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Bimal Patel, Vice Chancellor at the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar (GNLU) talks with Bar & Bench Associate Editor Anuj Agrawal. In this free-wheeling chat, Bimal Patel discusses the reasons behind his shift to India, life at GNLU and why the legal profession remains one of the best career choices in India.
Bar & Bench: How long have you been at GNLU and what were you doing before that?
Bimal Patel: I have been here for three years. Before that I was in the Hague with an international organisation and since 1990 till almost the beginning of 2009, I was in the Netherlands. I was studying, working and travelling.
Bar & Bench: What got you back to India and more specifically to GNLU?
Bimal Patel: I had a strong feeling that India had these IITs and IIMs providing technological and management infrastructure. But legal infrastructure, in terms of of judges, lawyers, research and teaching institutions, did not exist in the nation. And as you could see in my writings also, I was constantly wondering why legal infrastructure is not being given any attention at various levels. So that was one concern that I had.
Second, in Europe it is but natural that they plan out the regulations much in advance before executing any action. In my view, the complete opposite happens over here.
So these things from a legal perspective bothers you. And I was very happy that when I was in the Hague, I was hosting a lot of our law school students who would come there for programmes and internships. And therefore the vision got more crystal clear, the network got expanded, the need was felt over here in the country and that is how I got back here.
Bar & Bench: And how has the experience been so far?
Bimal Patel: Excellent. I mean I must say the support system in GNLU is simply overwhelming.
For example, there was this one piece of land [required for the new campus] which was disputed. We put in a request to the Chief Minister [of Gujarat] saying that if we don’t get this possession then my campus construction will not go on. It was that critical.
In less than 24 hours, a team came from the CM’s office including high-ranking officials. They invited us and the issue was cleared.So pawhenever the support of the government was required, they were ahead of us. They knew what our problems were and took efforts to solve them.
Also with regard to the funding, the Gujarat government has allocated Rs. 150 crore to this project. The idea is to build a world class infrastructure. This does not mean the most luxurious or the most lavish infrastructure but each and every corner the 50 acre campus shall be used for the purposes of learning, research and training. The future plan is to let the Presidents, the Prime Ministers, the Judges, the learned jurists from all over the world come over to GNLU and engage [with the students], conduct research, draft their memoirs and so on and so forth.
If you look at the judiciary, it is one step beyond. Almost the entire bench of the Gujarat High Court has been so supportive. I would say that almost half the bench has engaged with GNLU be it teaching, coming for lectures etc. Some of my students even have direct access to them.
Bar & Bench: Was this a conscious decision to focus on litigation as well unlike other law schools?
Bimal Patel: I would say that we have had to. In the beginning I had used the term “legal infrastructure”. This does not only mean corporate law firms. It includes banks, PSUs, government departments, judiciary, financial institutions, insurance sector and niche industries like space law, biotechnology etc.
So what we are doing is that we are diversifying. Now this poses some huge challenges since students tend to have an inclination to only go for law firms. But I am very pleased that, slowly and steadily, we have been able to move away from focusing on law firms alone.
We give them examples of say Anil Diwan, Soli Sorabjee etc. We say that “Look, now they are in their 80’s. If you want to reach their level, you will have to slog now.”
But I am also conscious of the fact that many of my students have taken a loan. So what I try to tell them is that they should, at least for a few years, try to earn some money. That way, they do not have to face the tension of repaying loans.
When I studied in Europe, I had taken a loan on 18 per cent interest. So I understand that pressure [which law students are under]. These loans are part of the reason why students want to go for corporate law firms and there is nothing wrong in that.
Bar & Bench: You mentioned that a lot of students have to take loans. Do you think that high fees is a problem that law schools need to address?
Bimal Patel: Yes. I do agree. The fee remains a serious concern and I know what that feels like. I mentioned that I had taken a loan when I was studying.
Now GNLU is number 9 in terms of overall fees but we are trying to manage in such a way so that the burden on the students remains as less as possible. On top of that, we are increasing the scholarships offered under various heads every year. For example, this year we have as much as Rs. 40 lakh in scholarship for the students. These scholarships allow students to take up exchange programs, to do research etc.
So for example, if a student is willing to help any of my faculty or me in some research project, he will get an entire year exemption of tuition fee. These kinds of scholarships are available to my students.
