The Idea Behind IDIA: Creating CHAMPS from Underprivileged Communities, by Shamnad Basheer


Jharkhand Sensitization-Shyamsundar Kumar - an IDIA lesson
Jharkhand Sensitization-Shyamsundar Kumar

The IDIA (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education) project is a pan-India movement to train underprivileged students and help transform them to leading lawyers and community advocates. IDIA is premised on the notion that access to premier legal education empowers marginalized communities and helps them help themselves.

The project is run on the backbone of highly passionate student volunteers from various law schools in India, who travel across the length and breadth of the country to identify marginalised students with an aptitude for the study of law. IDIA then trains these selected students through a rigorous programme for the entrance examinations to the premier law schools, namely CLAT (Common Law Admission Test) and AILET (All India Law Entrance Test).

Once selected to the top law schools, IDIA arranges for their financial support, a task that is becoming increasingly more difficult as the premier Indian law schools continue to hike their fees without correspondingly increasing their scholarships/fee-waiver-programmes for less privileged students. IDIA also provides mentorship and academic support schemes for its scholars in order to help them blossom to their full potential.

In the last five years, approximately 70 students trained by IDIA procured admission to various law schools in India, with 40 of them making it to the leading National Law Universities (NLUs). They reflect a truly diverse mix, comprising candidates from various backgrounds (children of farmers, stone quarry workers, shopkeepers and clerks), visually impaired candidates and those that belong to India’s scheduled castes/tribes. Importantly, they also represent a pan Indian diversity and hail from different states, such as Karnataka, West Bengal, Jharkand, Rajasthan, Bihar, Manipur and Mizoram.

What triggered IDIA?

There were several triggers for the idea behind IDIA, two of which were particularly important. As I began teaching at the WB NUJS (National University of Juridical Sciences) in 2008, I looked around my class and noted that most of my students had accessed some of the best schools in India, spoke good English and lived privileged, urban lives.

I thought to myself: “does this class represent the real India? What of the millions of underprivileged kids who were denied access to this powerful legal corridor?” As a law school, we often pontificated on lofty ideals, such as social inclusion and equality, but practiced something different altogether, turning a blind eye to the fact that only the rich and the privileged were making it through our hallowed halls!

Shivam (a final year IDIA scholar from WB NUJS) in Hong Kong, where he participated in the world famous Willem C Vis arbitration moot.
Shivam (a final year IDIA scholar from WB NUJS) in Hong Kong, where he participated in the world famous Willem C Vis arbitration moot.

Fortunately, my concerns were shared by the then Vice Chancellor of NUJS, Prof (Dr.) MP Singh, who encouraged me to do something about it. We formed an initial small group comprised of academics from abroad (such as Tarunabh Khaitan from the University of Oxford) and began deliberating on the issue.

I realized that it would be foolhardy to simply ape existing models of the West, where elite universities like Oxford and Harvard run outreach programmes to disadvantaged sections of society. Indian universities simply couldn’t afford to do this, given their financial and other constraints!

Therefore, I proposed that we rely on our stellar student force to run the show, with minimal interference from the University administration. In fact, the reputation of the Indian National Law Universities, or NLU’s (considered to be the premier law schools and described by a former Prime Minster as “islands of excellence in a sea of institutionalized mediocrity”), owed itself significantly to the students and their initiatives and dynamism.

Building on this sentiment, IDIA sought to vest ownership of this entire movement in the hands of the students themselves! This turned out to be our biggest strength as it drew on the one sustainable fuel that accounts for the success of any mass based movement, namely passion!

The second trigger for kickstarting IDIA was an advocacy campaign that proved a real eye-opener for me. I was part of a team of disability activists fighting for a change in the law. A number of books remained out of bounds for the visually impaired and any conversion of such books to accessible formats, such as Braille, would invariably constitute a copyright infringement.

We campaigned for an amendment to our copyright act to exempt such conversions from legal liability. During the course of our interaction with a Parliamentary committee, I made what I thought was a persuasive presentation. Immediately after, a lawyer who was visually impaired presented her perspective as someone who had to struggle her entire life to get to where she was without access to the majority of the required books. That really struck a chord with the committee, who gave her a thumping ovation! Her perspective made a far greater impact on them than what I, or any of the other lawyers present could have hoped to achieve. Within no time, Parliament passed the law, introducing one of the widest possible copyright exceptions in favour of the differently abled.

This incident really opened my eyes to the fact that, rather than simply relying on the privileged to take up cudgels for the underprivileged, a far more effective way of empowering them is by directly placing the tools of the law in their hands. This is a far more meaningful way of empowering people.

The IDIA team meeting with local village leader, Mr Putta, close to village temple.
The IDIA team meeting with local village leader, Mr Putta, close to village temple.

The Launch

The IDIA project was launched through a pilot in the North Eastern state of Sikkim. Along with 4 of my students, I walked into a small government school in Pelling, a quaint town boasting panoramic views of the Himalayas and some of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the world. In all honesty, we walked in on a whim, but what it finally led to went beyond our wildest dreams!

