How legal aid bodies built case against Covid in Himachal: online camps, door-to-door visits

Through YouTube videos, online camps and door-to-door visits, they have been raising awareness about the virus and how to check it since the first Covid-19 wave.

BEHIND Himachal Pradesh’s coronavirus vaccination success are several unlikely heroes. Among them are office-bearers of its district- and state-level legal service authorities, and the para-legal volunteers who work with them. Through YouTube videos, online camps and door-to-door visits, they have been raising awareness about the virus and how to check it since the first Covid-19 wave.

At the office of the Nari Chintpurni gram panchayat in Una district, a group of people are gathered on September 9 to hear Vivek Khanal, secretary of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), at an online nukkad camp. Khanal, 44, describes the official duties of the DLSA, that is offering free legal advice to those who can’t afford it, before going on to congratulate the audience on getting themselves vaccinated and helping Himachal become the first state in the country to cover all those eligible with at least the first shot.

It may be months down the Coronavirus road, but Khanal doesn’t skip the part underlining Covid-appropriate behaviour. “When you wash your hands, it is not possible to look at the time. What I do is I keep washing my hands till I count up to 80,” Khanal says. “We have to learn to live with the virus. Mere hisab se agli garmi tak aise hi chalega (According to me, things will continue like this till the next summer). Till then we should not lower our guard.”

Sanjay Kalia, a shopkeeper at Nari Chintpurni village, says he likes Khanal’s way of explaining things. “Unka assi wala tarika bahut achcha hai (His suggestion to count up to 80 is very good.)”

Prem Pal Ranta, member secretary, Himachal Pradesh State Legal Services Authority (SLSA), says they have been holding similar camps across the state. Each district has a DLSA, and Himachal has 12 districts, with the two districts of Lahaul and Spiti, and Kullu sharing one authority.

Besides the online camps, and messages on WhatsApp and email, every DLSA runs a YouTube channel that puts up videos on Covid-19. The Una DLSA has an animation series called Kaki Ki Karona Klass, which talks about the virus and vaccination, the whys and wherefores, the do’s and don’ts, and basic instructions on everything from wearing a mask to using an oximeter.

Ranta says the SLSA has also advertised mobile numbers of DLSA secretaries as helpline numbers through the media. “People were indoors and in distress (during the lockdowns). They faced all kinds of problems, including financial and medical. I felt happy to help them out with whatever I could,” says Khanal. “One day, I received more than 200 calls during the first wave. Things were not that bad during the second wave.”

Ranta estimates that they were able to reach 1,17,157 people during the first wave. “Out of them, we reached out to 84,023 people through the 1,357 virtual camps. During the state curfew in the second wave this year, we organised 375 virtual camps and reached out to around 4,000 people.” Besides counselling, Ranta says, they provided food and transit passes to 2,656 migrants, shelter to 224 people and ration to 1,186 people with the help of district administrations. They also made available essential commodities and travel passes to 1,059 residents of Himachal Pradesh stranded in other states.

Health Secretary Amitabh Awasthi told The Indian Express, “Spreading awareness about Covid-19 in the state has been a team effort. Many agencies and departments have been involved in this.”

Talking about the role of para-legal volunteers, Khanal says they acted as a bridge. “We have 19 para-legal volunteers in villages in Una district. They, along with former para-legal volunteers, helped us communicate with people,” says Khanal. Para-legal volunteers are trained legal counsellors, but not professionally trained in the field of law. Paid Rs 500 per day for their services by the DLSA, they are appointed for two years. Their main job is to facilitate access to legal aid and justice.

Ritu Kalia, a para-legal volunteer at Nari Chintpurni, says they were asked to spread awareness about the virus. “We did it risking our lives, going door-to-door in our village and the surrounding areas.”

Sometimes, along with Covid volunteering, the legal expertise of the DLSA members too came in handy. Ranta says that with people forced together at home, 45 domestic violence cases were reported from across the state on the helpline numbers of DLSAs. Legal aid was provided in 35 cases, while 10 cases were settled through mediation.

The SLSA was also instrumental in helping carry out the decongestion of jails during the pandemic.

Acknowledging the contribution of the DLSA at Una, Deputy Commissioner Raghav Sharma says, “DLSA secretary Khanal is very proactive and has covered almost the entire district.”

Khanal contracted Covid during the first wave, but says that didn’t deter him. “Saving lives is very important — that’s what we are trying to do.”

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