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NLS Vision 2023: Part II-Student Institutions

Presenting Vision 2023-Authored by Mathew Nevin Thomas (President, SBA) with Aditya Sanjay Mehta (Batch of 2018), Dhruva Murari Gandhi (Batch of 2018), Megha Hemant Mehta (Batch of 2019), Shraddha Gome (Batch of 2018), Shreedhar Abhijit Kale (Batch of 2018)

 This article is Part II of a Report prepared by 6 NLS students (including 2 generations of SBA office bearers) as a framework for the university to adopt in the coming 5 years to resolve the common issues that have cropped up during our time in law school. We hope this will serve as a base plan for the incoming SBA and CoCo to work on during their tenure. 

Part I can be found here

Vision 2023: Part II-Student Institutions

We have already discussed student apathy regarding academics in the first part. Just as bad, if not worse, is student apathy regarding our own institutions and systems. If we do not address this particular vice that has taken hold of our community, it will one day end with us being so feeble that we stop being able to look out for ourselves.

I. The first student institution that has weakened in the last five years, even as it started getting more and more things done, is the SBA itself. One of the biggest facets of student-admin relations under the current Vice-Chancellor has been his open door policy. It has become extremely easy to get a word in for yourself at the highest level, and as a result it has become extremely easy for any individual student to obtain as many favours and solutions as they could possibly need from the Vice-Chancellor. In our five years here, we have seen the office of the UG Chairperson go from being the nodal point for resolution of all academic grievances to being the roadblock to most resolutions, simply because as the Yes Permitted Raj took hold, we started straying testing its limits more and more. In 2015, we started getting the cap on makeups for representing the University lifted. It became possible for someone to claim 25% of attendance as makeup for an international moot, and then to miss even more classes for committee work, which would get them another 15% makeup. From a scenario where we were once only able to claim 15% makeup in a course, some people now claim up to 40%.

A large part of the Office-Bearers’ job became about getting these excessive makeups passed, and getting attendance shortages that have fallen under 60% condoned. As one faculty member remarked in amusement, there is probably no other community of this size where such a large number of people fall sick for such long periods of time. The legitimacy of the demands being made by the SBA to anyone except the Vice-Chancellor keeps shrinking because of how many ostensibly illegitimate / excessive claims kept being made by students to the VC. The job of the SBA is not just to liaise with the VC, but also the faculty, the Examination Department, UG and PG Councils, Hostel Office and Wardens and various other bodies who do a lot of work independent of the VC. Every time someone claims a First Attempt because of minor inconveniences, it comes back to haunt us during negotiations for AER Amendments. Every time someone goes over the IT Committee’s head and gets a LAN cable for themselves, it reduces the motivation of that body to look for permanent solutions to the problems that plague us. As more and more students started taking the Yes Permitteds for granted, the lesser prepared we started becoming for a post-RVR regime (starting April 2019, unless he gets an extension while they look for a new VC).

This has led to an internal pushback – there was enough pushback within the administration for the VC to start replying “referred to X for comments”. FAP being cut because of people claiming money from it for events that fell outside the policy led to SBA and FinComm convincing the VC to start referring the matter back to them. The new UG Chairperson has started becoming the VC’s go-to person for all academic policy. The Yes Permitteds are still coming, but not as frequently as they were last year.

A lot of groundwork is being done to ensure that we are prepared for a post-RVR era. The SBA has presented a comprehensive list of AER Amendments before the UG Chairperson. By the beginning of the next academic year, we are likely to have a system in place for project revaluation, as well as some form of solution for people missing out on attendance marks for medical reasons. Project submissions are being moved online and many other minor changes have already started coming into effect. In the last year of the present VC’s tenure, we must ensure that the remaining changes that have been proposed over the last two years are implemented. It is indeed very fortunate that we have a UG Chairperson who wants to take the University in the right direction academically. It is our responsibility to match him step for step.

II. Over the last few years, student activism has been on the uptake. AoW, the Queer Alliance, the SNHP, SPAC etc. have all significantly contributed to positive discourse and sensitisation on campus, and have all become respectable bodies in their own right. It is important that we continue to foster such bodies, and the baton keeps being passed from one batch to another.

One of the great positives of CLAT in recent years has been the demographic variance of the yearly student intake (even as the number of girls making it has fallen to disturbingly low levels). We cannot say that the student body in general has dealt in the best possible way with the challenges that comes with such variance. Through bodies like the ASI and initiatives like English classes taught by professional instructors, we have worked to make life a lot easier for first years. However, the question has to be asked whether our sensitisation and orientation mechanisms are effective. There is an undeniable toxicity brewing between various parts of the student body, which arises mostly from not being able to reconcile their differences. Below the surface, there is a hostile environment developing against certain kinds of politics and dialogue, which is manifesting itself in many harmful ways. How can we better deal with these differences? There are no easy answers to this question. Most often, we let our egos dictate our positions. Compromise is an ugly word now, and empathy has gone into hiding. Unless we rid ourselves of what have become conventional methods to integrate new students, we will continue to feed the toxicity.