On top of that, when students go for moots or international conferences, we use our excellent NRI network to help students find accommodation abroad. But yes, that does not solve the real problem of high tuition fees. The only way out, in my opinion, is that either the state or the union government partially subsidizes the recurring expenditure of the university.
Bar & Bench: But won’t that mean greater interference from the government in the administration of the university?
Bimal Patel: Well, that is bound to happen but at the same time I am very much government oriented in the sense that be it Central or State government, the government knows its plan very well. We are definitely the intellectual torch bearers of the country but at the same time, the government does know its needs, its concerns and its interests. So we have to become a partner [with the government]. We should not have this dogmatic ideology that “Ok money necessarily means interference.” No, this is not the case. How you can work out a model, is very much up to you. If the proactive government, be it Gujarat, Bihar or Delhi. I mean I have worked with them and I believe that they are looking for strong academic institutions that can guide them.
I think the concept of interference has to be re-looked into. Because I think the government wants support from academic institutions.
Bar & Bench: Do you think that regulatory provisions such as UGC norms etc are a hindrance when it comes to hiring faculty? There is this school of thought that says that “Let me have good faculty, even if they don’t meet the UGC norms”. Do you subscribe to this line of thought?
Bimal Patel: I may not be able to offer an excellent pay package to a guy from Europe or US because I have to adhere to the UGC norms. In GNLU we do follow UGC norms in terms of pay packages, entitlements etc. So that is a small hindrance.
But I don’t think it is really an issue. Why do I say that? Look at Harvard Law School, they have an excellent professorship……and we have that system in GNLU. Every semester we have four professors who undertake research and teaching for two weeks and discuss particular jurisdictions including civil law.
We would like to increase the duration of these visits and now that we have the infrastructure, I am pretty sure we will have resident scholars in no time who will be staying for a much longer period. And with the UGC funding coming in, we will also be able to attract a good number of visiting professors from Europe as well.
But keep in mind that they will not be coming to India for a long period of time. They will use India as a platform right? Let’s not have that mindset that we are going to invite the best minds from America and Europe. Let them come as resident scholars, let them see whether they can adapt to the Indian system here, they can appreciate the country, they can train my students and simultanouesly there is an exchange of ideas.
Bar & Bench: Setting aside attempts to get foreign law professors here, do you think that at the domestic level, law schools could work together in terms of student and faculty exchange programmes?
Bimal Patel: It is definitely feasible. In GNLU we are in a comfortable situation of having 51 full time faculty and teaching research associates. We have a teacher-student ratio of 1:18. Not all other law schools may be that comfortable.
Second, a proactive approach is very important. For example, I made a suggestion to my colleague, Ranbir Singh at NLU Delhi. I told him that, “Look my semester starts in January and ends in April. May, June and November, December for these four months you can invite my faculty, they will be very happy.
And since some law schools such as NLU Delhi and Bhopal have trimester, let them come over here and spend a month to see what kind of research methodology we are having, the pedagogical approach of my faculty, the kind of projects that we are carrying out.
But infrastructure was a bottleneck thus far. So even if I wanted to invite people from there, I could not. But now I have the infrastructure and so I believe that from next year onwards, this will be possible. However a proactive approach is most necessary for faculty exchange between NLUs.
Bar & Bench: Speaking about NLUs do you think CLAT is a good idea. Are there improvements required?
Bimal Patel: It is a must. We need to screen those who are really committed to come to the law profession. It is not the perfect solution but at the same time it is better than nothing I would say.
We can see a clear difference between those students who come through CLAT and otherwise. In terms of their approach towards facing the examination, the preparations not only in legal subjects but in GK, Maths, logic, aptitude. Personally speaking, I believe that it does to a great extent meet the NLU requirements. And I can’t immediately think of a better solution than CLAT. I think CLAT has to be there.
Bar & Bench: A common criticism is that CLAT gives a large percentage of marks to the English language. This means that if you have not studied in the english medium, you will automatically find it difficult to get into an NLU. Your thoughts.
Bimal Patel: Look, I have my personal views on this. I studied in Gujarati medium but I knew that if I wanted to achieve a big post I must have fluency in English and Hindi. I would not generalise it though. Students who have studied in vernacular language are doing extremely well. But I think there are certain uniform standards which have to be implemented.
Bar & Bench: Do you think that GNLU is unique in any manner? What can a student expect from GNLU?
