From the Villages to the High Courts
By Joe S.
I've had a lot of great experiences while working here in India, but the two most professionally exciting activities were getting to visit a village, and visit the High Court of Madras (Chennai).
Once IJM helps rescue victims of bonded labour, they begin an aftercare program for the clients, and eventually with the help of the government the labourers will resettle in villages. IJM attorneys will then visit those labourers in their new villages to help prepare them for trial. Specifically the attorneys will help the clients practice their testimony, so they will not be afraid when they're presenting in court (no small proposition). The victims effective testimony is one of the best tools in ensuring perpetrator accountability. Unfortunately on the day we went to visit two clients, both of them were away for the day, as they're now day-labourers. This was a minor disappointment, but getting to see the villages and how our clients live was a great privilege.
The village we visited had a borehole, electricity, and a 'paved mainstreet.' As we waited for the family to arrive, one of the neighbors played Indian music from their house. This was incredibly intriguing to me - after all, water and electricity are not universal utilities in the city proper. Certainly the villagers do not have quite the same economic opportunities as far as proximity to work, transportation, etc. Food scarcity is another unknown, though there were many rice paddies surrounding the village. Because we never got to speak to the villagers we came to visit, I didn't get any questions answered, but it was still an honor to get to see a slice of life in India that I would never see in the city.
The trip to the High Court was a little more productive, in the traditional sense. I accompanied an IJM attorney who was filing a First Incident Report (essentially a complaint) for the first time by himself. He did a great job and was successful. The court was, in my mind, chaos. As a spectator I was sitting in the back, and it was an utter flood of people. All attorneys too. In a US courtroom there may be some onlookers, but otherwise it is just the judicial personnel, the opposing attorneys, and the jury, if applicable. But here attorneys for cases that weren't coming up for an hour were loitering around. And not waiting in an orderly fashion either, as the idea of lines are a mostly foreign concept in India. Everyone was crowding the bench. Practicing law in the courtroom is a very public enterprise.
I had just finished reading Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers before coming to India, in which she follows a family in the slums of Mumbai. They end up having to wage a court battle, and the book was shocking to me in the process it described, and I was even more shocked to recognize the reality. Trials are incredibly piecemeal. One small portion is heard before one judge. Then a long period until the next small part of the case is tried. The judge might be completely different. Things are supposed to be in English, but half the time I could not understand a word. I thought of what it must be like for our clients to testify before the court, and how intimidating it must be.
Despite the hurdles, IJM is making great inroads. Just recently we received a favorable hearing that will allow us to represent clients directly in the courts of a district to the north of Chennai. So far we have only gained this victory in Chennai. IJM has also compiled quite a few persecutions this year, which is a major task. Often times laborers are rescued and released, but nothing happens to the owners, so they can simply get a new crop of workers to exploit. IJM is working hard within the Indian court systems to bring about convictions and arrests. It's been a joy helping provide research and any other aid I can to further this process.