Slum Justice

DIY arbitration in India


A new system that relies heavily on voluntary arbitration by female-dominated neighborhood councils, or panchayats, is changing the tenor of conflict in Indian slums. A March report in the Chicago Tribune notes that seven women, three men, and a single police officer have helped cut crime by 30 percent to 50 percent in their neighborhood within the massive slum of Dharavi, with many of the 230 panchayats in the Mumbai area showing similar results.

These ad hoc courts sit in judgment a few hours each day, dealing primarily with minor thefts, domestic abuse, squabbles about water rights, and other local issues. Though initially skeptical, police have come to support the panchayats: With their day-to-day legal needs met, witnesses to serious crimes are far more willing to cooperate with officials. The success of panchayats is especially surprising given that they operate without any formal powers to summon or sentence offenders.

Other nations, such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, have adopted the panchayat model, with officials from Thailand to South Africa expressing interest in importing the model to their own slums.