The Domicile Debate: How most NLUs came to have state quotas

Over the past few years, most states have introduced domicile quotas of varying sizes in NLUs. Students, alumni and former administrators continue to oppose this policy.

The Domicile Debate: How most NLUs came to have state quotas
Abhay Anand | Feb 22, 2021 - 6:12 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: The National Law University (NLU) Delhi last year implemented state domicile reservations after much pressure from the state government and resistance from students and alumni. The Karnataka government’s attempt to introduce a 25 percent quota for its residents at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, is pending in the Supreme Court. Over the past few years, most National Law Universities (NLUs) – old and new – have freshly reserved seats for students from the states in which they are located, or taken steps to expand the quotas.

This hasn’t gone smoothly. Students, alumni, former vice-chancellors and some of the best-known figures in legal education have opposed this change arguing that large quotas based on domicile will diminish the NLUs’ “national character”. For several institutions, the attempts led to court cases.

In the case of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, the Karnataka government plans 25 percent reservation while local lawyers demand 50 percent. NALSAR Hyderabad planned to offer 50 percent seats to locals, but at present around 20 percent seats are being offered. The West Bengal National Law University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS) reserved 30 of percent seats for the state last year, and National Law University Odisha, 25 percent. Newer NLUs such as Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla, have had quotas for local students from the start. The 25 percent quota proposed for NLU Jodhpur is yet to be implemented.

State laws, national character

The fight over domicile quotas has its genesis in the way the NLUs came up.

They were never envisioned as state institutions but as national ones – open to students and faculty from across the country. When the Bar Council of India, the regulatory body for legal education, took the initiative of setting up the first, NLSIU Bengaluru, in 1986, the law underpinning it was not framed to be state-centric either. These institutions were created as “national institutions”, intended to engage in “nation-building” from the start.

Late NR Madhava Menon, the founder-director of NLSIU had told Bar and Bench: “I am not in favour of it [NLSIU Bengaluru quota] for the simple reason that it was conceived as a national institution. Doing anything to dilute that would not be welcome. Even otherwise, Karnataka students are coming in on merit in adequate numbers. It was not a demand from Karnataka when it was started. If the government wanted, another campus could have been built. But NLSIU, being a model institution for the rest of the country, should remain a national institution.”

However, despite the name, the NLUs have all been established under state laws, on state land and although largely self-financed, some still receive state funds. The state governments provide the initial grant for basic infra-structure and thereafter, provide limited or no funding.

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That is at the root of the conflict. Supporters of domicile reservation argue that state quotas help disadvantaged students study in reputed institutions close to home and they later contribute to the states’ development.

Former NLU administrators disagree. “State quotas will turn NLUs into regional institutions,” said Paramjit Jaswal, former Vice-Chancellor of the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law (RGNUL), Punjab. “We already have a social reservation system in place for SCs, STs and OBCs.”

ProfRanbir Singh, former and founding VC of NLU Delhi and former VC of NALSAR University of Law Hyderabad, agreed. “Despite the fact that the NLUs are created by states, they were meant to have a national character. They were envisaged to only have central reservation and not state reservation so that students from any stream, any part of the country can join. But states started to push for it and now almost all the NLUs have state quotas.”

Seats without support

Many alumni and faculty members associated with National Law Universities are not against the idea of providing seats to students from the state, but oppose reserving large sections of seats. Some also fear that the benefit of state quotas will not reach aspirants in the rural areas who need it most but will be hijacked by the affluent, urban students instead.

Aman Saxena“Reservation is meant to target specific inequities or backwardness and lack of equal opportunity. It doesn’t dilute quality. If implemented properly with a clear vision, it is a great tool of affirmative action,” said Aman Saxena, NLSIU Bengaluru alumnus and currently, an advocate at the Chhattisgarh High Court. Despite that stand, he’s against the state quota at NLSIU. Explaining the opposition, he said: “It is three-fold. First, it is the best law school in the country and it must remain a national institute, its national character ought to be preserved so that every student from all parts of the country gets equal opportunity to study here.”

Secondly, opponents argue that the quota is unnecessary at NLSIU Bengaluru and, if implemented, is unlikely to serve the intended purpose. “The specific inequity that the domicile reservation seeks to address is the lack of state representation in the institute and opportunities for its residents,” explained Saxena. “While that may be true for some National Law Universities, it is not for NLSIU. Every year, about eight to ten students from Karnataka make it to NLS, which is about 10-15 percent of the seats. A 25 percent reservation would have just pushed in more kids from Bengaluru into law school and not students from remote parts of Karnataka like Dharwad etc.”

Finally, the state is demanding too much for the contribution it makes to the institution, he said. “NLS historically has received a very paltry contribution from the state government and is completely self-funded. It receives barely Rs. 2 crore a year in grants from the state government which has now been slashed to only Rs. 50 lakh. With that kind of contribution, the state government really cannot seek additional reservation as it is not backed by the state support.”

Law schools in court

In September 2020, the Karnataka High Court struck down the NLSIU Amendment Act 2020 introducing the 25 percent domicile reservation. It was contrary to the parent law and the institute was getting students primarily from the privileged communities in Bengaluru. NLSIU Bengaluru VC declined to comment.

The Calcutta High Court had also issued an interim stay on the 30 percent domicile reservation at WBNUJS, Kolkata, but later allowed it on September 30, 2020. A writ petition has been filed challenging it.

The introduction of state quota in NLU Delhi in May 2020 was also opposed in the court. A group of NLU Delhi students even sought the Chief Justice of India’s (CJI) intervention. “The quota will dilute the quality of these institutions in the long run,” said a student who was part of that group and asked not to be named. “We wanted the Chief Justice to save the national character of our university. An NLU stands for high standards of legal education and it is important that it remains accessible to individuals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and not merely to those with the good fortune of having lived in a metropolitan city like New Delhi.”

Singh said that the Delhi Government wanted 80 percent state quota in NLU Delhi, like in other Delhi Government-run institutions, but NLU Delhi’s governing council rejected the proposal every time. “Delhi Government even stopped grants to NLU and the matter also reached court. Later 50 percent reservation was introduced in a phased manner,” said Singh.

Saxena argues for a “rational approach”. “It provides opportunities for students from states, however, there must be a rational approach,” he said. “50 percent reservation straight away dilutes their national character. Certain institutes are of national importance and every student must get an equal opportunity to join them. The domicile quota must be restricted in them. In the rest, it is fair game, however, the quota must be backed with redirecting resources toward the institute by the state.”

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