Sunday, May 19, 2024

Changing Lives

For the past eight years, a young lawyer and his team have been training marginalized teens for law entrances and spreading the message of equality and social justice

By Sucheta Dasgupta

Change often springs from the loneliest of places, the poorest of homes. Sometimes, suffering has wings. This is the story of how a young lawyer chose to give up legal practice and start an initiative that has impacted the lives of scores of marginalized youngsters. They have not only dreamt the social justice dream but have also been trained to access education at India’s most prestigious law colleges. This is also their story.

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It all started eight years ago when Shamnad Basheer (39) stepped into the lecture hall of National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) in Kolkata. Basheer was a product of the National Law School in Bangalore and had practiced in a Delhi intellectual property law firm for about two-and-a-half to three years before leaving for Oxford to do his post-graduation. He then went to Washington for his first teaching job.

Basheer moved back to India after getting in touch with Prof MP Singh, NUJS’ visionary vice-chancellor, who was very keen on changing the face of legal education in India. Singh wanted to convert NUJS into a re-search hub and experiment with new pedagogical models.

Teaching at NUJS, Basheer soon realized that the class composition was such that when he picked up a topic like the Plant Varieties Act which touches agriculture, most of his students were unable to fully comprehend as they did not have any first-hand experience of an agricultural field. This was because over 95 percent students were from a very upper middle class privileged India.

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As Basheer says, “This would have been okay for any other educational institution but for law it was really stark because on the one hand, we were teaching things like fairness, equality, equity, constitutional values, inclusiveness, the idea of India and all of that, and on the other, our class composition was completely at odds with all the goals we were teaching because it was exclusionary and more than 95 percent of India was not represented in our classroom.

“This also included places like the North-east and Kashmir. There was severe under representation from marginal communities, Dalits, minority populations and other groups and unless we let these students into the room, we couldn’t really call ourselves a law institution teaching constitutional values.”

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So Basheer and Singh brainstormed the problem, even speaking to scholars from around the world, and thus IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access) was born. At this stage, there were three bottlenecks: English, the steep price of the application forms and the law school tuition fee that ran into `2-3 lakh a year. “Now, all the really good programs in law schools are the ones that are completely student-run. And so I said, let’s put power in the hands of the students. This serves two goals: One is that it works, and if you give them complete freedom and make it their baby, they tend to do a good job when you stand out of their way. Two, since many of these students are from upper middle class privileged India, this will give them a chance to get socially sensitized because they would be going into parts of India they would otherwise have never have gone to. It works both ways, it helps them, and it helps the project and it creates better lawyers down the line,” says Basheer.

As things stand today, IDIA has established its network in 17 states with a core team of eight full-time people and 400 student volunteers. Starting out from a government school in Pelling in west Sikkim, it has sent five batches of students to law colleges nationwide and currently supports the education of about 50 students. Its first batch is set to graduate this year.

So what is the methodology followed by IDIA? IDIA goes for a three-step procedure. It first reaches out to schools in towns and villages, for instance, to the Jawaharlal Nehru Vidyalayas in Warangal, Jodhpur and Jalore, attempting to generate interest in law. It also collaborates with NGOs such as Kranti in Mumbai. Kranti works with the children of sex workers. In Kolkata, it is working with transgender groups.

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Children who are interested are put through an aptitude test. The selection criteria include an annual family income bar of Rs 3 lakh. Cyber cafes are roped in to give the students access to free internet. After the initial online training, students are trained on a regular basis for CLAT (Common Law Admission Test) and AILET (All India Law Entrance Test) by IDIA student volunteers and two leading CLAT training centers in Bangalore and Delhi for 2-3 years.

And the efforts have paid off, and generated some wonderful success stories to cite. Meet 19-year-old Karthika Annamalai from a stone quarry on the outskirts of Bangalore. She is fatherless and her mother breaks sto-nes for a living. Karthika cleared CLAT in 2011 and is studying in NUJS. Last year, she went to Budapest to represent India at the World Policy Debate.

Then there’s Arindam Bhattacharya who has already landed a prized job with top-tier law firm Khaitan & Company. His annual family income is only Rs 50,000.

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In its first year, IDIA had picked up some students from a blind school in Hyderabad. Basheer himself had to convince universities to convert study material into Braille and digital format for them. Many of these students would be graduating this year. And not a single one has dropped out. In fact, one of them, from Nellore, will go on to appear for the civil service examination.

However, Basheer says he faced some problems convincing parents and teachers to send children to law school in the initial stages. “There is a lot of interest in pursuing medical and engineering professions, both parental and peer-driven, in Indian society. Few choose humanities and even fewer opt for law.”

“When we first went into the field, we realized that law had such a negative color about it. We were actually thrown out of two schools where the principals told us that there is no way they will let their students come into this ‘disgraceful profession’. Thanks to Bollywood, people consider lawyers to be cheats,” says Basheer.

Basheer says his team had to slowly “deconstruct this notion. So we took them back to basics and told them that the law is actually an empowerment tool. To fight oppression in society, it is a valuable weapon. Law gives you powerful vocabulary. The moment you study it, you get the power of persuasion. Law makes you a natural leader. Look at all our freedom fighters; they could advocate their cause because they came from a legal background”.

For many people, he says it is all about the connect. “We have to get them intellectually excited about the profession. The first time we went to the Northeast, there was this really bright girl from Pelling, whose parents had made up their minds that she had to be a doctor, but her heart wasn’t in that. From our interaction, we could tell that she would make a great lawyer. She was argumentative and thoughtful, and could put ac-ross a nice point of view. But she hadn’t considered law at all; she was passionate about trekking and the forest,” recounts Basheer. “So we asked her, what if somebody came and cut down your forest? They can’t do that, she said. Then we explained to her how law wo-uld help her fight against land-grabbers and protect the forest. Her eyes lit up and then, bang, she was in. This is how, she realized, she could make a difference,” says Basheer.

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Fundraising, however, remains a problem area for IDIA. When it started, the IDIA project was being run on personal funding and through donations from friends, but it has now reached a size which will make it unsustainable if corporate funding is not involved. Basheer  acknowledges the support he has received from one of his trustees, entrepreneur Shishira Rudrappa, who is also special adviser to the Karnataka chief minister. The finances were in such a bad shape that Basheer almost contemplated shutting IDIA down, and it was he who saved the day.

However, this year, IDIA has got some corporate funding from mass media and information firm Thomson Reuters.

 Basheer sure has come a long way but he has a long way to go. “We had a lot to learn along the way,” he says as he looks back.


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