by Mihika Mukherjee
Literacy has various definitions, but essentially literacy is the ability to read, write and speak, and to possess basic knowledge of computers and arithmetic. However, the meaning of literacy is changing as the world becomes more developed. Having just the basic skills is not enough anymore. India has the second largest population in the world with the largest written constitution and numerous laws that governs its citizens. As the population keeps growing, it becomes imperative for people to be aware of their rights and duties. If men and women are not aware of their rights, they open themselves up to injustices and discrimination. Not knowing about the legal system of one’s country puts an individual at a disadvantage. For example, at present, it is expected that 51% of our population will own a smartphone by the year 2025. This would mean that more and more people would have access to internet and telephone services and thereby increasing chances of cybercrime. Thus, people must be aware of how they should conduct themselves in cyberspace and what rights they have in case they have been wronged. However, it is a well-established fact that people in our country, both rich and poor, are unaware of their rights and obligations. Ensuring legal literacy is an urgent need in a country like India.
Consequences of legal unawareness
Legal unawareness makes the public fall prey to discrimination, it decreases their participation in a democratic state, and makes them susceptible to injustice as they are not aware of their rights. Due to the lack of awareness, legislations and laws currently in force are not utilized to their full potential. The consequences of legal unawareness are felt more in rural areas where most of the people are illiterate and fall prey to extortion, exploitation and are often deprived of their rights due to their lack of legal literacy.
Need for Legal Literacy
Legal empowerment must be promoted as the public must be aware of their rights and all entitlements. The above can be better understood as follows:
Fighting injustice: We all know that knowledge is power and being aware of legal rights and duties will help curb a lot of injustice that happens around us, especially in the rural areas where most of the people are illiterate and face discrimination and corruption on a daily basis. Legal education will make sure that the people, in both rural and urban areas, are aware of their rights and they know what to do in case they have been wronged. When one goes to the police station to get an FIR filed, there are things that should be kept in mind so that the crime can be effectively reported and to ensure no injustice. The basics of legal education must be taught to everyone to make them more empowered and informed as citizens.
Effective Governance: Legal literacy can ensure effective and good governance if the citizens are aware of their rights, powers and privileges that our legal system confers upon them. When the public knows what good governance is and knows the type of governance that they deserve, the government will be more transparent and accountable thus leading to less errors and corruption. A change in attitude of the masses due to legal awareness can bring about a massive change in the way our government works.
Other advantages of being legally aware: A person who is legally literate has a greater advantage as they are aware of not only their legal rights but also their cultural, political, and social rights. Legal literacy helps to realise basic human rights and helps in reaping the benefits that law offers to all citizens. Legally aware citizens can make informed decisions, participate fully in a democracy, fight for justice and understand their rights accurately. Legal literacy can empower and protect women as well. Women are a crucial part of our society and educating women can bring about a progressive change, especially in the rural areas. If women are legally empowered and are given the correct guidance, they can raise their voice against the patriarchal system and any other injustice that they have faced.
Steps taken towards Legal Literacy
Over the years, various steps have been taken by the Indian Government to spread legal literacy, such as, Legal Aid movements in India, formation of committees for effective implementation of legal aid schemes etc. A few of them are:
National Legal Services Authority (NALSA): NALSA had been constituted under the Legal Services Authority Act, 1987 to provide free legal services, legal aid and legal awareness campaigns. From 2012 to 2016, NALSA has held over 3,46, 509 legal literacy campaigns over the country. These campaigns include various activities that make people aware of their rights and roles and make the public understand how our legal system works. This is done in a creative manner- through nukkad nataks, documentaries and cultural programs.
Legal aid: Article 39A of the Constitution of India provides for free legal aid and asks for the State to promote justice on a basis of equal opportunity. Legal aid is provided to the needy before the lower courts and all the way up to the supreme court. NALSA also runs various legal aid clinics from law colleges to fulfil the objective of imparting effective legal literacy. Various private institutions and law firms also give legal aid to the needy and thus the legal aid movement in India has grown substantially.
Committee for Implementing Legal Aid Schemes: In 1980, a committee to implement legal aid schemes was constituted under the chairmanship of the retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice P.N Bhagwati. This was after the legal aid movement was started in India from 1952 and later in 1960 the government laid down legal aid schemes.
Many NGOs and organizations have also taken it upon themselves to spread legal literacy and make the population more aware of the rights bestowed upon them by our constitution.
Legal facts and Rights everyone should know
There are a few rights that everyone should know about, the most important ones being the fundamental rights guaranteed to us by our constitution and a few more legal facts and rights pertaining to FIR’s and arrests.
The Fundamental Rights
The Fundamental Rights are enlisted in part III of our Constitution, Article 14 to Article 32 being the most important ones. They are:
Right to Equality (Article 14 to 18)
Right to Freedom (Article 19 to 22)
Right against exploitation (Article 23 to 24)
Right to Freedom of religion (Article 25 to 28)
Cultural and Educational Rights (Article 29 to 30)
Right to Constitutional Remedies (Article 32)
These Articles comprise of all our fundamental rights and are a crucial part of our lives. These rights are conferred upon everyone in an equal manner.
General Facts and Rights
All citizens have the right to file an FIR and if a police officer refuses to do so, he or she can be punished under Section 166 A of the Indian Penal Code.
As per the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, all consumers have the right to ask for a refund for a good they have purchased. The poster of ‘No exchange’ or ‘No refund and return’ that we see in many shops amounts to an unfair trade practice.
As per Section 46 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), no woman can be arrested before 6 AM and 6 PM except under exceptional circumstances. What may qualify as an exceptional circumstance depends on the Judicial Magistrate to whom the matter may be referred. Only a lady officer can arrest a woman.
As per the Equal remuneration Act, 1976 everyone deserves equal pay for the work done irrespective of their gender.
Live-in relationships are not considered to be illegal in India if the partner are adults as per the Indian Majority Act, 1875. Even the offspring of an unmarried couple are considered legal heirs and are entitled to inheritance.
A police officer always has the obligation on him to assist someone who is in need of assistance. They have to help someone in need and being “off duty” is not an excuse.
To sum it up, in a growing democracy like India, legal literacy is a must. The initiatives taken up by NALSA, NGO’s and various other organisations will certainly bring about a positive change in the society as more and more people will become aware of their rights and duties. William J. Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, said on the occasion of International literacy Day how “Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility”. Thus, we ourselves must take initiative and read and learn about the laws that govern us so as to participate in our democracy in an effective manner and also to educate those around us.
Mihika Mukherjee is a second-year law student from BML Munjal University and an Intern at Justice Adda.