'I realised I could become an insider': from 'poor tribal boy' to elite lawyer

 

KAVITHA RAO -Theguardian.com


Lalcha loves the law. “I am a poor tribal boy from a remote state with a background of insurgency, brought up entirely on charity. I have been an outsider all my life. But when I became interested in the law, I realised this was a powerful tool I could use to become an insider, and give back to my people,” he says.

 

Sixteen years ago, a seven-year old Lalcha (his full name is Thangminlal Haokip) fled bloody tribal riots in his home state of Manipur, in north eastern India. His parents, members of the Kuki tribe, were cultivators in the hills, making a precarious living and rearing six children in a mud hut. With 40 other frightened Kuki children, Lalcha (as he likes to be known), travelled to his uncle, a pastor in the southern city of Bangalore.

 

Over the next ten years, he was shuttled from one charity home to another, and educated in a charity school. The culture shock at first was overpowering. “There were seven houses in my village,” he says. “That’s how small it was. Then I come to a huge city like Bangalore, where I could not speak English or any of the local languages.”

 

In all these years away, he has only been home twice, because he can’t afford the travel costs. He’s now 23, as near as he can estimate. “I don’t have a birth certificate because I was born at home, and nobody kept a record.”

 

But today Lalcha studies at India’s most pre-eminent law school, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU). To get in, he passed the notoriously gruelling entrance test taken by nearly 50,000 students annually. Only the top 50 get into NLSIU, and will go on to have glittering legal careers (graduates are amongst the highest paid in the country).

 

India’s law profession is extraordinarily elitist – heavily dominated by affluent, Hindu upper caste males from big cities with family in the profession. India’s 18 elite law schools – the National Law Universities or NLUs (similar to the Russell Group in the UK), which charge a tuition of about Rs 200,000 per year (£2,450). The average wage for skilled employees in India is about Rs 50,000 a month (£619), while for unskilled employees it is Rs 11,900 a month (£147) and for small farmers, domestic servants and factory workers can be as low as Rs 6,000 ( £74).

And the tuition fees are not the only expense. The essential coaching classes needed to crack the test run at about Rs 50,000 per course (£619). These sums are entirely unaffordable for a huge majority of the country.

 

A 2014 survey of the students in these universities revealed that only 1% came from schools where instruction is in the local language and not English, while 80% had parents who were either in business, or the civil services, other government services, medicine or law. To add to the barriers, the entrance exam is entirely in English. While some seats are reserved for disadvantaged students from lower castes, most of these still tend to be from affluent families, says Lalcha. And finally, students over 20 are barred from entering NLUs. This means that students like Lalcha, whose education is disrupted and patchy, are at a disadvantage.

 

But an extraordinary student-run movement called Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) is now taking aim at that elitism – and Lalcha is one of several hundred young Indians who are now trying to breach the fortress walls. IDIA was started in 2010 by former NLSIU graduate and academic Shamnad Basheer, a visiting professor at NLSIU who has years of teaching experience in several NLUS . “All my students were alike: affluent, English speaking, all from the big metros, all from the same schools even.”

 

Today, IDIA has 500 student volunteers from the various NLUS, operating in 23 different states. The volunteers visit remote states and tiny schools that teach in regional languages. There they identify students with an aptitude for legal reasoning, but also with what Basheer calls “fire in the belly.” The students are put through gruelling training and assigned mentors to prepare for the Common Law Assessment Test (CLAT).

 

250 students have been trained so far, and 89 have got into law schools. Their fees are paid by IDIA. Among these are children of stonecutters, farmers, small shopkeepers and construction labourers. Many have an income of only Rs 70,000 per year (£855). 21 are women, 23 are disabled – including some visually impaired students – and 29 are from lower castes. A small but increasing number have now been offered well-paying jobs at corporate law firms, earning in one month what their fathers earned in a year.

 

This success masks immense difficulties on the way. “In the entrance test, there were questions about Premier League football. I love football, but how would I ever have the chance to watch the Premier League in a charity home with no cable TV?” asks Lalcha. Other sample questions unintelligible to non-urban students, or indeed, most students: “Which Indian historian is the Plato of the East?” or “What is the speed of Japan’s Maglev train?” Basheer has currently filed a public interest litigation in India’s Supreme Court asking for the CLAT to be changed to make it more friendly to all students. He’s also asking for the age limit to be scrapped.

 

Lalcha, one of the luminaries of the project, is a slight young man with a mop of tousled hair who smiles easily and often. He speaks slowly and calmly, with no trace of resentment over his difficult life.

 

In his first year, Lalcha could barely find the courage to speak up in class. “I was surrounded by kids whose parents are lawyers, judges, doctors. My parents didn’t even study beyond grade three,” he says. “I failed two or three papers the first year. I wanted to drop out, but really I had no choice but to go on.”

 

This is a familiar pattern. Most IDIA scholars fail several subjects the first year or two, but then their natural resilience kicks in. So too with Lalcha, who says he lives in two different worlds. He sits in the gleaming college library surrounded by shelves of expensive books, but his home state, Manipur, did not even get a high court until three years ago.

 

But IDIA has another goal beyond making student bodies more diverse. It also wants to narrow the justice gap. Ensuring equal justice for all is a sustainable development goal but India, like most countries, is way behind. There is currently a backlog of 27m cases, most dragging on for decades. There are only 13 judges for every million people. The Indian constitution and various laws guarantee legal aid to the poor in theory. In practice, the poor are often forced to make do with disinterested lawyers and callous treatment.

 

This is where IDIA comes in. “We wanted to flip legal aid on its head,” says Basheer. “Instead of getting posh lawyers to take up pro bono work for the poor and treat them like charity cases, why not turn the poor into lawyers and give them a tool to help themselves?”

So IDIA is now helping coach its students in what it calls “clinical law”: practical ways to negotiate India’s complicated legal system. They emphasise alternative methods such as mediation and the Right to Information Act (RTI) which allows anyone to seek information from the government within 30 days. This is much faster and easier than regular litigation. One of the IDIA students, a woman from a settlement of stonecutters who have been threatened with eviction, is helping her community fight back by filing an RTI petition.

IDIA’s students often offer a different, valuable perspective, an alternative to the traditional litigation that India is choking on. “Disputes in our village are settled by the tribal council. It’s like a kind of mediation and saves everybody money and time,” says Lalcha. “The British brought in their colonial system of litigation and imposed a cost at every step, plus acres of paperwork. Why not have more alternative dispute resolution? ”

 

Lalcha is considering joining the judicial services in Manipur. “I have not paid a single rupee by way of education fees my entire life – I am a product of charity – so I want to give back to my community. Being a judge seems the best way to bring about change, quickly.”

 

But he too feels the crushing pressure to earn straight away, and well-paying legal positions in Manipur are rare. “My family expects me to give them something when I start earning …” His voice trails off. There is temptation perhaps, to join a commercial firm in the glittering cities of Mumbai and Delhi, and begin earning serious money for the first time in his life.

But then he brightens up, and says with determination, “There may be poverty in Manipur, but there is humanity. I am going back.”

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