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Confederation of NLU grads drives to fund underprivileged students at lower-ranked NLUs, maybe more

Project Eklavya aims to help lift up NLU grads, hopes for more projects to improve access going forward
Project Eklavya aims to help lift up NLU grads, hopes for more projects to improve access going forward

Around 13 graduates of a number of national law universities (NLUs) have started an initiative called the CAN Foundation, which is short for Confederation of Alumni for National Law Universities.

CAN aims to raise funds from senior lawyers to help students with financial issues at primarily lower-ranked NLUs meet their tuition fees and other expenses.

Nearly 25 applications have been received by the original application deadline today, which has been extended to 8 November on the requests of several applicants, said CAN Foundation CEO Siddharth Gupta.

Gupta, who is a 2006 NLIU Bhopal graduate who practices in courts in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, said that CAN was started after several NLU alumni had been informally fundraising for needy students for several years, particularly in assisting Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) scholars requiring help in meeting tuition fees.

“Then we decided that we would be more organised if we had our own foundation,” he added about CAN Foundation, which was registered in August. “What we did, because most of us have good connections with senior advocates in the Supreme Court, we started reaching out and we told them our twin objectives are we’d be funding the fees of undergrads and poor and necessitous students throughout the country.”

This first project is dubbed Eklavya, which has already received commitments of up to Rs 15 lakh from senior advocates Vivek Tankha, Neeraj Kishan Kaul, Siddharth Luthra, Vikas Singh and Dhruv Mehta, according to its website.

Each of the seniors has contributed from between Rs 2.5 to Rs 5 lakh, said Gupta, to fund 10 to 15 students who get selected by CAN’s “scrutiny committee” of nine NLU grads.

Of this notional corpus, 15% would eventually be kept with the foundation to finance its operations, while the remaining 85% would be disbursed as scholarships.

The founders of CAN are Abhinandan Mishra (NLIU 2006 and Delhi bureau chief at the Sunday Guardian newspaper), Siddharth Srivastava (Link Legal India Law Services equity partner), Sankalp Kochar (NLIU 2007, practising advocate in Jabalpur), Ravikant Patidar, Manu Maheshwari (NLU Odisha 2014) and Aditya Khandekar (NLIU Bhopal 2012, Jabalpur-based advocate).

Application process

As of yesterday, around 110 students had registered but only around 25 had uploaded full documentation by today.

The application process is not without its challenges, requiring filling out a 12-page form with 22 different heads, including listing any existing scholarships, overdrafts or borrowings to finance their education, and requiring income tax returns of parents to prove annual family incomes of less than Rs 6 lakh per year, Gupta explained.

Also required are letters of recommendation from each applicants’ vice chancellor (VC) and an affidavit of both father and mother on notarised stamp paper guaranteeing that all material facts have been disclosed and there has been no suppression and that otherwise criminal prosecutions may be launched against them personally.

The due diligence is require to minimise the possibility of “ghost beneficiaries” or “spurious cases”, Gupta said.

Once all applications have been received (and the revised deadline has passed), the scrutiny committee of nine NLU graduates with a minimum of eight years of practice experience would evaluate all applicants.

That committee consists of Pragati Neekhra (additional advocate general, MP and Supreme Court advocate-on-record), Amalpushp Shroti (AOR, advocate MP high court (HC)), Arjun Harkauli (AOR, Advocate, Delhi HC), T Singhdeo (Delhi HC advocate), Rishad Ahmed Chowdhury (AOR, Delhi HC advocate), Talaha A Rehman (AOR), Divyakant Lahoti (AOR, advocate Delhi HC), Mrigank Prabhakar (AOR, advocate Delhi HC), Suhasini Sen (advocate Delhi HC).

The committee has been “given complete autonomy and independence and impartiality, to take a call of its own method of assessment, whether it wants to give marks, or whatever, and to shortlist the candidates”, said Gupta.

What will likely be considered are criteria under two heads: merit and means. The former includes students’ academic performance, publications, moot court and other extra-curricular achievements. The “means” head, would be decided broadly on parental income, the home region of an applicant (and whether this is particularly underdeveloped), as well as the NLU at which the applicant studies.

Ranking NLUs

“What we have done is divided compartmentalised NLUs into 3 tiers,” said Gupta.

Tier 1 includes the five oldest NLUs, plus one upstart that has upset the traditional pecking order: NLSIU Bangalore, Nalsar Hyderabad, NLU Delhi, NLIU Bhopal, NUJS Kolkata and NLU Jodhpur.

However, candidates from the next two tiers would have a clear preference in selection, according to Gupta.

Tier 2 consists of HNLU Raipur, GNLU Gandhinagar, RGNUL Patiala, RMLNLU Lucknow, CNLU Patna, Nuals Kochi, NLUO Cuttack, NUSRL Ranchi, NLUJA Guwahati and DSNLU Vishakhapatnam.

