I) INTRODUCTION: WHY IDIA?
National Law Universities (NLUs), widely seen as the pre-eminent legal institutions in India, have become increasingly elitist over the years and there is a noticeable lack of diversity within the student population. A variety of factors have contributed to this, including the extremely high fees charged at these institutions, an entrance examination that now requires extensive and expensive coaching as a pre-requisite, and most importantly, a lamentable lack of awareness about law as a career option amongst underprivileged communities.
The net result is that the current student composition in many of these law schools lacks any serious diversity and comprises mainly of English-medium educated students from urban middle class or upper middle class families. The numbers from rural areas, small towns or non-English vernacular medium schools are comparatively low. In addition, NLUs also suffer from under-representation from the economically and socially backward classes, the disabled classes, minority communities, etc.
The IDIA project, therefore, seeks to find ways to reach out to under-represented communities, with the objective of making them aware of the benefits of law as a viable, lucrative career option and help those interested to gain admission into these law schools. It is hoped that such access to legal education would go some way towards empowering the students and the communities that they belong to.
This will serve two ends. Firstly, arming these under-represented communities with the “tool of the law” will not only improve the condition and status of their lot, but also contribute to the creation of a just and fair society in the long run. Secondly, an increase in diversity (in student backgrounds) would make for a more optimal mix of views and perspectives at such law schools and consequently enrich the process of education itself.
In short, facilitating greater access to legal education will improve diversity at law schools and various other legal institutions (law firms, NGOs, etc. that hire such law students) and contribute to the empowerment of marginalized communities.
II) THE IDIA PROCESS IN MOTION
First, volunteers identify areas/schools based on local contacts and availability of resources. Thereafter, they travel to such areas/schools and sensitize the students of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth standard (as the case may be), their parents and their teachers as to the benefits of a legal education and law as a possible career worth pursuing. The volunteers then identify promising candidates based,inter alia, on a basic aptitude test conducted after the sensitization programme.
A) IDIA Coverage and Sensitization
Given that the idea for the IDIA project first grew out of NUJS, Kolkata, the project began with a focus on West Bengal and the North East.
In course of time, the IDIA project expanded out to several other states. The underlying idea is to make this a pan-India student movement with volunteers visiting schools across the length and breadth of India to identify candidates with potential from under-represented communities and to sensitize them to law as a career option. IDIA has successfully created collaborative local networks with law schools, law firms, NGOs etc. that are operational in different parts of India.
We expect that local networks would drive the project from their end; we will advise and share study material and processes that we create to help them in this task. Today, we have local chapters operating out of New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ranchi, Jodhpur, Gangtok, Bhopal, Cochin, Gandhinagar, Bangalore, Chennai, Guwahati, Bhubaneswar, Lucknow, Patna, Cuttack and Hyderabad.
B) CLAT Training
Once promising students (called “IDIA scholars”) are identified, volunteers guide them through the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) process and train them for the CLAT exam. CLAT is currently one of the biggest “access” bottlenecks insofar as candidates from under-represented areas are concerned. Therefore, assisting students to write the CLAT is one of the most critical components of this diversity project. We have been lucky enough to have IMS, a leadingCLAT training centre, agree to give us study material free of cost for distribution and train our scholars for free. We intend to impart CLAT training through online educational platforms as well as prepare compendiums/modules within the resource-constraints that we work under.
Since many students come from non-English speaking backgrounds, we are administering training for spoken and written English language as well. We administer this component through a combination of online and offline modules and through collaborations with institutions and groups that are already engaged in this area.
Amongst the students who do well in our aptitude test, we select students from under-represented communities, based primarily on their parents’ combined income as a parameter. Other markers, though secondary, are gender, ethnic background, disability, etc. to ensure an optimally diverse mix of IDIA scholars. However, our initial focus is only on students who qualify as economically disenfranchised and those that are differently-abled or disabled.
Most law schools have seats allotted for certain “reserved” categories including SC/ST and persons with disability (PWD). By creating more awareness amongst marginalized communities, it is hoped that this project would also result in a larger pool of deserving candidates applying for these reserved seats.