Bimal Patel: Look, I am going to boast about my university so I can’t be purely objective. Looking back though, when the UGC came this year, they said that GNLU is a model law university in terms of access, equity, relevance and quality standards. So like you, they interviewed the faculty, the staff, they examined the infrastructure. So for me, their findings make for a good point of reference.
Second, the initiatives that we have taken up at GNLU frankly speaking they are path breaking and they do get resistance. But at the end both the students and the faculty feel that it was the right thing we did. I will give you two examples. GNLU is the only NLU which sends its students to help reduce backlog of cases. My students go to remote places in Gujarat. We want to partner with the institutions of governance in reducing the backlog of cases which is a big issue as we all know.
Now, this is almost a 5-star institution and my students will be going to a PSU, where you might not even have a chair, you might not have computer. But isn’t that what India really is? If they want to raise the standard of infrastructure in the country, I think they must know what the real India looks like. And by appreciating the ground reality they will be able to contribute back to the country. Otherwise they will still be in an imagination that “I am from a law university and I should be sitting in this particular law firm, or institution or bank”.
So what happens is that students are able to appreciate better. There is a small impact. I would not say meaningful impact but there is a small impact in terms of contribution to society with regard to the backlog of cases. For example, former Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court, he was such a wonderful judge. After the board was over, he would sit with my students and say “Ok these are my cases” and he was able to dispose of nearly 4,000 cases.
We send 160 students to the High Court, another 160 to district courts and about 320 students to NGOs and PSUs. And now we have made this mandatory, so you have to go and help them. So we do have challenges such as security, food, accommodation. But then life is also like this, you have a fair share of difficulties and success. It is only when you face these challenges will you able to appreciate life.
Bar & Bench: So a student in GNLU sees real life?
Bimal Patel: Yes. I would say so. We do talk about it and hear their concerns which to some extent are valid. But I say, “If you want to develop India you must know what real India is.”
More than 50% of litigation today is by the Government. So unless you help those institutions, how can you reduce the cases? Of course, there is another side to GNLU life as well. For instance my students recently organised a maritime conference. We had representatives from 35 nations, ambassadors, people from NATO, and the navy. So the USP of my university is that we cover everything from the grassroot to the global.
Those students working on maritime conference, once the conference was over, the very next day they were in a remote place in Ankleshwar doing an internship. So we have a very clear three tier approach: state, national and global. In everything, we have global outlook and grassroot reality.
Bar & Bench: One of the impressions that we have of GNLU is that discipline is giving a far greater amount of importance than, say, other NLUs. How do you impose this discipline?
Bimal Patel: I would say that there are rules in the house right? Say eight o’clock you have to eat, you come and eat. The rest of the time is yours. So even for discipline, we tell the students that this is what we are going to do and after a period of time, it works out really well. To give you a couple of examples. In the old campus, what we used to see is that students after having a meal, would leave their plates and glasses on the table rather than place it in the sinks. We realised that this was becoming a problem. So we said that now we are going to impose penalty. One glass, five hundred rupees. One plate, twenty five hundred rupees.
Of course the culprit would not admit. So then we said it is across the class…..If you don’t admit, you have to pay. It became a collective responsibility and this worked out really well. And as a result, you won’t find a single glass lying around.
Same thing happened with smoking. A good thing about GNLU is that most of the faculty including me is that we are young. So we can easily relate to them. There is only a gap of 15-20 years. Coming back to smoking. We imposed a ban within academic premises so the students would go outside and smoke. When I told them not to, they would say that “But sir we are smoking outside”. So I said look, its universal jurisdiction. Wherever we find you smoking, we will impose a penalty. And sometimes I would impose this and there would be a protest. So I said. “Fine. If you want to smoke, why do you want to smoke outside? Come and smoke inside my room. I have no problem.” .
But in the end, the students appreciate this. I am so pleased and proud of my students. Some times its overwhelming. The student are very motivated and very sincere. And the values and ethics which they have is really pleasing.
I mean when I see some of the events the students organise, it really is pleasing.
And our faculty is so caring and I can tell you that our faculty is unmatchable. Each faculty meets around twenty students thrice a semster to discuss their problems. On top of that faculty are also assigned final year students so that they can help in the problems faced by final year students. They [the faculty] are very caring and very committed.