Tier 3 is made up of TNNLS Tiruchirapalli, MNLU Mumbai, MNLU Nagpur, HPNLU Shimla, MNLU Aurangabad, Dharamshastra National Law University Jabalpur and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar NLU Sonepat.

“Our major concern is the bottom 10-15 NLUs,” said Gupta. “It has been principally decided also, that we will give students from lower 10-15 [because] the top five already get a lot of funds from respective bodies.

“But the lowest rungs don’t get that much of support and finances.”

“We can never judge the person or capability of any candidates on the basis of university,” said Gupta. “It all depends on how much investment the government makes in it [the NLU], how much exposure students get, what is the standard of teaching and faculty there. If all these things are provided by any candidate, the ranking or the position of the NLU is absolutely irrelevant.

“It’s the candidate and graduates that provide name and fame of the university.”

NLS has had the advantage of early batches from the 1990s now having joined the judiciary, and senior positions or partnership at law firms or the bar, said Gupta. “We can’t say that just because some university has come up in the last two or three years, the students will not be able to fare well. I would rather put it like this: like you provide reservations and service employment benefits to backwards classes, or ST/ST reservation, in the same manner we feel in the CAN Foundation, we need to focus more on the tier 2 and tier 3 universities, which are yet to pass out and yet to establish themselves, and students are waiting for good exposure for themselves.”

Part of the reason to focus on the younger NLUs is also about a differentiation from IDIA, which Gupta said generally focused on the top five NLUs.

A different IDIA

IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access), founded by the late Prof Shamnad Basheer, has adopted a different model to tackling lack of access by training up to 70 underprivileged law aspirants per year (and also educating school kids about the option of a career in law) to dare to take and to crack the law entrance exams.

IDIA director Arnab Roy explained that IDIA, which currently has a total of nearly 110 scholars studying across various NLUs, did not only fund tuition fees of its scholars at the top NLUs by way of policy, though it was generally easier to do so.

For one, NLSIU Bangalore, NUJS Kolkata and NLU Delhi have committed to giving tuition fee waivers to IDIA students.

Second, Roy said, it has been easier to fundraise for scholars placed at the top NLUs. In part, that is because the older NLUs have more alumni, who may be more keen to sponsor students at their alma mater,

However, in several cases, donors have also come forward to sponsor students with compelling stories at other, younger NLUs such as NUSRL Ranchi.

Furthermore, many IDIA scholars who did not crack the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) for admission to an NLU, would go on to take (and succeed at) entrance tests at other non-national universities or institutions.

IDIA’s latest batch consisted of nine to 10 NLU entrants.

Final stages

At CAN, once the scrutiny committee had made its selection, its report would be forwarded to the foundation, which would be vetted by senior advocates Vikramjeet Banerjee and Gopal Sankaranarayanan (who are both NLSIU Bangalore graduates).

Then the senior counsel donors would be given the list, who would be requested to release the promised amounts, which would be handed over in a ceremony as cheques to the successful applicants at a ceremony with two or three sitting chief justices, said Gupta.

That said, the question of Project Eklavya’s scaleability is yet to be established, and the risk remains that this may discourage NLUs from setting up their own robust scholarship programmes.

In future years, successful candidates may also re-apply to get continued support, according to Gupta, in-part dealing with the issue of this only being a temporary band-aid.

Next steps

But Project Eklavya is just the first stage for CAN.

“We’ll be learning every year,” said Gupta, noting that whatever CAN learns from its pilot will be funnelled into Project Dhananjay.

Project Dhananjay would aim to make the entrance to the bar, which is notoriously financially unattractive at first, easier for graduates.

Gupta said: “All students who are otherwise meritorious but do not come into court practice or litigation purely because of financial reasons, or who may not be able to place themselves in practice, we plant them with some good senior counsel or filing office, and we will pay them a stipend, one year, of Rs 15,000 a month.”

The senior counsel or office would be requested to match that amount, so those selected could expect to start out at stipends of up to Rs 35,000, according Gupta.

Lobbying for NLUs?

For now, trying to get the central government to loosen its purse strings (such as by the unlikely prospect of it nationalising NLUs) is not on CAN’s agenda.

“We ourselves are a nascent organisation, our primary concern is that we should be able to fund our students,” said Gupta. But, once CAN had the “connect in the judiciary and the executive”, a primary objective of CAN could be to get funding for NLUs equivalent to what India Institutes of Technology or Management (IITs and IIMs) received from the centre.

“They [IITs and IIMs] get annual grants from say, what I have been told, Rs 30 to 40 crore each. Our focus would be that law is a fundamental part of society.”

Improving the quality of legal education would “contribute phenomenally” to governance, he noted. “Any developing country, particularly third world country like India, can not afford to ignore NLUs.”

“Certain funds have to be earmarked, at least 50 crore Rupees to every NLU,” said Gupta, including perhaps in the way of support for weaker sections of society to study law.

“If the central government adopts all these things and starts earmarking funds, then organisations like CAN or IDIA would have no role at all,” he added. “That would be utopia.”

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