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The IDIA of CLAT diversity faces challenges and funding woes, continues to book successes

Eager legal eagles all ears in Sikkim
Eager legal eagles all ears in Sikkim

It is dooms-hour at pre-law India Inc today. Around 30,000 of India’s elite-schooled senior secondary students and their parents, law entrance coaching centers, and law schools await the 12 May Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) results, over 12,000 saw NLU Delhi’s test results on 16 May.

The aspirants have careers to make, the coaching centers have reputations at stake, and cash registers are set to ring at the law schools. CLAT schools’ annual fee ranges from Rs 75,000 (RMLNLU Lucknow) to Rs 2.65 lakh (NUSRL Ranchi) and every aspirant tries to knock out 50 to 100 others off the race to be the one to pay it.

Two others are also hopefuls in this dance of ambitions: the Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education (IDIA) initiative staffers and the underprivileged scholars whom IDIA coaches and supports for law entrances, and hopefully through law school.

Even as most of the pre-law world takes a breather after the two exams it had been striving toward for the past year or two, IDIA’s team of eight in Bangalore, Delhi, and Kolkata is bracing itself for the storm of a funding gap that it’ll face after many from its current batch of 39 scholars, coached and mentored for free by around 400 student volunteers all over India, soon crack the CLAT. If all goes well.

Meanwhile two IDIA scholars already made it past the cut-off for NLU Delhi, and were last week promised a full fee waiver by the law school.

“Now, these are precisely the moments worth living for,” says Shouvik Kumar Guha, director operations at IDIA, “Feeling inordinately proud of the student [selected at NLU Delhi] and all the other members and colleagues [at IDIA] without whose tenacity and awesomeness this wouldn't have been possible. And sporting a large ear-to-ear grin like a cat that has just cornered the cream market.”

The cream market

The IDIA initiative - a brainchild of NUJS Kolkata professor Shamnad Basheer - was started in March of 2010 with a visit by Basheer and four NUJS students to a government school in Pelling, Sikkim. They gave career advice and administered an aptitude test to around 120 class 11 students to prepare them for the possible taking of CLAT and entry into law school next year.

The project identified bright students from financially backward Indian communities to coach them to write CLAT, and in its next phase went on to fund their law education if they gained admission. IDIA enters its fourth year having produced 34 fellows out of 100 total selected scholars. It has given a chance to more than 150 donors and partner organizations to give back to society.

Among IDIA’s scholars: a newspaper vendor who paid for his own CLAT coaching from his newspaper sale proceeds and finally made it into a national law school; a school drop-out who made it to one of the country’s finest after supporting his family working odd jobs; the daughter of a quarry worker in Karnataka; a visually challenged student.

IDIA’s bottomline lies not just in empowering the underprivileged through access to legal education, but also in increasing diversity at law schools, and in creating community-minded advocates.

“The world is going mad about diversity”, explains IDIA executive director Diptoshree Basu, “why would an Indian student want to miss out on it at the undergraduate level?”

Basu explains that Indian graduates are attracted by foreign universities not just for their infrastructure and research opportunities but also for their classroom diversity. Indian law schools, on the other hand, dominated by English speaking students from elite backgrounds are witness to the symptoms of a class-divide, despite reservations.

“When an IDIA scholar gets into law school everyone knows who he [or she] is. There is a huge emotional pressure on them just to identify themselves as an IDIA scholar,” notes Basu.

She recounts instances: a scholar who had to drop out of law school because she couldn’t cope with isolation from English-speaking hostel roommates and classmates, another who being visually impaired was left out of college outings well into his first year at a high-ranking law school, and then there are unabated comments – “Kya karoge in dehaatiyon ko yahaan laa kar” (Why bring these villagers into this law school).

On the other hand there is the silver lining of backing budding lawyers who are bent on giving back to the society that gave them a scholarship. “It is a pay-it-forward model. The scholars are already becoming leaders in their own community in a small way. Ultimately we hope that they are going to achieve our goal of becoming community-advocates,” she says.

