The other night, I left a bible study with a male friend who looks similar to Rambo. I was carrying a backpack on my back, a flute case on my shoulder, and a bunch of roses in my arms (one of my colleagues had asked me to get them for his wife). Needless to say, my arms were full. After walking about one kilometer to the main road, my friend and I settled on a fair price to take an auto rickshaw about four kilometers to the area near my house. My Rambo friend is one of the many thoughtful people in this city who would refuse to let me go home alone after a late evening, so he came along as an escort of sorts.
About three kilometers into the trip, our auto was driving along a main road in the middle of a high construction zone (there is a huge metro-expansion project in full swing). Suddenly, I was distracted from Rambo’s conversation by the jerking response of our auto as it was nudged on the right side by a motorcycle with two passengers. As my arms flew up, one of the motorcyclists arms reached in and grabbed my backpack from my lap before speeding up to weave through the heavy traffic ahead.
As I watched my bag drive away, I knew I would probably never see it again. I reluctantly told Rambo that the bikers had taken the backpack, and he switched into action, speaking rapidly in another language to the driver of our auto rickshaw while I stared at the empty space on my lap thinking “At least I still have the flute and the roses.” After getting out of the auto, Rambo and I speed-walked back to my apartment, talking through the list of things that had been in the bag and outlining a game plan for our next steps.
A fact of life in South Asia is that sometimes, things that you want to work just do not work, like Wi-Fi. Normally, I can laugh and shrug at the fact that my laptop seems to be the only one in our house that cannot pick up a signal, because I live with giving roommates who will always lend a computer in emergency situations. In a sick twist of irony and Murphy’s Law, Rambo and I arrived at my apartment on an evening when the Wi-Fi was completely and utterly dead. With no functioning phones of our own and no internet service, my roommate did a rain dance in front of our router while Rambo magically reconfigured his phone to make international calls.
When I reached my dad on his cell phone, it went directly to his car phone, and I had to fight my way through the delighted and surprised din of British and American voices in his car before asking him to cancel my bank accounts. A quick “I love you” later, Rambo was back on his phone interfacing with the police, who could not seem to find my apartment.
“The Locust Effect” by Gary Haugen posits that a functioning public justice system is the lynchpin to development. In his analysis of the South Asian public justice system, Haugen systematically outlines all of the ways in which the colonial remnants of British rule in South Asia still serve to protect the powerful from the poor, instead of serving the needs of the common man (let alone the poor). The resources that most developed countries have for basic on-the-ground police work (forms, computers, good translation services, adequate facilities, a fair wage for police, etc) are just not allocated to the grass root levels of the South Asian police system. As I watched the public justice system in action on this particular evening, Haugen’s words refused to leave my mind.
After three phone calls for directions, policemen from three different jurisdictions of my area began to trickle through my door. With Rambo’s helpful language skills, it still took over an hour for the policemen to establish the jurisdiction in which I should file the First Information Report to the police. In order to avoid more trips outside at night, Rambo convinced the policemen from the established jurisdiction to come out to our apartment and take my statement, which involved me writing the details of the event on a clipboard of unlined computer paper.
After taking my statement, I watched as the policeman apologetically told Rambo (in another language) that they see many of these cases every day. There is, in fact, a back log of similar bag-snatching cases in this particular police station. The chances of seeing my bag again are slim. Regardless, Rambo assured me that he would follow up with the police to ensure that my case would be typed up, filed, and properly registered (which it was, after I was misidentified as a citizen of another country).
Despite all the ways in which the initial intake of my formal complaint could be considered frustrating and inadequate to a person from a developed country, there were certain things about that evening that resulted in me getting better treatment than most in my city. First, I am a white, “Western” foreigner. That fact alone means that I probably get treated with a higher level of attention and respect by police than most of my native friends. When many police look at me, they don’t see a 24-year old idealistic intern; many of them see someone empowered who expects the public justice system to work for them, someone who will follow up with a case until it is fairly processed. Additionally, I had an experienced and forceful advocate in my friend Rambo. He knew the police system well and was able to orchestrate the case-filing through the fog of everyone else’s jurisdiction confusion. Furthermore, Rambo and I speak fluent English and understand what information needs to be recorded in a police report in order for a strong case to be filed. There are so many ways in which my situation put me in a position to receive more deferential treatment than many other people who find themselves in similar situations in the same city, and yet the process still struck me as ineffective and potentially useless.
The meaning of IJM’s work in the context of South Asia seems all the more audacious to me after my brush with “the system”. In the face of a system that has the potential to break down at so many points, my colleagues work to fight bonded labour with a relentless and determined hope in the fact that positive change can happen. And that change continues to happen, slowly, and at so many levels of the public justice system. We see it happen on the ground, in the way rescues are conducted and cases are registered, we see it in the conversations that government officials are having about the need to address egregious exploitation, and we see it in the discussion surrounding crucial legislation in South Asia.
So many things have to go well in order for IJM’s work to be successful, meaning that every rescue is all the more of a miracle. Earlier this week, I had the honor of hearing the recounting of a story about a recent rescue involving 179 people, all of whom are now walking freely. In this case, IJM was blown away by the ways in which the government officials of that area stepped up and did what was necessary in order to bring justice to otherwise voiceless people.
Even after a year and a half of getting to work with IJM, I love that I am energized by the hope of my colleagues in the face of overwhelming instances of human cruelty. It continues to be MY pleasure.