From a mere two students who meekly raised their hands when asked how many were interested in law, we had more than 100 students interested after we pontificated on the transformative potential of the law and the diverse set of career options available. Of course, we were helped by the fact that legal education in India had undergone a considerable face-lift, thanks to the stellar success of the NLU model and the revamped image of the modern lawyer as one that transcended the black robes of a court room. The modern lawyer in India had a diverse range of options before her, including a hotshot corporate lawyer, a feisty human rights activist, ruminant legal academic, zesty legal entrepreneur, or a cross-cultural international lawyer, at places like the United Nations.

We selected around 8 students from this government school and put them through an intensive training progamme. Given our limited resources and other constraints, we had to experiment with a unique training model, as below.

Sudheer (a visually impaired IDIA scholar) receiving a prize for his performance at a Model United Nations (NUN) competition.
Sudheer (a visually impaired IDIA scholar) receiving a prize for his performance at a Model United Nations (NUN) competition.

i) Since we couldn’t visit the students frequently, we decided to train their high school teachers and build their capacity (for law entrance training) from within. We picked teachers that were interested in logical reasoning, puzzles, and English and maths, since these formed the core components of CLAT entrance exam. These teachers trained the students on a weekly basis.

ii) We initiated an online training programme, partnering with a local cyber cafe which offered unlimited internet access to our students. In the beginning, only of our trainee students had an email ID! Within a month, that one student had trained the others on the wonders of cyberspace, and all of them were active on Facebook soon after!

iii) We also brought them to the NUJS campus during their long weekends and other holidays, where our own students trained them.

Institutionalisation and Sustainable Funding:

For about a year or two after our first pilot in Sikkim, IDIA had mainly been running on the personal money of Prof (Dr.) MP Singh and myself. Once IDIA became too big for our small boots, we formally registered as a Trust in 2011, with the following trustees:

  1. Justice Ruma Pal (Former judge, Supreme Court of India)
  2. Prof (Dr) MP Singh, Former Vice Chancellor, WB NUJS, Kolkata
  3. Shishira Rudrappa (Co-founder, Bar and Bench)
  4. Prof (Dr) Shamnad Basheer (Visiting Professor of Law, NLS, Bangalore)

Around this time I spoke with a number of friends, many of whom were earning big bucks at big law firms, about supporting this cause, to which they readily agreed. Unfortunately, despite a number of individual lawyers supporting our cause periodically, we have not attracted much institutional support. My friends often tell me that it’s far easier for them to donate individually (as partners of law firms) than to get the law firm to commit institutionally to IDIA. Strangely enough, most of our institutional support has come from abroad.

Leading English law firms, particularly those in the magic circle, have supported us in the past and continue to do so, as below:

Nagababu, a final year student at NLU Orissa and a visually impaired IDIA scholar, speaking at an event.
Nagababu, a final year student at NLU Orissa and a visually impaired IDIA scholar, speaking at an event.

i) Linklaters instituted a scholarship to help support the entire educational expenses of an IDIA scholar for 5 years. Their first scholar, Manash Mandal, is from an extremely impoverished family (hardly earning Rs 5000 per month, or approximately $75). Currently in his first year at the National Law University (NLU) in Raipur, Manash is already making waves! He heads the Legal Aid and Social Services Committee for his class and is a key part of ‘Samanvay’, an initiative that imparts free legal aid and education to nearby villages.

ii) Allen & Overy just delivered a fabulous training programme for our scholars to enhance their soft skills, negotiating prowess etc (the “Smart Start” programme, which has been a big hit in Europe and came to India for the first time).

iii) Herbert Smith Freehills continues to offer our scholars free access to their wonderful courses and training programmes in India.

From within the Indian legal market, only Khaitan & Co, Luthra & Co, DSK Legal, S&R Associates and Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan provide regular institutional financial support. As mentioned earlier, most other Indian law firms provide such support through individual partners or through their trusts/foundations and not institutionally.

Outside of law firms, we have partnerships with leading global corporations, such as General Electric, Thomson Reuters, Microsoft, Cisco and Goldman Sachs, who partner with us by mentoring our scholars, offering them internships and training them on soft skills. We also have other institutional partners who help with our CLAT training programme, such as IMS India, Law School Tutorials (LST), and Rainmaker. Educational support, in the form of free books and stationary is provided by Lexis Nexis and EBC (Eastern Book Company). This is to name only a few of the partnerships we’ve forged and the kind-hearted organisations that have helped IDIA scholars in the past.

Notwithstanding the presence of these wonderful partners and well-wishers, a sustainable funding model remains our greatest challenge.

The USP of IDIA: Creating CHAMPS

The IDIA team (comprising IDIA founder, IDIA directors and student team from NLS Bangalore) with Karthika, an IDIA Scholar, and family.
The IDIA team (comprising IDIA founder, IDIA directors and student team from NLS Bangalore) with Karthika, an IDIA Scholar, and family.

