When he was teaching at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WB NUJS), Prof Shamnad Basheer noticed that a majority of students at this premier legal institution came from urban, English-speaking, English-medium-educated backgrounds. This was a pattern that repeated across elite law institutes, with richer, English-speaking youngsters forming a majority of the students. This is not at all representative of the diverse population of the country.
Prof Basheer realised that by placing the tool of legal knowledge in their hands and allowing them to take up their own cause, he would be empowering underprivileged people far more meaningfully and removing their reliance on privileged people. He made up his mind to initiate an effort to increase access to millions of students from underprivileged backgrounds and marginalised communities. Then, with the support of the then vice chancellor of WB NUJS,
Prof MP Singh, he conceptualised IDIA—Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access. A not-for-profit entity called IDIA Charitable Trust was set up with Dr Basheer, Prof Singh as well as Justice Ruma Pal and Shishira Rudrappa.
IDIA works with a community of dynamic student volunteers. Dr Basheer says, “Their passion and motivation on the ground keeps the organisation charged up and constantly engaged.” Interacting with the IDIA scholars is also a learning opportunity for the team which works at converting each adversity into an advantage and build resilience. These volunteers travel to specific schools and begin with sensitising students, teachers and parents about the benefits of a legal education. IDIA then conducts a basic aptitude test to identify promising students. These students are guided and trained to for the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) which includes help with written and spoken English. It provides study material which will now be provided online as well. IDIA is also working with national law colleges to get fee waivers for scholars to help pay their way through college or arrange support from lawyers and law school alumni.
Candidates who clear CLAT are also allotted mentors in law schools to guide them and to ensure that they are not rendered as ‘misfits’ or feel ‘socially awkward’ in law schools but hone their talents and abilities to their fullest potential.
While this work began in West Bengal, IDIA now has local chapters operating from New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ranchi, Jodhpur, Gangtok, Bhopal, Cochin, Gandhinagar, Bengaluru, Chennai, Guwahati, Bhubaneswar, Lucknow, Patna, Cuttack and Hyderabad.
Getting the law institutes to see the value of diversity on campus and to understand that IDIA scholars are not charity cases that would cause the institutes’ standards to plunge, was a challenge. Over time, it became evident that IDIA scholars did well and are actively engaged in campus activities, after overcoming the initial hurdle of dealing with English as a medium of instruction and the relative socio-cultural isolation that occurs in the first year or two. IDIA arranges for financial support for IDIA scholars, once they gain admission into the top law schools. Fund-raising is a huge challenge. “On the one hand, law institutes are constantly rising tuition fees but there is no corresponding increase in scholarships/waivers. On the other hand, there is the constant hunt for institutional support for funding which is, strangely, not forthcoming within the country,” says Shruthi Chandrasekaran, director, IDIA.
IDIA believes that “a good legal education enables the cultivation of personal autonomy, intellectual independence and the development of critical life skills beyond the traditional goals of teaching/training/learning of specific skills.”
Its ultimate goal is bigger. Ms Chandrasekaran says, “In the long run, we hope that the ecosystem evolves to self-correct from time to time and embrace diversity as its core theme, to the point that the presence of an external third-party organisation addressing the diversity deficit (such as IDIA) is rendered unnecessary.”
All donations to IDIA are exempt from income-tax under Section 80-G.
IDIA Charitable Trust
No. E 1/9, Hanumanthappa Layout,
Ulsoor Road, Bengaluru – 560 042