the desk, she told the team that her husband passed away six years ago, and officially she is entitled to a widow’s pension. She says has never received a single payment. “She is handicapped, and she has no money to survive with … no one to look after her,” says Ram, “She says that she has taken her case to authorities beforehand, but that they had not done anything.”
By helping people understand their rights, and working with them to ensure they are upheld, mobile centres aim to address desperate situations like these. “People were emotional and excited because someone was finally listening to their complaints and their stories,” says Ram. As people crowded around the desks to report their stories, lines of chairs stood empty in the room. Snacks prepared for the attendees remained on the tables, untouched.
By the end of the day two large containers were stacked full with thousands of written complaints, their subjects ranging from absent subsidised food aid to missing funds meant for rebuilding homes. Like Ruti, many reported not having received any help from the appropriate authorities after filing complaints. Speaking to a reporter from the India Telegraph, one man said he had visited every relevant office within the last four years trying to be put back on the ration card list for food aid. He claimed he had been removed without warning or reason.
The legal centre is now processing the complaints. With the help of local volunteers they are sorting, categorising, and responding to every single case. It’s a huge task, but the urgent need for this assistance is clear, and another mobile centre is already in the making. Like this one, future centres aim to help people living in rural areas uphold their rights and demand the services and support they are entitled to. People like Ruti, who no longer has to pursue her claim alone. "That was a heart-breaking moment," says Ram, “and we will take up such a case”.
* Names have been changed.