The core idea behind IDIA is not that unique, given that access to education has been a prime concern for many of us lawyers and law teachers! What makes it stand out, though, is its DNA as a student-run movement, with minimal administrative interference.

This continues to remain the USP of IDIA, that it is driven by a large army of dynamic student volunteers around the country. We currently have around 500 student volunteers in almost 20 different states of India! Given that these students hail, largely, from privileged backgrounds, the project exposes them to underprivileged populations (our Mumbai IDIA team is now working with children of sex workers and our Kolkata team is working with the transgender community).

To this extent, the project is as much about building leadership and social sensitivity within existing law students, as it is about helping underprivileged students to gain admission to law schools and become leading lawyers.

IDIA is also different from other access to education initiatives (such as the famed Super 30’s model in India for the IIT’s), in that we don’t stop with merely admitting underprivileged students to the premier law schools. Rather, we work with them continuously, mentoring and providing academic support to convert them to leading lawyers and luminaries. To this effect, we hope to create CHAMPS: namely, lawyers who are Creative, Holistic, Altruistic, Maverick Problem Solvers.

Lastly, IDIA’s unique cut stems from our core belief that there is no strict benefactor-beneficiary relationship between us and the scholars that we train. Indeed, we often learn more from our scholars than they learn from us! Examples of their amazing resilience and inner strength abound, and teach us how to convert each adversity to an advantage and become ‘anti-fragile’ in the process.

Put another way, all of us who are part of the IDIA juggernaut benefit from this engagement, as it helps us peak to our highest potential; an ideal referred to as ‘self actualisation’. Our team leaders, student volunteers and employees get to hone their organizational and leadership skills. Even an old fogey like me benefits from this constant student engagement and passion, keeping me enthused and young at heart!

Does Diversity Compromise Quality?

Walk to Awake Mumbai
Walk to Awake Mumbai

Of course not! Quite the opposite actually! A more diverse influx of students will greatly enhance the quality of education. As we noted in this paper that we did for the Harvard Law Project on Globalisation, Lawyers and Emerging Economies (GLEE):

‘A diverse student body has positive implications at an individual, societal and institutional level. The individual benefits include “enhanced openness to diversity and challenge” and “enhanced critical thinking ability”. At a societal level, a diverse educational ecosystem leads to the development of an “educated and involved citizenry”. At an institutional level, the benefits of diversity include the cultivation of a workforce with a higher level of cross-cultural competence, as well as the ability to widen the net and attract the best possible talent pool.’

In short, diversity is central to a good education and helps students open up their minds to alternative ways of thinking. When we first kick-started IDIA at NUJS, a student was heard to comment (in Hindi): “Yeh Dehati Logon Ko Admission Dekhar, idhar ka standard karabh kar denge!” The rough translation is: “by enabling these ‘village’ type students to gain admission, we will have ruined the overall standard of this institution!”

It took us five years of operating IDIA to show these students that IDIA scholars hadn’t plunged down their standards. Rather, they contributed significantly to the various activities at the University! Unsurprisingly, given their backgrounds, lack of proficiency in English and relative socio-cultural isolation at the elite law schools, IDIA scholars often struggle in the first two years, with some even failing.

But come their third year, and they begin blossoming. Here is a brief overview of some of our scholar achievements:

i) Shivam, a final year student at the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) was selected to represent NUJS at the prestigious Willem C. Vis Moot competition.

ii) Karthika Annamalai, one of our star IDIA scholars represented India at a world debating and policy championships in Budapest, Europe.

iii) Four of our scholars (Arindam, Shivam, Karthika and Yugal Jain) landed jobs with top tier law firms (Khaitan & Company, AZB and Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas) in their 4th year of law school (one year before graduating).

Apart from the above, some of our scholars, such as Yogendra Yadav, have even begun playing a prominent role within their local communities, as youth leaders and problem solvers.

We have a page on our IDIA website dedicate to the various achievements of our scholars.

CNR Rao, a former scientific advisor to the Prime Minister of India once said: “our Einsteins’ are in our villages.” At IDIA, we’ve adapted this sentiment to: “Our Harts’ are in our villages. Taking this to heart, we’ve decided to intensify our progamme and visit the remotest of Indian villages to locate and groom the HLA Harts (a legendary legal philosopher) of tomorrow.

The IDIA team with Kartika Annamalai, an IDIA scholar going into her final year at the National University of Juridical Sciences, in Kolkata
The IDIA team with Kartika Annamalai, an IDIA scholar going into her final year at the National University of Juridical Sciences, in Kolkata

Long-Term Vision for IDIA

We thought very hard about this and realised that if we are serious about transforming the system as a whole, then our long-term vision must be to become redundant! In other words, there should be no place for an external 3rd party organization such as IDIA to redress the diversity deficit. The ecosystem must be evolved enough to self-correct from time to time and embrace diversity as its core theme. Not just tolerate diversity, but actively embrace and engender it! A lofty goal no doubt, but without such lofty ideals, what is life? As Les Brown once said: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars!”

Further details available on the IDIA website

You can connect with Shamnad on LinkedIn here.

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