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Professor S. S. Singh is the current Director of the National Law Institute University, Bhopal (NLIU). In this interview with Bar & Bench he talks about his interest in law, his time at the Indian Institute of Public Administration and the challenges of leading a national law school.
Bar & Bench: Could you tell us a bit about how you entered the world of law?
Professor SS Singh: I belong to Benaras, Varanasi. I did a B.Sc. there and then I came to Jabalpur University to do a Masters in Botany. But I got admission in Chemistry. After attending 15 days of college, the Principal told me, “I think you should do law”. So I took admission in the LL.B. course. This was in 1973.
The Department of Law in Jabalpur University, at that time, was one of the best departments. And Professor N. Singh, who was a product of Harvard University, was a professor in that department. He was the only Professor of Law in the entire state of Madhya Pradesh. I gradually developed an interest in law, and my confidence levels started increasing once I interacted with post-graduate students. I began to think, “If he can do law, then why can’t I?” So I joined the Masters program and even managed to get a gold medal. So that was a further boost. I was eventually appointed as lecturer and for more than six years I taught jurisprudence, administrative law, and Indian and English legal history.
Then I saw an advertisement for Reader in Administrative Law at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) and I joined the IIPA in 1985. Later on, in 1992, the IIPA created the post of Professor in Justice and Administration, a unique designation, which was given to me. After spending about 24 years at IIPA, I joined NLIU in June of 2008.
B&B: So after two and a half decades at IIPA, how did you land up at a national law school?
PSS: In fact, it was my desire to come back to Madhya Pradesh. What I am now is only because of the State. So I wanted to return in the latter half of my career. I wanted to do something positive for this institution. That was what drove my decision to join NLIU and I am quite satisfied with my contribution to the institute.
Before joining here as the Director, when the institution was not functioning in this campus, Professor V.S. Rekhi was the Director. He invited me to take some lectures. I would take classes here for a week and teach Administrative Law. Basically I am a teacher, so whether it is bureaucrats or fresh students, it does not matter to me.
In fact, I can bring in interesting facts for fresh students since I have interacted with bureaucrats who have actually applied the law. No fresh teacher in the university will have the knowledge gained from [a teaching] experience with bureaucrats. So I enjoy my teaching and I think the students also appreciate this.
B&B: What were the initial years like? Did you find it difficult to switch from teaching to being more of an administrator?
PSS: It was enjoyable actually. [It was] an entirely different cultural setting, a different behavioural pattern. In the first year, I was not very comfortable with certain things. I wondered whether I had made the right decision to shift from Delhi to NLIU. However, because temperamentally I am always prepared to face challenges, I ended up enjoying the experience.
When I joined here, the campus was entirely barren, it was just a hillock. Fortunately, one of my students [from IIPA] was the Principal Secretary of the Department of Forests at that time. In the first faculty meeting, I told them that I was not here for a job, I was on a mission. I told them that I do not believe in repeating what others are doing; I believe in doing something different which others will follow.
B&B: And what do you think was the biggest challenge that you faced in the initial years?
PSS: Well, I wouldn’t say there was one particular challenge. I find this group of students [that enters NLIU] very sensible and sensitive. This is the age group where they do not know what is to be done. If there is the right guidance and a confident leadership, they will do what the leader wants them to do.
B&B: With regard to the trimester system, don’t you think that it is too hectic?
PSS: It is hectic and there is pressure on the students. But if you give them too much time, they will do all sorts of nonsense. By now, I am fully aware of what is happening where. As far as the things which emerge under the influence of other law universities, my approach has always been to convince them that [such influences] are not good for their future.
B&B: What do you think about having multiple project submissions every semester?
PSS: Yes, there is a scope for improving this process. For instance, we can introduce group writing for projects. Instead of only asking for projects in a routine manner, there can be a different way of evaluation. There are so many methods that we could use.
Let me also mention that one of the things I did at NLIU was to improve the classroom, make it more attractive for the students. I don’t want them to complain that this is a boring place; there are LCD projectors in every classroom which the faculty can use. Of course to provide such facilities, one has to generate resources.
B&B: So how do you generate the resources for this?
PSS: What I did was use my contacts in the IIPA. I created Chair Professorships for different central Ministries.
B&B: Did you also create the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Cyber Law?
PSS: That was there before I joined NLIU, though it was all on paper. I got the building completed. Even this office was constructed during my tenure. Six buildings are currently under construction.
B&B: Don’t you require State funding for such construction? Or are the student fees enough?