Last year’s IDIA scholars GNLU Gandhinagar student Donnie Ashok and RGNUL Patiala student Vipan Kumar are case in point. While Ashok is now IDIA’s information technology expert, Kumar founded a new IDIA volunteer chapter last year.

The IDIA clockwork

IDIA’s activities round the year can be broadly divided into the following: its core function – aiding senior secondary scholars on the path to become law graduates, while sustainability is about finding donors and partners, sensitising scholars and parents, and policy work.

A core team of two directors of operations and a deputy director headed by an executive director performs these functions. The executive director Basu is a 2011 NUJS Kolkata graduate and former Khaitan & Co Delhi associate, while the two directors Guha and Arnab Roy are 2010 NUJS graduates and presently also research associates at NUJS. The deputy director Abhinandan Kundu is an NUJS student. A board of four trustees including managing trustee Basheer backs them.

20 chapters in 19 states of India and the north-east, with around 400 student volunteers under the 16 chapter heads assist IDIA in its core function and in sensitisation, which begin each year in July.

Between July and October the IDIA team visits around 40 Indian government schools, sensitises class 11 students toward law as a career, conducts aptitude tests which are tailor-made according to school levels and which are typically taken by around 80 students per school, shortlists roughly the top 15 per cent and screens them in further interviews.

It then visits the houses of the selected students to sensitise their parents, often reluctant, to the advantages of a legal career over the more traditional engineering and medical courses. It also conducts a background check for the students’ financial capabilities during this time. Every scholar becomes eligible to a customised funding limit, and not necessarily full funding.

“Convincing parents is more difficult than convincing the students. We have to take a lot of law school alumni [with us],” says Basu explaining that parents’ concerns range from IDIA’s motives and funding model to the viability of law as a career.

“I cannot tell them that you’ll make [Rs] 1 lakh per month if you do law from a law school. But we give them the entire bracket and all opportunities and how much money one can expect out of it. It’s a fact that unless they go to the top six law schools they don’t stand a very good chance [of making a lot of money in the very beginning] unless they’re in the top five of their batch.”

Scholars who finally enroll with the IDIA have access to its independently developed materials, classroom teaching and mentoring from its battery of volunteers, and help from its partner law entrance coaching centres Law School Tutorials (LST), IMS, Clatgk and Clatapult.

Their CLAT forms are purchased and completed for them, and their law school fee and other expenses are either fully paid for by the IDIA, or through IDIA’s efforts the fee is partially waived by the admitting law schools and the rest is covered by donors. Last year NLSIU Bangalore and NUJS offered a full fee waiver to IDIA scholars.

In addition to all this, each IDIA scholar has access to three kinds of mentors – an academic, a social, and an industry mentor – who meet the scholar regularly during law school.

The core team also works graveyard shifts to affect related policy changes. The gargantuan effort behind each scholar is faced with imminent eventualities: A policy change may affect disabled candidates. Last year, a visually impaired IDIA scholar had to drop out of a top Indian law school due to the absence of ramps in college.

“This year [the CLAT committee] did away with age-relaxation for persons with disability. Two of my scholars got affected. The [committee] did not come out with a notification about this and just very clandestinely removed it from [the CLAT] brochure,” says Basu who came across the hurdle seven days before the form submission deadline. She eventually managed to get this year’s convenor HNLU Raipur to restore the relaxation, on the basis of a University Grants Commission (UGC) circular she fished out.

The paper pattern of CLAT is another policy area the team is tackling at the moment. “We are trying to get CLAT to a level where it is a scientific exam that clearly tests the aptitude [of a candidate] and not the knowledge of law,” she notes adding that HNLU’s focus on static general knowledge (GK) questions in the test this year was unfairly disadvantageous to students who at best have access to, say, the All India Radio to know their GK.

Still a bony mass movement

The core team works on a modest budget with around Rs 12 lakh collectively available in total salaries each year. But just the CLAT form fee and law school expenses respectively cost Rs 3000 per form and Rs 8-10 lakhs for five years per selected scholar, including stipends of between Rs 2500 and Rs 4000 per month per scholar.

IDIA faces funding pressures of close to Rs 1 crore each year.

