We speak to Nupur Sinha from the Centre for Social Justice. This NLS, Bangalore graduate (Class of 1994) is the Executive Director and Founding Member of the Centre for Social Justice and Indian Institute of Paralegal Studies. She tells us about the challenges of running an NGO, law students today and what ails the Indian legal education system.
Bar & Bench: First, a little bit about yourself and the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ)
Nupur Sinha: I am Nupur Sinha. I graduated from National Law School, Bangalore in 1994 and I have been working for the Centre for Social Justice for the last 15 years in Ahmedabad.
We are basically an organisation that is a group of lawyers and paralegals. Our key focus is on access to justice, ensuring that the poor and the vulnerable get their dues. That has been the focus that we have been working with.
Bar & Bench: Why did you choose CSJ?
Nupur Sinha: Well, when I graduated in 1994 I dont think access to justice was a very well established concept. Like within Bangalore I did not find anything which would absorb me. In Lucknow I did not find anything that would absorb me.
There were one or two instances of some organisations such as Majlis, HRLN etc. that were there but I think CSJ has been pioneering in demonstrating institutional intervention.
Bar & Bench: What is institutional intervention?
Nupur Sinha: We are not based on individual lawyers. There are many initiatives across the country which are based entirely on individual lawyers. Till that particular lawyer is there, that initiative works, otherwise it does not. At that point of time I think the model of individual lawyers doing rights-based work was prevalent. I think the difference that CSJ brought about was in terms of institutionalising a model which made sure that people have access to justice.
Bar & Bench: What was the first project that you worked on?
Nupur Sinha: See when I joined here the organisation was quite small. My growth and the organisation's growth have been parallel. There was nothing on the ground at that point of time, it was a very new organisation. This was good for me because I got an empty canvas to paint on.
There were two things that we started with initially: one was a paralegal training program for local organisations working in the development sector. So we trained their people as paralegals. And immediately that created a demand because paralegals can work uptil a certain level but when the cases come, you need the help of a lawyer.
So that expereience automatically led us to the second project: try to find lawyers. When we started identifying lawyers, we had an open advertisment and we got a lot of applications. And we thought that they were trained lawyers and we need to sensitize them on general human rights issues.
When we started training them, however, we realised that its the reverse: they come from the community and therefore they have the passion and the drive to bring about change. They have been discriminated against so they want to fight for justice.
But their understanding of law is zero. I mean you had to teach them the difference between the civil and criminal procedure!
Bar & Bench: And these were law graduates?
Nupur Sinha: These were law graduates who came to us. That is how we started our fellowship program which was for lawyers from vulnerable communities such as dalits, women, tribals, minorities etc.
Their stories are quite interesting. Some have parents who were daily wagers and who themselves have done majdoori and have studied law. So they come from extremely poor backgrounds, basically rural people who have become lawyers.
These lawyers work at the taluk/district court level. We were very clear that we did not want to be a High Court or Supreme Court based organisation.
Bar & Bench: Why?
Nupur Sinha: For a simple reason really. Look at the number of pro-poor judgments given by the High Courts and the Supreme Court. Most of these judgments have no impact on the ground because there is no one to push for it. Our focus has been on ensuring that people at the grassroot are getting justice.
We have definitely always had a back up at the High Court. Something which is of a larger nature, which has a policy level implication......these are matters we definitely take up at the High Court or even the Supreme Court level.
Bar & Bench: What do you think are the reasons that NGO's rarely are the first option for law graduates these days?
Nupur Sinha: I think there are two reasons for this. When I went to law school, social justice, role of law in social change, all that was given importance. We never studied economics as economics and law as law. And you know, nowadays, history and economic teachers are treated with much disdain, like “non-law” teachers.
We never studied like that, we studied an integrated course. So when we studied economics or social issues, the relevant laws were always integrated into the course.
So I think the basic orientation [of law schools] has changed.
The bad thing has been that with the UGC coming in, people who had the passion, the understanding and the ability to actually practice alternative methodology, all of them had to move out because they were not PhD holders. The whole culture I see in law colleges these days is very, very different from what we had experienced.
Second thing is the kind of fees that is charged...I have a lot of students who say that “Ma'am karna to hai but I have a bank loan what to do?” (I would like to work with an NGO but I have a loan to repay)
And that is how we came out with a fellowship model where we said that if there is a person who is interested but is not able to pursue his dream because of reasons of money, we provide an interim arrangement so that a person can take care of his basic needs.
Bar & Bench: If you come out of law school, you might be a bit intimidated by the sheer size of the challenge. Is that something you faced when you came out of law school?
Nupur Sinha: I had this whole understanding...there was a lot of levelling that happened. Levelling in terms of what I thought was possible and what is actually possible. When I joined CSJ, I actually believed in kranti (revolution), that kranti ho sakti hai (a revolution can take place). And that I am a part of that kranti.