At the core of all student dynamics here is the inability of our community to get along with each other. There is probably something broken about how we even start to get to know each other. In their first month here, students are snatched up by Committees and put to work. You get to know your seniors through the work you do, they are told. And out of that dynamic develops most relationships that you keep with you till the end. People with similar interests find each other, everyone develops a small spider’s web of people they talk to and know, and it ends up that even on a campus of 600 people, we somehow don’t even know the names of half. In many cases, confrontation is also first contact. This is never ideal.

We have to learn to be better than our current personalities. We have to learn to foster a sense of community. We have to stop looking for reasons as to why people are wrong and start looking for reasons to get along with one another. We have to be nicer to people who we don’t agree with, and we have to learn to forgive and forget. No community can be completely free of strife or ego or infighting. But we need to be better, because there is so much scope for us to be better than what we are right now. There is no how-to guide here. No step by step. No SBA Constitution Amendment that we can pass to make us all like each other more. It has to start with conversations. When you see a person you haven’t talked to, try to change that. When you see someone trying to make a point, try and understand that point. When you see someone do something wrong, tell it to their face before telling everyone else. When you see someone struggle, reach out. Build bridges connecting all our islands.

III. The SBA budget is 12 lakhs for every academic year. The money provided under FAP is around 35 lakhs. This year, SIPLA and the MPP Student Council have been added on as takers from the SBA budget. Over the last few years, the proportion of FAP commanded by ADR has blown up. As per the new Constitutional Amendments, all bodies that are observers to the Co-ordination Council can claim a portion, however small, of these funds. Over the next few years, the number of constitutionally authorised bodies making these claims are only likely to keep going up, and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it is even necessary for these bodies to be brought under the ambit of the SBA Constitution so that they start playing by the same rules as everyone else. It is important for all formal student groups to co-exist equitably, even if it means taking budgetary allocation away from some bodies to give unto others, or some activities gaining steam and funding under FAP at the cost of others.

The lesson we should take about the institutional mechanisms set up for, by and under the SBA is that they cannot be static. In the many years since the SBA Constitution came into being, interpretations and conventions changed to such a degree that what is normal and legitimate practices for ABCs have no resemblance to the procedures set out in the Constitution. The latter may have made sense in 2002, but they are just no longer practical or possible for the student body of today. The series of amendments we shall have at the end of this academic year are not – and should not – be the last. The Constitution has to adapt to the needs and expectations of the student body. Every five years, at least, we should conduct a Constitutional Review. We should consider which bodies should become ABCs – and indeed, whether certain ABCs should stay that way.

We should consider the new factors that will inevitably arise then, and modify the Constitution such that it may always be at its most suitable. The same goes for the policies and conventions we follow. We went through three years of Joint-JCs before that was done away with. We had 15 years of separate first-past-the-post SBA elections before we moved to STV. One day, Joint-JCs may return – or we could do away with JCs altogether. One day, we may switch out of STV into another method for elections. The student body, as long as it stays alert and active, can always adapt and evolve. But that’s the catch – can we? The public meeting regarding amendments had abysmal attendance. GBMs never meet quorum. Amendment 1 to the SBA Constitution is only there because the people who put it there clearly understood that this student body is too apathetic to ever come together for procedural reasons. Indeed, we only ever come together and meet quorum requirements when the subject matter is emotional – whether that is domicile-based reservations in 2017-18 or excesses of the SDGM in 2014-15. Only 30-40 per cent of students even respond to faculty feedback forms. This apathy is our greatest enemy. As long as it plagues us, we will forever be reduced to shortcuts like Amendment 1, or in even worse circumstances, inaction.

IV. The Hostel Committees for the most part lie outside the control of student mechanisms, because they serve at the pleasure of the warden. There is, of course, the wonderfully named CHOR for liaising purposes but by and large, the Hostel Committees are independent bodies. In many ways, their proper functioning is much more important for the student community than that of any ABC, and the lack of transparency, particularly in the Disciplinary Bodies, is concerning. In 2017-18, DISCO (Boys) reversed many worrying trends that had been observed in past Committees’ functioning, and were extremely faithful to keeping student matters within the student body even when they could have absolved themselves of responsibility and referred certain matters to DARIC.

However, there are still things that DISCO (Boys) and all the WH Hostel Committees could undertake in the model of GWC and MessComm in the MH, especially with regard to internal democracy. Since 2016-17, these two bodies have elected their Convenors and JCs – a system that has worked out well for them. The Wardens do not have an issue with the Convenors being elected – in fact, they might even prefer it that way. It only takes the initiative of the members of those committees to make their functioning a little more democratic.

Another aspect of these Committees that we should focus on is that they do not take into account the work done by their members at the stage of their re-appointment, except through informal advice given by the respective Convenors and JCs to the Warden. There is no reason why the work cannot be tabulated – much like ABC points, the number of grievances cleared, hearings attended, room-checks taken and interactions with hostel staff can all easily be logged and vetted, so that people who do real work are rewarded and favouritism is clamped down on. This again is something that can only be initiated by the students, since the Wardens often go by what the students think is the best system. The current systems are only perpetuated because these Committees, for whatever reason, prefer for there to be a lack of transparency in their appointments. While it may be understandable as to why the DISCOs, for eg., would not want for there to be whole or even partial transparency in how they enforce the hostel rules, when it comes to appointments themselves, this lack of transparency is merely a selfish choice that we have chosen to make. We can certainly do better than that.

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