Shamnad Basheer, Professor at National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) has launched an access and diversity movement to reach out to the disadvantaged sections in rural and small town India and help interested students secure admissions to the premier national law schools. By this, he hopes to bring in more diversity to the elitist homogenous environment of most law schools and thereby contribute in the long term to an increasingly diverse legal profession as well. The project is titled IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education)..Anne Wilson Schaefe said, “differences challenge assumptions”, Shamnad clearly embodies this. Bar & Bench, in conversation with Shamnad Basheer..What drove you to conceive this project?.Part of the reason is actually personal. When I graduated from the National Law School at Bangalore (NLS), it was the last batch that had a sliding scale fee structure. What this means is that the amount of fees that a student had to pay was based on parental income. I had to pay approximately Rs. 5,000 a year, while some of my classmates paid the highest slab that year which was Rs. 25,000. This ensured that we had a reasonably diverse student composition and interesting arrays of perspectives displayed during our classroom discussions. However, for the next batch onwards, the highest slab (Rs. 25,000) was applied to all students, irrespective of whether one belonged to a rich or a poor family..This drastically changed the student composition at NLS Bangalore and made it much more homogenous and elitist over the years. The current student compositions at all the national law schools (where the fees are now Rs 1 lakh [$2,200] plus per year) demonstrate a severe lack of diversity. Illustratively in a poll conducted at NUJS, we found that amongst the current first year students who number around 115 in total, only two studied in a vernacular medium school and/or came from rural India..Many of us who’ve been part of the national law schools, have often lamented and wanted to do something about this lack of diversity and access. This project is therefore a mere execution of a thought that many of us have shared over the years..Why is diversity important?.Most national law school students are from a certain kind of background (middle class to upper middle class and English medium educated) and anyone from a different background has a very difficult time fitting in, i.e., there is a severe lack of diversity at these institutions. A more diverse student population would expose students to differences and there will be no consequent pressure to fit into one mould. Further, such diversity would also make for a more varied discussions and perspectives and enrich the overall quality of legal education that a student receives. Indeed, such diversity will help students appreciate the real India…. characterized by a billion and one differences. Given that many of our pressing problems such as religious riots stem from the refusal to accept differences and an inclination to force others to conform to one’s own way of life, such diversity would go a long way in preparing better citizens for tomorrow..What are the current access barriers? And how do you intend to tackle them?.The three biggest access barriers for a poor student from rural or small town India are: i) lack of awareness; ii) high fees; and iii) CLAT. Let me explain. In terms of fees, most national law schools charge over Rs. 1 lakh ($2,200) per year. My own college, NUJS charges approximately Rs. 1.6 lakhs ($3,500) per year. Owing to the recent pay commission pressure to pay increased salaries to faculty, institutions such as NUJS may find it difficult to reduce these monumental fee structures immediately. However, they must find a way to move beyond an exclusive dependence on student fees alone for their survival. Further, they must find ways to institute scholarships etc so that deserving students from poorer backgrounds can also study law..However, scholarships by themselves are not enough. For even with a guarantee of 10 percent scholarships, my own institution, NUJS has not been able to find the right candidates to apply. This is simply because very few poor students actually apply and make it to these law schools. And this brings us to the other two bottlenecks that I spoke about, namely lack of awareness and CLAT..As for lack of awareness, most lawyers and law students abound with the oft-repeated familiar story of how their parents were opposed to their choice of law. Law wasn’t perceived to be a respectable profession; but rather as a fall back choice for most students who didn’t make it to engineering medicine. The advent of the National Law Schools and the variety of job opportunities for lawyers outside of the traditional litigation matrix (such as law firm jobs, UN and World Bank jobs, etc.) changed some of this perception, but much more remains to be done. Particularly in rural and small town India, where most students have never ever heard of the national law schools, much less is thought about law as a viable career option. Education and awareness in these areas is therefore critical to spreading more awareness and having more candidates apply to these law schools..However, awareness by itself is not enough. For despite such students being made aware of the wonders of law as a career, they still have to get past their biggest access bottleneck, namely CLAT, the common law admission test. This is a joint law entrance examination conducted by the 11 of the national law schools to test potential candidates for their aptitude for the law, and includes sections on general knowledge, english, maths, logical reasoning and legal aptitude. Most importantly it requires a high degree of proficiency in English, a proficiency that most students from rural India lack, having studied in vernacular medium all their life. Further, the chances of making it through CLAT, without training through a coaching centre, is