Vivek Maru: How Can We Make Legal Support Accessible To All? Often, people who don't understand the law or can't pay for lawyers end up being mistreated. Lawyer Vivek Maru calls for a global community of paralegals to place the law on the side of the people.

Vivek Maru: How Can We Make Legal Support Accessible To All?

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On the show today, ideas about hacking the law. How did you even start to think about what you wanted to do?

VIVEK MARU: I did study law because of a kind of dreamy idea about what the law is.

RAZ: This is Vivek Maru. He's a legal advocate.

MARU: There's this philosopher - Jurgen Habermas - who has this book, "Between Facts And Norms." And he says democracy should be this big, open conversation about fundamental questions like, what kind of world do we want to build together? What do we owe one another? Where do we want to go together? And then law is the thing that takes the conclusions, the findings from those conversations and turns them into actual rules and institutions that shape our lives. And I love this idea of law as the kind of the thing that translates between our dreams about justice on the one hand and real life on the other hand - between facts and norms.

But that is not the world we live in. A lot of the rules in a lot of places are decent. But there's a huge gap. Oftentimes, the people who need those rules the most have never even heard of them. And the systems that are supposed to enforce those rules are corrupt or broken or both.

RAZ: Vivek began to see this problem when he was a young lawyer. So he wanted to figure out a way to give the power of the law back to the people. Here's Vivek Maru on the TED stage.


MARU: I want to tell you about someone. I'm going to call him Ravi Nanda.

MARU: Ravi's from a community of herdspeople in Gujarat on the western coast of India, same place my own family comes from. When he was 10 years old, his entire community was forced to move because a multinational corporation constructed a manufacturing facility on the land where they lived. Then, 20 years later, the same company built a cement factory 100 meters from where they live now. India has got strong environmental regulations on paper, but this company has violated many of them. Dust from that factory covers Ravi's mustache and everything he wears. I spent just two days in his place, and I coughed for a week. Ravi says that if people or animals eat anything that grows in his village or drink the water, they get sick.

Ravi has appealed to the company for years. He said, I've written so many letters, my family could cremate me with them. They wouldn't need to buy any wood. He said the company ignored every one of those letters. And so in 2013, Ravi Nanda decided to use the last means of protest he thought he had left. He walked to the gates of that factory with a bucket of petrol in his hands, intending to set himself on fire.

Ravi is not alone in his desperation. The U.N. estimates that worldwide, 4 billion people live without basic access to justice. But we've been choosing to ignore it. Right now, in Sierra Leone, in Cambodia, in Ethiopia, farmers are being cajoled into putting their thumbprints on 50-year lease agreements, signing away all the land they've ever known for a pittance, without anybody even explaining the terms.

Right now, in the United States, in India, in Slovenia, people like Ravi are raising their children in the shadow of factories or mines that are poisoning their air and their water. There are environmental laws that would protect these people, but many have never seen those laws, let alone having a shot at enforcing them. And the world seems to have decided that's OK.

RAZ: So how does this happen? I mean, I know it's sort of a naive question. But how is it that in most of the world, there are laws that, on paper, look great, but if you look closer, you would see that that's actually not the case?

MARU: Yeah, how - why is that? I mean, part of it is that it's just much easier to put things down on paper than it is to bring those rules to life. And in some places - and everywhere - there are still rules that are in and of themselves repressive. The ones that we have that are good - they are often hard won. But that is not the only battle that you need to fight. You need to then fight a second battle, which involves actually breathing life into those rules, making them concrete and real for people.


MARU: Something about law and lawyers has gone wrong. We lawyers are usually expensive, first of all. And we tend to focus on formal court channels that are impractical for many of the problems people face. Worse, our profession has shrouded law in a cloak of complexity.

Let me come back to Ravi. 2013, he did reach the gates of that factory with a bucket of petrol in his hands, but he was arrested before he could follow through. Then, two years later, he met someone. I'm going to call them Kush. Kush is part of a team of community paralegals that works for environmental justice on the Gujarat coast. Kush explained to Ravi that there was law on his side. Kush translated into Gujarati something Ravi had never seen. It's called the consent to operate. It's issued by the state government, and it allows the factory to run only if it complies with specific conditions.

So together, they compared the legal requirements with reality. They collected evidence, and they drafted an application, not to the courts, but to two administrative institutions - the pollution control board and the district administration. Those applications started turning the creaky wheels of enforcement.

A pollution officer came for a site inspection. And after that, the company started running an air filtration system it was supposed to have been using all along. It also started covering the 100 trucks that come and go from that plant every day. Those two measures reduced the air pollution considerably.

The case is far from over, but learning and using law gave Ravi hope. There are people like Kush walking alongside people like Ravi in many places. Today I work with a group called Namati. Namati helps convene a global network dedicated to legal empowerment. Altogether we are over a thousand organizations in 120 countries. Collectively, we deploy tens of thousands of community paralegals.


RAZ: It seems to me that this idea of - of helping to establish community paralegals can really make change at scale, at a big scale, is just to create more and more and more and more of them, like, all over the world - basically people who are not lawyers but that are just as good as lawyers in terms of how they understand the law.

MARU: I do think that that's part of what we need to do to achieve this transformation in the relationship between law and people, is to open it up and to embrace the role of these sorts of intermediary players. I mean, in health care, for example, we never would think that all you need is doctors.

RAZ: Right.

MARU: You have a whole network people. You have doctors and nurses and midwives. In a lot of places, you have community health workers. And so the folks that we focus on and we work with are sort of the equivalent of community health workers. We call them community legal workers. And they can play this vital bridge role, even in some of the toughest circumstances. When people know and invoke the rules, they can get traction - some of the time. Not that we win every time, but they can get - they can get traction in really powerful ways.


MARU: I see the beginnings of a real movement, but we're nowhere near what's necessary - not yet. In most countries around the world, governments do not provide a single dollar of support to paralegals like Kush. Most governments don't even recognize the role paralegals play or protect paralegals from harm. I also don't want to give you the impression that paralegals and their clients in every time - not at all.

That cement factory behind Ravi's village, it's been turning off the filtration system at night, when it's least likely that the company would get caught. Running that filter costs money. Ravi WhatsApps photos of the polluted night sky. Ravi says the air is still unbreathable. Trying to squeeze justice out of broken systems is like Ravi's case. Hope and despair are neck-and-neck. And so not only do we urgently need to support and protect the work of barefoot lawyers around the world; we need to change the systems themselves.

RAZ: There must be so many examples and cases that you come across where it's just, you don't win. You face these enormous odds, and you face these enormous forces. And they - and even though justice is on your side, you don't win. How do you - how do you stay optimistic about this?

MARU: I don't think there's another option. You know, we take inspiration from the kinds of long-term movements that have managed to change things in various places, whether it's the South African freedom struggle or whether it's the struggles for freedom here in the United States. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes perseverance. It takes creativity. And those are qualities that I see in the paralegals we work with. And watching them gives me hope.

RAZ: Yeah.

MARU: Equip the people themselves to make those institutions more accountable, more fair. Don't give up on democracy. Forge a deeper version of democracy in which law is something that everybody can understand, use and shape.

RAZ: That's Vivek Maru. He's the founder and CEO of Namati. You can see his entire talk at


JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) On this side of the law, on that side of the law. Who is right? Who is wrong? Who is for and who's against the law?

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on hacking the law this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner and Diba Mohtasham, with help from Daniel Shukin and Megan Schellong. Our intern is Daryth Gayles. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading, right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR News.


CASH: (Singing) Who is weak? Who is wrong? Who is for and who's against the law?

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