PSS: No, it is not about the fees. This thinking of the students that they are the masters and that they are paying for it, I have broken that [trend]. Now I tell them that we are giving subsidy to you. The University Grants Commission provides a large amount of funds, it is for the institution to take it. I got more than Rs.12 crore last year.
B&B: Is it possible to reduce the fees?
PSS: A time will come when that will be reduced. It might happen. Even when we increase the fees, we do so by two or three thousand rupees.
B&B: So what is the fraction of costs which the fees contribute?
PSS: You know, linking fees with the running costs is not very fair. For example, the salary paid to teachers has increased three-fold. Do you see a three-fold increase in the fees we charge?
B&B: What is your opinion of the students at NLIU?
PSS: I have one complaint against my students. I tell them that for four and a half years, I invest a crore of rupees in the library every year but for whom? For whom has the facility been provided? I never see the reading section full of students. I have never had a student come up to me and say “Sir, there is a shortage of chairs. Increase the number of chairs.” I am waiting for that kind of complaint.
So that is the challenge posed by the administration to the students. Get the library packed. I will be the happiest person on earth.
B&B: But aren’t the library timings insufficient?
PSS: What do you mean by that? I have extended the timings up to 9 pm. But I am not a person who will support the Bangalore model of keeping the library open till four in the morning. I have to manage the institution and also protect it from outside influence. I cannot stand in the back of any queue. I will form my own queue.
B&B: The CLAT system has come under some criticism in the past. What do you think of the CLAT examination system?
PSS: The problem is that we want things to be 100% perfect from the very beginning. Nothing is 100% complete in the world. [NLSIU] Bangalore conducted CLAT, there was a problem. Nalsar conducted CLAT, there was a problem. I conducted CLAT in 2010, there was no problem. So it is a learning process; where you learn by doing. You have to practice. If there are some problems, we will rectify it. It is a common responsibility of all the fourteen law schools.
B&B: Do you think fourteen law schools is too large a number anyway?
PSS: If the policy of the government is to have one law school in every State, the number will only increase. What is wrong with this?
B&B: Don’t you think shortage of faculty will become a bigger problem?
PSS: Shortage of faculty is a problem faced by everyone including the IIM’s and the IIT’s. Somewhere you have to try. For instance, there are plans to have a one-year LLM course so that we can retain our own students. And you might be surprised to know that I myself have made offers to some students to join as faculty even though they had only a LL.B. degree.
B&B: What do you think makes a good teacher?
PSS: The first thing is the command over the subject. The second thing is your ability to communicate; you should be able to reach out to the student. And you also have to find out the level of the class. The first lecture is not for introducing the subject that you are going to teach but understanding the classroom, understanding from what level you need to start.
For instance, at IIPA, I remember taking a class on law and I was going on about ultra vires and the Constitution when an army officer asked me, “Sir can you first please explain what ultra vires means?”
At the courses in IIPA there are army officers, navy officers, IAS, and other Central services. Some of them have an LL.B. degree, some of them are an M.A. in History etc. And my task is to teach them Administrative Law. Same is the case here. Some students are from science, some from commerce etc. We have to bring all of them together and then teach them. A teacher has to be aware of what the student needs to know.
Teaching is a passion. Those who do not have a passion for teaching should not join this profession. This is not a profession for earning money. You cannot become a Tata or a Birla by being a professor. But, if you are an excellent teacher, you will always be respected by your students. If I will ask you to name your good teachers, how many will you name?
Not too many, right? So everywhere, [the faculty] is a combination of good, bad and poor.
At this stage what I will say is that if I can create a situation where I will bring you to a point where you can think. I challenge my students. They are free to contradict me. After all, knowledge is simply the ability to ask questions.
For instance, question how you have planned your twenty four hours. What have you done, what have you achieved. What are the useful things, what are the non-useful things. And introduce correctional measures. A right question will lead to the right answer. You have to develop the ability to question.
B&B: How do you teach someone to question?
PSS: Well it is not that difficult. For instance suppose one of my students is very hard working but his grades are not very good. I tell him to sit for an hour, and retrospect. He should analyse how he came to a certain conclusion, whether there was any other conclusion possible. Are there any alternatives? You have to become the evaluator of your own product.
See, two plus two equals four is known to the entire world. But how that will be presented and where that will be presented, this varies from speaker to speaker.
B&B: What is your opinion on student elections?
