This Legal Rebel Takes the Cases of the World's Most Vulnerable
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for billions of people around the world, the law is broken.
By Poornima Apte
Two years ago, Gopi,* a herdsman in the Indian state of Gujarat, stood at the gates of a local cement manufacturing company, holding a bucket of gasoline and ready to commit suicide. Today, he sends grateful WhatsApp messages to the man responsible for turning his life around: Vivek Maru, the founder of Namati. Through a network of local paralegals, the social entrepreneurship organization puts the power of the law back in the hands of people.
Living in the shadow of severe water and dust pollution, Gopi’s children had quit school to walk his herd of cattle long distances in search of fodder. The situation had become increasingly untenable until Gopi found help from a paralegal working for Namati who educated the herdsman about his legal rights and pushed local administrative institutions to implement gradual change. The cement company was forced to use a filtration system and cover trucks exiting the facility to decrease dust pollution.
“Now instead of thinking about suicide, he says that for the first time he feels like he has some power on his side, that he doesn’t have to beg the company for mercy like a beggar,” Maru says. “That journey from total disempowerment and literally suicidal disenchantment to a sense that you can engage in the institutions that make up your society, and use them and help shape them? That’s one of the things that gives me the most hope.”
Gopi’s case is hardly unique. In Sierra Leone, local chiefs illegally sold Fanta Sia Nyanda’s land — and those of 70 other families — to a Chinese rubber company. Namati’s paralegals informed the families of their rights, took the case to court and won. Sia Nyanda was overjoyed. “We now know the law is for us,” she says.
Our mantra is ‘know the law, use law, shape law.’
Vivek Maru, Namati founder
For this necessary work, Maru, Namati and the Global Legal Empowerment Network he helped craft received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2016. A graduate of the Yale Law School, Maru was named a “legal rebel” by the American Bar Association in 2015.
Founded in 2011, Namati operates along a two-pronged approach: The Global Legal Empowerment Network convenes more than a thousand organizations from 150 countries working on issues from human trafficking to the rights of prisoners. In addition, Namati employs a local network of 250 paralegals who operate in the trenches in India, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Mozambique and the United States. The paralegals work with citizens on a host of challenges: right-to-health issues in Mozambique; citizenship rights in Kenya; land grabs in Myanmar; and environmental justice in India.
Protests against systemic injustices have their place, but they can often be a blunt instrument, Maru points out. He prefers the wily approach: using local laws and administrative institutions to make incremental gains. “Our mantra is ‘know the law, use law, shape law,’” he says. “Our paralegals help people know the law and to use it to get a practical solution. The more ambitious step relates to improving the systems for everyone.” A cement or coal handling citation, for example, has led to improved handling conditions for other minerals, including bauxite.
Born in Chicago, the 42-year-old Maru grew up in Connecticut, the son of South Asian immigrants rooted in Jain faith traditions. He struggled to reconcile his law degree and Ivy pedigree (in addition to Yale Law, he did his undergrad in social studies at Harvard) with his Gandhian principles until a law school classmate, Tom Perriello, serving in Sierra Leone as special adviser to the prosecutor of the special court, convinced Maru that his skills were needed in a country healing from a brutal civil war. He also met Abdul Tejan-Cole, a human rights lawyer and executive director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, who pointed out that Maru would have an opportunity to come up with legal solutions that fit the framework of the country. With funding from Open Society Foundations, Maru dove in. His grassroots organization in Sierra Leone, Timap for Justice, would serve as the genesis for Namati.
The act of bringing the law to the people is commendable, says Tayyab Mahmud, director of the Seattle-based Center for Global Justice, but he cautions against imposing a one-size-fits-all solution on people who might not have had much of a purchase in fashioning those laws in the first place. “If we are engaging indigenous communities in quote-unquote the law, almost by definition we are engaging them in normative orders which are not their own,” Mahmud says. “Using existing laws would be positive as long as it’s a tactical thing, one that can be used to achieve limited objectives so that the march forward can continue.”
Maru is only too aware of this challenge. According to Perriello, Maru proved in Sierra Leone that he could make the best of the indigenous and modern systems as well as work within the existing reality. “He has a unique ability to both bring some experience and wisdom from the outside while also having a deep and deliberative engagement with the wisdom and value of what he finds in any given community,” Perriello says.
There are days when the work, bogged down by corruption, can prove frustrating and overwhelming, but Maru perseveres; he’s a believer in the vitality of practice. It is not surprising that he’s also a student of capoeira Angola, a martial art with African roots that mixes dance with fighting techniques as a creative form of resistance. “There’s a mischievousness and soulfulness even though you’re engaging in a life-and-death struggle,” Maru says. “I like its lesson of smiling in the face of danger.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.
- Poornima Apte, OZY Author Contact Poornima Apte