On top of that there is the very real possibility of law schools varying the fee year-on-year. Nalsar Hyderabad, for instance, announced in its brochure that there’d be a Rs 5000 increase in fee for students admitted last year.

On the micro-level there has been an enthusiastic response from donors – all CLAT forms this year were purchased by law school students or alumni, educational trusts such as the Birla Sanskriti, Prakash Educational Society, and Roshanlal Charitable Foundation have joined hands with IDIA, and partners from law firms such as Trilegal, AZB, Wadia Ghandy, Luthra & Luthra, Tatva Legal, Krishnamurthy & Co, J Sagar Associates (JSA), and Khaitan & Co have pledged support since the very beginning.

But micro-level funding does not a mass movement make, and IDIA does not even have a single corporate donor behind it to date. “We are trying to approach corporates but with corporates it is a long drawn process. Their legal team doesn’t have a [Corporate Social Responsibility] budget, there’s an overall CSR budget [for the company]. So we are able to convince the legal teams but to translate that into actual funding takes time.”

Basu told Legally India that 22 out of its 40 scholars last year got into various law schools by the end of CLAT season. But IDIA’s current 150 donors are all individuals, with the result that many scholars are still not covered for. Scholar-specific donations will help ease the pressure off the trust’s general coffers and help it create a sustainable model in financing every selected scholar’s education at law school.

“One thing we’re trying to do is we are trying to get government scholarships. But the reality we face in our country is that while too many scholarships [are available], when someone applies their application remains in [government offices] for more than six months,” she rues adding, “Similarly for banks. There is an RBI circular saying that banks cannot insist on collaterals for [education] loans below Rs 4 lakhs but banks make an excuse for [not sanctioning] the loans [if there are no collaterals].”

Basu says that if IDIA is not able to meet its fundraising targets by June, it is the next batch of prospective law aspirants who will bear the brunt. The number of schools to be visited will be cut down in order to get a smaller shortlist.

Other than money she also woes the lack of IDIA’s overall outreach in India. Despite 400 volunteers in various states, the organisation faces a crunch. Its study materials from 2010 are outdated and could do with a technical helping hand. IDIA could also use more manpower in the West, particularly around Bombay, and in fields other than law.

“There are two perceptions that we are constantly fighting. One is that a lot of people believe that [IDIA] is an NUJS initiative. Infact many of our best performing scholars have been trained by the Bangalore and Hyderabad chapter. Our largest volunteer team is from Nalsar – 65 volunteers. NUJS – 50 [volunteers], NLSIU – 30.”

“Second, if I want to convince someone from DU or an IIT [to volunteer] unless they come through someone who has been a part of IDIA, they are not open to it because they think that it is a national law school [preserve].”

In a country with minimal exposure to the modern avatar of a career in law, it is not too surprising that the only initiative emulating Bihar’s Super-30 engineering coaching is facing such roadblocks in its young years. Nor should it be depressing - if anything, the IDIA story gives hope that the legal profession as a whole is growing up.

Further details about the programme, and contact details for making contributions are available on the official website of the programme http://www.idialaw.com/support-idia.php

KEY IDIA DONORS

PARTNERS

LAW FIRMS

COMPANIES

AZB co-founding partner Ajay Bahl

General Electric – assists in strategizing senisitisations and mentoring scholars

Wadia Ghandy partners Shabnum Kajiji and Ashish Ahuja

Law School Tutorial – classroom and training partner

Trilegal partners Karan Singh and Sridhar Gorti

IMS – classroom and training partner

J Sagar & Associates partner Somasekhar Sundaresan

Clatapult – classroom and training partner

Khaitan & Co

LexisNexis – Knowledge sharing and promotion

Luthra and Luthra Law Offices

 

K Law co-founders Nikhil Krishnamurthy and Naina Krishnamurthy

OTHERS

National University of Singapore faculty member Umakanth V

Birla Sanskriti Trust

Ashok Ganesh Chandra Mrig

SEW Foundation

LAW SCHOOLS

NLSIU Bangalore class of 1999 – supports NLS 5 year LLB for one scholar

NLSIU Bangalore class of 2011 – supports Nalsar 5 year LLB for one scholar

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