C) Funding IDIA Scholars
Once under-represented students make it through the CLAT, it is hoped that the various law schools sympathetic to this project would offer them a partial or full tuition fee waiver or scholarship, if they fall below a certain income level. At the moment, NUJS and NLSIU have a committed policy towards fee waivers in favor of low-income students. We are currently negotiating with other Universities to institute similar policies.
If Universities cannot provide waivers or fee reductions, we try and provide funds out of a general pool that we collect as grants from donors, including law firms, lawyers, law teachers, students and others who support the cause. In fact, donors could institute scholarships for such students in their name if they wish. Monies provided to students out of scholarship funds would also be used to cover living expenses and other expenses related to the purchase of books, laptops, etc. We are also trying to persuade law schools to offer some part-time jobs in the library, etc. so that they are able to earn some pocket money to take care of stipendiary expenses. We will also request local lawyers and law firms to offer them assignments for remuneration which will also ease the financial burden. If need be, we also propose to approach banks and other financial institutions for loans. Finally, we are attempting to encourage the government (both the Central and State) and industrial houses to institute specific scholarships for this purpose. Where no scholarships or fee waivers are available, IDIA volunteers shall help the IDIA scholars to avail of bank loans at reasonable rates of interest.
We advertise the existence of scholarships widely for deserving students to encourage wider participation in our programme by prospective candidates from villages and small towns. Such advertisements will be published and aired in the vernacular media, radio, etc. to reach our target communities.
D) The Legal Bias
Another obstacle to “access” from under-represented students and areas is the current perception of law as a career option. In a sensitization programme undertaken by a CLAT training centre, a school principal had a volunteer thrown out stating that he did not want any of his students to take up the “dirty” profession of law! To address this cultural bias against law, the following measures have,inter alia, been undertaken:
Both print as well as digital media articles (in regional languages) and TV programmes that highlight the benefits of pursuing law as a career option. In particular, the multifarious avenues of employment (law firms, in-house positions, NGOs, academia, LPOs, policy level advocacy, etc.) open to the present day law graduates are stressed;
Intensive awareness programmes during visits to schools to sensitize students, teachers and parents, to law as a career option, wherever possible;
Efforts to encourage groups of school representatives and parents of students from such schools to participate in “open days” i.e. visits to law school campuses to get an idea of law school education and prospects of employment. An open day can provide a great opportunity for prospective students, their parents and teachers, to see the various programmes and activities an NLU can offer. To facilitate such open days, the IDIA volunteers would encourage all law schools in India to conduct them.
Improvise on our earlier website and develop a more vibrant online component to sensitise eligible students, teachers and parents to the profession of law and its viability as a good career option will be maintained.
E) Collaborative/Participatory Approach
The project aims at engendering a collaborative participation approach and encourages as many volunteers (law students, lawyers and other well-wishers) to participate in this process by approaching schools in their area and training selected candidates. To this end, we aim at creating an online platform in the form of a website and blog etc. to encourage the participation of law students, faculty and others across India in this project. In particular, we have put together publicity kits containing information pertaining to the various law schools and brochures explaining the prospects of a good legal education and the attractiveness of law as a career.
As mentioned earlier, the project looks for ways to effectively advertise the fact that under-represented communities from which students with inadequate financial means hail will secure scholarships and other funding to enable them to study at any law school of their choice.
The process of hand-holding of the IDIA scholars does not stop with students clearing the CLAT. Candidates who clear the CLAT are also allotted mentors in law schools to guide them and to ensure that they are not rendered as “misfits” or “socially awkward” in law schools but hone their talents and abilities to their fullest potential. Further, if any of them is supported through contributions from lawyers or other students or alumni, such sponsors take on the role of mentors as well. The hope is that the candidates will be able to optimally leverage their legal education and make an informed choice as to their career at the end of their course. Law schools across India are being encouraged to frame policies in this regard to ensure an optimally diverse environment for students hailing from varied backgrounds.
III) THE PILOT PROJECT AT PELLING
IDIA officially began with a pilot project executed in Pelling, a remote small town in Western Sikkim, where the following was done:
We sensitised students and faculty to the prospects of completing a good legal education and the attractiveness of law as a career option.