The environment is very vibrant and there is a culture of accountability in the university. I go to students and say “Look, I am before you. Now tell me where I am going wrong. Where is my faculty going wrong?”. When the parents are there, like every semester, we have parents meet. I tell parents, “If there are problems, please come here and we will discuss them”. So the sense of belonging, the vision and of course the support system drives the University.
Bar & Bench: What changes do you see in the next five years?
Bimal Patel: We have started intensively focusing on research based teaching in our university. So since the last one month, we have prepared a guideline of how this can be done. This includes devising the course to declaring the results, in all of these we do our research and follow it up.
So each faculty member has been doing this. One of our journals is being distributed by the WTO. EBC is going to publish all our journals. We have now got a lot of response from Oxford, EBC etc wanting to publish our research. We have research done by students, by faculty and by the University as a whole. For example, we have a group publication in which all faculty members do research. So every faculty in their expert area discusses what is the legal scenario in India.
So research is given number one position. Second is teaching. So in teaching we have this associate partnership: while the faculty will teach there will be an associate partner who will also take a few classes. That way s/he will also get some exposure to teaching.
Then we also have teaching and research associates who do a lot of research for my faculty. So that my faculty are able to write and publish. So there is research, teaching and then “extension”. In extension, we believe in helping the legislative draft better laws. If the laws are well drafted then you don’t face problems. So legislative drafting, media and law training, training for the police personnel, judiciary etc.
What we do over here is train lawyers from across the state so that they can appear for the judicial exams. So extension component is equally important and also brings in a lot of resources to the university. Research brings in scholarship and repute, teaching brings in rapport between my students and my faculty and the training also brings in some financial resources. For example, the navy has asked us to train their officers on maritime law, admiralty etc. So we have sent a proposal.
Similarly, in prison management also we are going to train the entire cadre of prison officers in the state. In the legislative drafting, we are helping draft laws. In training, we bring in practical experience. The concept is called TREE; Teaching, Research, Education and Extension. This is a holistic concept.
Bar & Bench: Do you consider the notion that law is a last option as an outdated one?
Bimal Patel: Five thousand judges are needed, we have all these specialised tribunals coming up. There is an urgent need for good lawyers and good judges. My personal opinion is that law is the best profession. I think apart from professional satisfaction there is also a personal satisfaction because you are serving the society. You are contributing directly to nation building. So that personal satisfaction that you gain, that training starts from 17 years.
By the time you become 22-23, you will become a mature, visionary and you will have a clear cut idea of what you want to achieve for yourself, your family, your society and for your nation. So therefore, I would say that they should go for law schools.
Bar & Bench: Do you think that there is any advantage of studying law even if you are not interested in joining the legal profession?
Bimal Patel: Yes. For instance we are offering B.Sc and LLB right? Now look up nanotech, maritime, biotech, space law. Do we have the legal infrastructure for this? We don’t.
Forget about creating new laws, to even interpret current laws you need to have at least a basic grounding in the basic knowledge of science. Even judges in the ICJ who define maritime boundaries, until and unless they would have good ideas about mapping and cartography etc, they would not be able to do. So, they would need exposure to science and technology. So each faculty needs a good understanding of law and technology.
Bar & Bench: You are also introducing a Bachelors in Social Work (BSW) along with the LLB?
Bimal Patel: This BSW was partially also to respond to the demand and also contribute back to the society. There was a perception, right or wrong, that law schools are only catering to law firms and corporates. There was a demand from the civil society institutions and NGOs, that they would need excellent lawyers. I mean if you are in Amnesty International, unless you know good human rights law, you cannot justify your existence there.
And how many NGOs do we have? And they are an extremely important partner to governmental institutions. I myself have worked with an NGO and I have seen the important role they play. And if a student has good exposure in social welfare, if he joins this NGO then I think he would do the job much better informed and no one can mess around with him. Because he would have studied the law.Therefore, for civil society institutions, NGOs, CSR initiatives etc. we are addressing their requirement as well. I am happy that this year we have had a good response from the students as well. And as a result, we are finding tremendous oppurtunities not only for the students but also for the stakeholders to engage with GNLU.
We have clear vision. One thing that we are going to start this year is specialisation in judicial services. That would be at the LLM level. For two years, you will be trained at the lowest level to the highest. These students will now be entering the judiciary. So you can imagine if a student has five years training in the LLB, two years training at the LLM I am sure he would make an excellent judge. In the future, we are going to go in for more such programs like Btech and LLB or BE and LLB etc.