“There have been many times where I have seen something wrong happen in front of me. But neither have I had the courage and words to express myself, nor have I known the justice system well enough to support my feelings”, says Kohinoor, a nineteen-year-old Justice Jagrik in Harda, Madhya Pradesh. Global Insights on Access to Justice 2019 indicates that  ‘justice issues’ are omnipresent, and rather frequent. Over the last two years, 32% of Indians have experienced at least one legal concern. Although the prevalence and severity of problems vary across different contexts, the most common legal concerns – of consumer rights, housing, money, or debt – emerge from social justice issues.

India’s population faces a variety of obstacles in meeting their justice needs; what starts with an inability to recognize wrongdoings in the first place leaves finding legal solutions to seem like a pipe dream. “Justice isn’t given, or taken,” says Ritesh, the co-founder of SHEDO. “Justice is practised in all that we do, and all that we are. The idea behind the Justice Jagrik is just that — in living and practising justice in its purest form.”

For the past 8 years, Ritesh’s team at Social Health and Education Development Organization (SHEDO) have been working in Harda, a tribal district located on the Indore-Nagpur highway in Madhya Pradesh. Their work centres around reducing inequities between different sections of society by engaging locals with the ideas of active citizenship, constitutional rights, and justice.

SHEDO’s ‘Justice Jagrik’ initiative was designed specifically for the youth, wherein a ‘Jagrik’ (Jagruk Nagrik) would embody the agent of change that they wished to see in the world around them. In 2021, 20 young citizens from rural Harda undertook the year-long Justice Jagrik journey, engaging with different stakeholders from their community with the intent to build awareness around justice delivery mechanisms.

Coming from the same communities and having grown up internalizing common misinformation and social behaviours, it was a significant feat for the Jagriks themselves to break out of past patterns of thought and facilitate the same for people around them. It proved to be a deeply transformative experience, as Archna from Madhya Pradesh reflects. “I could have never imagined leading conversations with women from my village on topics like recognising rights, creating safe spaces, stepping out [of their homes], and speaking up. All my life, growing up, I’ve been one of [these women]. It took a great deal of conviction for me to encourage them further,” the 19-year-old says. 

Archna and her Jagrik partner Ashish created their project to get an Anganwadi Centre built in their village, Khartalay. They surveyed 80 households in their village to understand their needs and held a series of dialogues with them on how such an Anganwadi centre could support children and pregnant women in the community. Archana and Ashish are leading the engagement with the local stakeholders with support from the community members.

SHEDO and ComMutiny – The Youth Collective conceptualized a three-layered process of creating Justice Jagriks like Archna, starting with experiential introductions to fundamental rights and duties, justice delivery, and mechanisms to facilitate access to justice. With this knowledge, the Jagriks learnt how to engage with local communities, building empathy and effective ways of communication along the way. Finally, building change-making muscle needed new skills and knowledge to be shared amongst a network of fellow changemakers facilitated by the Initiative, with the common vision of making justice a lived reality for all.

Leading change within communities is not an easy or overnight task. In the case of Jagriks, it became inescapable to identify and examine how structures of power, privilege, and parity perpetuate injustice in their societies. That was the starting point before communicating and negotiating with stakeholders to bring about justice.

“If [villagers] didn’t see value in what we were doing, nothing could motivate them to join us,” Archna reflects. “It took rounds of convincing to build their trust; only then did we get around to discussing the change we were trying to bring.”

This pursuit of creating ripples of change in society almost certainly entailed navigating conflicts, which needed the young Jagriks to build a nuanced sensitivity to context. Therein lay the biggest asset of driving change – garnering collective trust within communities that typically preferred to avoid conflicts, rather than address them. 

Sustaining Youth-Led Change in Harda

Besides the youth, tribal, Dalit, and religious minority communities of Harda are seldom able to exercise their rights as Indian citizens. Gayatri, 20, says, “Through my journey as a Justice Jagrik, I can now identify justice and injustice in everyday life. I now have the courage to speak up against injustice.” Her project partner Priyanka added, “I have realized that one doesn’t need to be a lawyer to access justice tools.”

