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Access to justice: A Development Challenge in India ?

What does a parent from one of India’s historically marginalized castes do when his child is not allowed to sit with others in class? Or, if during the mid-day meal at school, his dishes are kept separate from others? Whom does a young mother turn to when a health worker refuses to enter her house? Where does she go when the village headman refuses to give her husband work under a mandatory job guarantee scheme? These are but a few examples of the harsh reality of everyday life for millions of poor and marginalized people in India.

Clearly, development cannot be achieved without justice. While India’s government has a number of programs to improve the lives of the poor, most marginalized people don’t know what they are entitled to, nor do they have the power and access to ensure that they get it. Not surprisingly, India has been promoting access to justice for marginalized people for the past five years and is in the midst of drawing up an ambitious program to modernize its courts. These can be an exceedingly long, complex and expensive process, with cases dragging on in the courts for decades.

To test the waters for the World Bank’s possible involvement in India’s ambitious plans for legal reform, , Anne Marie Leroy,  World Bank Group ’s General Counsel, visited India in late November and met India’s Minister for Law and Justice, government officials, and eminent lawyers. “A well-functioning legal and judicial system is essential, not only as an end in itself, but also as a means of facilitating the achievement of other development objectives,” she said. “That is why many World Bank projects contain legal and/or  judicial reform activities or components. The Bank, through its Legal Vice Presidency Unit, is ready to assist India to accomplish its ambitious plans in this area.

Over the past two decades, the Bank has promoted adherence to the rule of law as a fundamental element of economic development and poverty reduction. It has recently piloted a program funded by AusAID, called Justice for the Poor, which provides Bank project teams and client countries with support in addressing justice issues in development projects, particularly in the context of plural legal systems, where traditional justice and dispute resolution mechanisms coexist with formal judicial institutions.

Moreover, in response to a long standing demand from developing countries, the Bank’s Legal Vice Presidency has recently launched the Global Forum on Law, Justice and Development (GFLJD) and is seeking active participation from donors around the globe. This is the first legal knowledge platform of its kind in the Bank Group, and aims to bring together legal practitioners and researchers from around the globe and promote the exchange of experiences in using law to solve development issues. The discussions with the Indian government, proved interesting, Anne-Marie said. “The minister mentioned to me the on-going computerization of India’s courts, and was particularly interested by my informing him about the Brazilian experience in this regard.” Obviously, a number of countries are interested in such a program.

Anne-Marie also visited the National Law School in Bangalore, India’s premier law school and partner of the Bank’s Legal VPU in the Legal Associates and Legal Interns Program to also seek its involvement in the GFLJD. “The School is one of the few in the world which has a number of departments that deal with the contribution of law to the well-being of minorities, children and socially excluded groups. The school’s involvement with the Global Forum would be very useful,” Anne-Marie said.  The School has now confirmed its participation.

As no trip to a client country can be complete without a field visit, Anne-Marie travelled to Bank projects in a Bangalore slum as well as the rural areas of the state. “It is essential for us in the Legal VPU to know the reality on the ground. I was inspired to see how rain water harvesting tanks are improving agriculture and the livelihood of farmers, and see how happy the farmers are.  It was also a moving experience to see efforts to bring water and sanitation to the slums.”

Contributed by the India Country Office and the Legal Vice Presidency

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