fairly remote. This training does not come cheap and is based mainly in the main cities and towns..What are you planning to do to solve this access bottleneck?.We again plan to tackle this at 3 levels:.In order to create more awareness, we’ve started identifying schools based on local contacts and availability of resources. Volunteers travel to such areas/schools and sensitise schools, students, parents and teachers to the myriad benefits of a good legal education and a legal career. They identify promising candidates, based inter-alia on aptitude tests. Given that the idea for the IDIA project first grew out of my home institution NUJS, a law school situated within the state of West Bengal, the project began with visits to a local school in Kolkata (Howrah) and a government high school in Pelling, a small hill town in the North Eastern State of Sikkim..In the course of time, we hope to scale up the project and target as many schools in under-represented areas and identify promising students there from. The idea is to make this a pan-India project with as many volunteers visiting schools across the length and breadth of India to sensitise and identify promising candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds. We are in the process of creating collaborative local networks with law schools, law firms, NGO’s etc to operate in different parts of India..Once promising students have been identified, we take care of the next bottleneck, namely CLAT. We deliver intensive CLAT training to these students, particularly English training. We have already tied up with IMS training center, who have agreed to give us material free of cost for our students and to train them physically at their centres as well..We then move to the third access bottleneck, tuition fees. We are hoping that the various law schools that are sympathetic to this project offer students a full tuition fee waiver, if they fall below a certain income level. At the moment, NUJS, NALSAR and NLS have a committed policy towards fee waivers in favour of poor students. We’re in the process of speaking to other Universities to institute similar policies. If Universities cannot provide waivers or fee reductions, we try and provide funds out of a general pool that we collect from donors including law firms, lawyers, law teachers, students and others who support the cause. If need be, we also propose approaching banks and other financial institutions for loans without collaterals. And last, but not the least, we will encourage the government (central and state) and industrial houses to institute specific scholarships for this purpose..The existence of scholarships for deserving students will be advertised widely to encourage wider participation in our program by prospective candidates from villages and small towns. In particular, advertisements will be carried in vernacular media, radio, etc. By this, we hope to attract more candidates to our program. In fact, owing to word of mouth, we already have several economically backward students from around Kolkata calling us up for help with the exam. We’ve therefore now institutionalized a “Diversity at Home” project, wherein we look around in our immediate vicinity to identify deserving candidates that we can train over the course of one or two years..The project will not stop with students clearing CLAT. Rather, candidates who clear CLAT will also be allotted specific mentors in law schools to guide them and ensure that they do not feel “socially” awkward in law school but will bloom to their fullest extent. Further, where possible, English language training would continue to be provided to such students..The hope is that the candidate will be able to optimally leverage his or her legal education and make an informed choice at the end of it. Law schools across India would be encouraged to frame policies in this regard that would ensure an optimally diverse environment for student coming from varied backgrounds..Support so far: What do you expect from law firms, institutions and everyone connected with law?.Until now, this has been a self-funded project. But for this to work, it has to scale up significantly and become a pan India movement. For this, we require a significant infusion of funds and are hopeful that the government, law firms, lawyers, industrial houses, educational trusts, alumni of national law schools, and other well-wishers contribute to this effort. We’ve encouraged our own alumni NUJS 5th years to try and contribute small sums every month for we can use this to take acre of part of living expenses of some of the students that make it through CLAT from poor backgrounds. We are also trying to engender a collaborative participation approach, whereby we encourage as many volunteers (law students, lawyers and other well wishers) to participate in this process by approaching schools in their area. To this end, we aim to create an online platform (website, blog, etc.) to enjoin the participation of law students, faculty and others across India in this project..All of us who are part of the legal juggernaut have a collective responsibility in ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have a fair shot at a decent legal education. CNR Rao, the principal scientific advisor to the Prime Minister recently remarked that our Einstein’s are in our villages. Let me take the liberty of rephrasing this to: Our Palkhiwalas are in our villages!.Shamnad Basheer is perhaps the perfect example of the adage: be the change. It is rare to be able to be a part of an idea whose time has come. Bar & Bench would like to support Shamnad Basheer in his path-breaking initiative to ensure that no student is denied the choice to opt for a career in law merely on grounds of economic or social disadvantages. If you and/or the organization you work with want to do your bit to help translate this dream onto a bigger canvas, please contact Professor Shamnad Basheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.