With experience and with maturity, you learn that when you say kranti ho sakti hai it means that in five villages you will bring about change.
But the point is that that one conviction in one village will mean that there wont be any atrocity cases for the next 10 years. That is also kranti. Kranti is not a social change that will happen overnight. I think those are the levelling experiences which you learn with practice and with experience.
Bar & Bench: So when you look back, what is the advice you would give to law students or lawyers who are about to work with an NGO or do something similar to what you are doing?
Nupur Sinha: Three things. The first is don't question your decision every second day. Tell youself that, “For the next three years this is what I am going to do, come what may.”
If you question the decision every second day, you are in trouble. You are not the most productive. The chances are that you will drop out and not actually know what is possible and how you, not society, is going to benefit.
Second, I will say that familial, societal and all these kind of pressures ultimately fall into place. When they see what you are doing and when they see the value of what you are doing, they will respect you for who you are.
That is the second thing I can say.
And the third thing that I can say is that money does not bring you happiness. You have to find what truly brings you happiness and not what society says brings you happiness.
Bar & Bench: What gives you happiness?
Nupur Sinha: The work that i am doing. I always say that agar bhagat singh ne socha hota ki mera insurance nahi hai to hum azaad nahi hote. (If Bhagat Singh had worried about his insurance dues, we would not be a free country today)
Bar & Bench: How has the study of law helped you?
Nupur Sinha: Well, what I am doing is directly linked to what I have been studying. I am literally applying everything that I have learned. Though in my initial years, I was very anti-law school saying that it destroyed me completely-
Bar & Bench: Why?
Nupur Sinha: We'll let that pass (smiles). But now I think I recognise the value of the rigour, the hard work that we had to go through. The conceptual clarity that I have etc. I think all that can be credited to law school.
In our days though, law school was very different. I mean each of our projects would have para-wise comments. That is the kind of rigour that we had not gone through.
There was not a day when we would have studied less than 12 hours...You got used to a system of hard work. I think that is the value additions which good education gives you.
Bar & Bench: You mentioned that law schools are expensive. What do you think can be done to change this?
Nupur Sinha: Well you could have scholarships. Ultimately if you are not changing the things around you and just putting in money for yourselves, then who is going to think about the country?
You pay money, you get the education, you go to a corporate and you make your family happy. What good does that to the nation?
And law schools have to understand that if they are not actually reaching out to people who can't afford the high fees, then what good are they doing?
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) had a very interesting model which we are trying to replicate on a very small scale. TISS actually has a rural campus. Where they take people from the vulnerable community and they are made to overcome the same syllabus. But in the vernacular, you know.
So I think there are many creative options which law schools should adopt.
One of the things we managed to get was this Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship for young lawyers. Its is quite similar to our program. The Bar is supposed to recruit lawyers from the vulnerable community and train them for two years. The local, so called “hi-fi” law schools are supposed to provide the education.
But if you look at the curriculum, it does not enable a person to practice at the local level at all. It [the course] is all about arbitration, Information Technology etc. but it has nothing to do with enabling that lawyer to make a change in society.
These things can be done so much more sensibly but there is no vision. There has to be someone who is thinking about these things.
Bar & Bench: So if you had a wishlist for things law schools could do 5 years down the line, what would the list contain?
Nupur Sinha: I would say definitely a rural campus where they are creating situations to place lawyers from vulnerable communities at par with urban graduates.
I would like an increased number of scholarships which are specifically meant for students who are interested in pursuing social justice issues.
Why cant these corporate firms give fellowships such as LfC? Why should it be the role of a donor agency? Why can't these firms say that “Ok after every 5 years that a person has been with the firm, one year they have to intern with a local organisaiton”?
Because we can never buy that kind of talent, yes?
Bar & Bench: But how could corporate lawyers help organisations such as CSJ?
Nupur Sinha: Well, by their level of skills. I have not really thought about this but corporate firms can have CSR's. Ultimately, even if you have not studied the Atrocities Act you still have the language and the skills to analyse any legislation right? The orientation that has to be done can be done by people like us.
Why can't law colleges facilitate this? Why can't they take the stand that they will only allow those law firms to come to campus [for recruitment] which have such CSRs?
That is something that can be done
Bar & Bench: Last question: why do you think one should study law?
Nupur Sinha: It keeps several options open. You can join the IAS, you can practice, you can to to NGO's or corporate firms. None of your options other than science are closed. I remember there was this senior of mine Aparna. After graduation from law school, she went to a village of potters and lived there and she is a potter now!
Ultimately, whatever it is that you decide to do you have to want to do it otherwise you will be very unhappy. It has to come from within.