Priyanka and Gayatri holding a dialogue on FIRs with the women in their community | Courtesy SHEDO and ComMutiny

Gayatri and Priyanka held dialogues on FIRs and the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act in 3 nearby villages (Khartlaya, Samardha, and Barja). These conversations were often with women much older than themselves, in safe spaces where they could come together and share experiences of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Along with demystifying the POCSO Act as a legal remedy, these spaces also opened channels for conversations among young girls, their mothers and family members.

Priyanka and Gayatri holding a dialogue on the POCSO Act with the women in their community | Courtesy SHEDO and ComMutiny

Justice Jagriks’ projects brought about transformative mindset changes and addressed many of the community’s needs through collective action. 20-year-old Gopal was often troubled by why the right to education seemed to belong to only a few children in India. Alongside his Jagrik partner Jeetendra, Gopal worked towards abolishing child begging outside religious places in their district. They filed a Right to Information and formed a local group to spread awareness and support the cause, in their efforts to access justice for children left out of the education system. The Jagriks’ ages often belie their maturity as individuals. “Justice is not the job of only the police or court,” Gopal adds. “Rather, all of us have to become aware and take responsibility in order to create a safe, just and equitable society.”

The Justice Jagrik Initiative towards making justice a lived reality for all was rolled out in  2021, in partnership with Ashoka’s Law for All Initiative and ComMutiny – The Youth Collective. In July 2022, the Jagriks showcased their work in Harda at the Jashn-e-Jagrik Mela, a celebratory event. Held towards the end of completing each five-month-long social action project, the Mela was attended by over 200 people, including the Jagriks’ mentors, participating community members, elected Pradhans and Sarpanchs from respective villages, local ward parshads (councillors), and volunteers from SHEDO.

Amongst other civil society organizations in Madhya Pradesh, members from ComMutiny – The Youth Collective and the vartaLeap Coalition were inspired by the wide-ranging effect and themes of Jagriks’ projects towards justice. “Being a part of the Justice Jagrik Inititaive has been an extremely inspiring experience. It was the first time that we at ComMutiny were looking at how justice-making tools could be used for youth-led social change,” says Kanika Sinha, the Convener at ComMutiny – The Youth Collective. “To create an enabling space for young people to discover their own leadership, we designed this learning journey that builds the right knowledge, skills and capacities.”

Ritesh (R) with the Jagriks at the Jashn-e-Jagrik Mela | Courtesy SHEDO and ComMutiny

It is impossible to sustain any change in the mindset and lifestyles of societies, especially around notions of justice, without taking communities along. To that end, the Initiative conceived an enabling journey for young people to emerge as Jagriks, or changemakers who initiate grassroots movements with an entrepreneurial mindset by inspiring communities towards collective action. True to the meaning of change, reform and innovation, these young changemakers have had to adapt to nuanced local contexts and educate fellow citizens on causes that matter to them, in ways that they most strongly associate with. Future changemakers will have to adapt to treading the fine line between full-fledged social innovations and already-existing bureaucratic protocol, all the while engaging local communities at the heart of problem-solving. 

This is the second story in a four-part collaboration with Ashoka’s Law for All Initiative, highlighting insights from their work with partners and collaborators who strengthen young changemakers’ innovations in law and justice space across India. Law for All is one of the strategic focus areas for Ashoka in South Asia. Read Part One here.

Featured image of Archna and Ashish’s community session in Harda, MP courtesy SHEDO and ComMutiny

Backed by a Master's in Social Work and Bachelor's in Journalism, Alisha Asif is an experienced writer, editor, and life skills facilitator. After having worked on the ground with children, youth and women on various issues like education, storytelling, mental health and life skills, she is now an independent Communication Consultant for nonprofits. Alisha believes in communicating theories and stories of change, helping strengthen the voices of organizations from across rural and urban areas! She deeply believes in the power of empathy, safe spaces, non-violent communication, conversations, and free speech and doesn't see her identity as independent of those, ever.


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