We conducted a test amongst students of Class XI to identify those with legal and logical reasoning skills required for clearing the CLAT.
We identified 8 of the most promising candidates based on the test results, candidates backgrounds (primarily economic condition) and discussions with school teachers.
We made arrangements for the provision of free internet access to such students through tie-ups with local cyber cafes so as to foster CLAT training via online platforms. We encouraged students proficient in IT to train other students. We also selected the most dynamic of the selected students as the group leaders to keep the group motivated and to liaise with us.
We have been encouraging other interested students from Pelling (with adequate financial means) to apply to the law schools and to prepare for cracking the CLAT, perhaps by enrolling in the programmes of various CLAT training centres. Wherever possible, our effort was to provide informal support to such students.
IV) INSTITUTIONAL ANCHORING
While the project was initially conceptualized and operationalised out of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WB NUJS), the intention was to slowly grow it into a pan-India student-run movement. Today we see mass collaboration among the IDIA volunteers and a completely decentralised approach being utilised towards achieving the goals of this project.
A trust, headquatered in Banglore, has also been created to institutionalise the project, with the following trust members: Prof. M. P. Singh, Justice Ruma Pal, Mr. Shishira Rudrappa and Prof. Shamnad Basheer.
V) LIKELY IMPACT
At the very minimum, this project is likely to lead to greater overall awareness towards law as an enriching career amongst students across the length and breadth of India. At a more specific level, it is hoped that this project will result in more students from economically disenfranchised backgrounds and hitherto marginalised/disadvantaged communities benefiting from quality legal education from the top law schools of India. This is likely to empower them and the communities they represent. In fact, we will specially seek to ensure that any student who is offered free CLAT training and free legal education will contribute to their own communities in specific and meaningful ways.
Further, the entry of such students to the current student composition of the various law schools would contribute to “diversity” and enrich the very process of legal education and benefit the University, students and the profession alike. Indeed, the legal profession would also gain with this increase in diversity and representation from hitherto unrepresented communities. At some point of time in the future, the project will also seek to actively encourage law firms and other legal outfits to facilitate greater diversity and promote greater access in favour of the marginalised communities by inter alia applying more conscious hiring choices.
VI) PARTICIPATION IN IDIA
We welcome your active participation in the project by volunteering in any of the following activities:
Spreading the word: It could as simple as sensitising the people in your immediate environment (chaiwallah outside your campus, your maid at home, your office peon, etc.) to law as a viable career option, the availability of scholarships/ fee waivers/ bank loans at reasonable rates of interest to study at the premier legal institutions and free coaching to clear the entrance exams to such law schools. We have initiated something along these lines at WB NUJS (called the “Diversity begins at home” project) and are actively speaking with the children of all our support staff, cleaning staff, gardeners, etc. to encourage them to take up the study of law.
If possible, you could speak to any contacts you may have in the media to help spread the word or connect us to school networks, government contacts, etc. that can help us reach out to more schools. You could also help us by:
- Speaking to people who are likely to be interested in funding this project and instituting specific scholarships, etc.;
- Speaking to the administration of various law schools and sensitising them to this project and requesting them to have policies that will aid this project (such as by instituting scholarships for poor students, etc.).
You could offer to visit schools in your area. We request all students and lawyers to at least visit their own school and encourage more students to take up the profession of law.
You could also mentor those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who enter law schools and find it difficult to navigate in the initial years (both academically and socially).
You could even offer to help prepare materials for CLAT training and/or to physically train students for the CLAT.
Specifically, we would appreciate any offers to help with the English training component considering that a number of brilliant students fail to clear the CLAT because of their lack of proficiency in the English language.
Join any of the local chapter of IDIA that have been set up to help implement the project in different parts of India.
IDIA is a pan-India effort with volunteers sensitising schools and students across the country to the wonders of law as a career option. To this extent, our focus is on creating processes and materials that can be used by any interested third party. We are particularly looking for collaborative networks with students, faculty, law firms, NGO’s and other interested persons and/or institutions in different parts of India.