PSS: You could say that I am a backward kind of person when it comes to student elections in a professional institution. The very fact that students have joined this institution means they have a very clear-cut target. The student is here to achieve a particular goal in the best manner possible. If the student’s interest is to be a politician, than the best way is to go to a traditional law faculty, not here.
Can you give me any example where a student’s union or a student’s bar, the leader of that, whether from medical or engineering college, have done better than the students who are committed to the profession?
Also, the system is so small and open. There is a 100% transparency in every aspect. The evaluation is shown in the classroom, the attendance is provided through SMS. The exam results are provided through SMS as well as to the parents. And now I am bringing all these things on the website.
Some people started questioning the financial management of the institute. So I am bringing an annual report along with a financial audited report and I am putting that on the website. The world should know how finances are being managed in the NLIU. I inherited this institution when it was in debt and when I leave it, it will be having an annual surplus.
B&B: So you are planning to leave NLIU?
PSS: Yes. Why not? My term is up to June 22 but I can leave before that. (smiles)
B&B: Aren’t you planning to stay on for another term?
PSS: What planning? Life is not planned. There may be a more demanding job for me elsewhere. I am satisfied with what I have done in four and a half years. This can match with the initial ten years [of the institute]. And that gives me great satisfaction.
B&B: In terms of student placements, are you happy with the institution’s performance?
PSS: Placement is good. I am quite happy with it. When it comes to placement, according to Outlook magazine, we are second in the country after Bangalore, slightly above Nalsar. In academics, we are number one. This might surprise you but see the points on the basis of which they are coming to this conclusion.
B&B: National law schools have often been criticised for largely producing lawyers who work in corporate firms. What is your opinion on this?
PSS: My opinion is that they should not concentrate on this. Everything has a limitation; the saturation point can be reached in any area. What I advise my students is that if they are sound in academics, they will be in demand in any field. So I tell them to not give a second preference to their academic soundness. One question I place before the entire faculty is ‘how does one increase the academic rigours at NLIU’.
Harvard is not dying for placements. Cambridge is not dying for placements. It is the quality. [The student is] here for academics. We are not a shop that once you are in, you have the right to get a degree. If someone does not deserve a degree, he should not be awarded one. And any institution which is liberal on this point is not good for the future.
I want to create sound academics. That will take care of everything. If my product is confident in the market, they can accept any challenge anywhere.
B&B: Do you think there is anything distinct about an NLIU graduate?
PSS: Look here, the crowd which is coming into all the [national] law schools, generally speaking, are really bright. People are leaving IITs to join law. They can do anything they want, provided they want to.
We were the first national law school to have an association with the IADR. When such things happen, I feel happy.
Do something which others are not doing. Don’t follow and copy. Create something. The mind is of such an infinite nature that there is no dearth of anything. There is no scarcity of anything. It is the same human being that has faced the challenges of the past, so why not the challenges of the future?
Have faith and trust in yourself first. You can achieve what you want to achieve provided you have dedication, commitment, desire, and devotion.
B&B: What do you think about the domicile based reservation at NLIU?
PSS: It is a State decision. We have no role in it. I don’t think it is a bad move. Let me tell you why I think so. The students who come through the domicile quota can compete with the students of any other State in the country. The fact which is not known to most people is that it is not a reservation for Madhya Pradesh but rather a reservation for Indore, Bhopal, Jabalpur, and Gwalior. These cities have the best schools and the students who take the benefit of this quota are some of the best students.
B&B: Isn’t this unfair to the students of the rest of the country?
PSS: Why is it unfair? State money has been invested in the institution. Doesn’t the State have a right to give preference to its product? [NLSIU] Bangalore is entirely different; it was a Bar Council institution, so the structure is different. But Bangalore will not protect itself from the reservation demand of Karnataka; that has already started. Also we are a part of the wider political system. We have to survive.
B&B: Why should one study law?
PSS: Law gives you the ability to think rationally. My view is that everyone must study law whether they are a scientist or a doctor or are in any other profession. Law is close to life. In order to structure our own life style we must know the law. And I have faith in law. My simple one line mantra is that whatever is permissible by law, do that. I never surrendered to any politician, relying only on the strength of the law.
When I was at IIPA, the one final advise I would give during the valedictory was that if you stood on the side of law, no one will touch you in your entire career. If you are wrong, if you try to twist the law to satisfy your greed than you are inviting trouble. It is only the law which will come to your aid. Your parents might disown you but the law will never disown you if you are committed to law. You may be powerful, you may be very powerful but remember that the law is above you.