An ‘IDIA’ whose time has come: Special Feature from the Sunday Indian !!


Our Einsteins live in our villages: that assertion by Dr CNR Rao, principal scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, has found an echo in the spirit that drives Shamnad Basheer's dream project, 'Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) in legal education’. “Our Palkhivalas are in our villages,” he could well be saying.

Does the late jurist and economist Nani Palkhivala need an introduction? In a nation driven by the "either-a-doctor-or-an-engineer" credo, he probably does. And that explains why legal education remains out of bounds for large swathes of India.

In June, a project team engaged in the IDIA sensitisation programme in Tumkur, Karnataka, faced a similar situation. As a part of the programme, some clippings of famous lawyers such as Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Jawaharlal Nehru, SM Krishna, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were played. Surprisingly, the students seemed most excited when told that Malavika Avinash, a Kannada television actress, was a lawyer who graduated from the National Law School of India University. In fact, the number of students who recognised Malavika was far more than those who could identify the US President.

After the IDIA pilot project at Pelling, Sikkim, Prof Basheer admitted one of the main challenges: "Some of our brightest students (in Sikkim) who had done well in the aptitude test and seemed eager to seriously consider law as a career faced resistance from parents and teachers because they wanted them to be either doctors or engineers.” The situation is similar in Basanti High School in the Sunderbans. Here the IDIA team realised that school students had little idea about law as a career. Though they had heard of the three-year course they did not have any idea about the five-year integrated course that the National Law University offers.

But the team IDIA still believes that “if all goes well, we can all hope that a legal Phunsuk Wangdu (the protagonist of 3 Idiots) will come out of a National Law University soon. After all, the 400 patents of the fictional Phunsuk Wangdu will need a good patent attorney!”

With this notion, IDIA the ‘mass movement’ for a more diverse legal profession, kicks off at WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. IDIA is an initiative of the institute to make law education popular among economically and socially backward classes, the minorities, ethnic groups and the physically challenged.

The national law schools are widely seen as the preeminent legal institutions in India. But over the years these institutions have turned into elitist hubs with a severe lack of representation from marginalised sections, particularly economically weaker sections. A variety of factors have contributed to this, including the extremely high fee structures, an entrance examination (CLAT) that now requires extensive and expensive coaching as a prerequisite, and most important, a lamentable lack of awareness about law as a career among low income students in small towns, rural areas and non-mainstream institutions

The net result is that the current student composition in many of these law schools lack any serious diversity and comprise mainly English-medium educated students from middle class or upper middle class families. The numbers from rural areas, small towns or non-English speaking schools are deplorable. 

IDIA seeks to find ways to reach out to the hitherto marginalised and under-represented groups and help those interested to acquire admission to law schools. It is hoped that such access to legal education in favour of the marginalised and under-represented would empower them and the communities that they represent. According to Prof Basheer, who heads the project: “An efflux of diverse student populations would make for a more optimal melting pot of views and perspectives at such law schools and consequently enrich the process of education.”

The programme has already travelled to Murshidabad and Pelling (in Sikkim). For the immediate future, apart from Bengali medium schools in Kolkata, southern India (Kerala) and central India (Chhattisgarh) will be covered. Keeping CLAT in mind, earlier this year, NUJS student Ramanuj Mukherjee, under the inspection of the university, independently launched an online social networking platform “CLAThacker: don't just crack CLAT, come hack CLAT with us”. The main idea is to help those from poorer backgrounds to "crack" the CLAT online. Not only that, in June IDIA Hyderabad conducted an aptitude test in an intermediate college run by Devnar Foundation in Ranigunj, Hyderabad.

Talking to TSI, Mr Mukherjee expressed concern regarding the present scenario in legal education, “I can still remember when I decided to quit medical school after a year and get into NUJS, an army of relatives/well-wishers/acquaintances descended upon my parents asking how they could allow me to do something so "stupid"! Thankfully, my parents are of the opinion that children should be allowed to choose their own careers. But how many parents in India think along the same lines?”

No doubt this is a great effort by the NUJS team. But will it at all be helpful for the masses? Questions have already started emerging. As one NUJS alumnus speculates, “A diverse selection of students would mean that more students would opt to litigate - their command over their local languages, added with premier education, would be an advantage that the entire legal community in the country will benefit from. But the fact is most of those who account for a majority of the students in law schools, do not litigate. Most actually opt for a comfortable life with a high-paying desk job instead of running around in courts and learning the "real" stuff.”

“But yes, the fact remains that we need more "good" lawyers from different walks of life - law is, after all, meant for everyone, and not just for a high-flying, English-speaking bunch,” he says. That is why the idea that IDIA has come up with is so welcome.

Source: Sunday Indian

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