With its Bill to amend the National Law School of India Act, 1986, the Karnataka Assembly is seeking to make it mandatory for the NLSIU in Bengaluru, widely regarded as India’s premier law institute, to reserve 50% seats for students domiciled in Karnataka.
It reportedly passed the Bill on the rationale that Karnataka’s students are underrepresented in the NLSIU’s student body and are therefore missing out on a quality legal education. However, it is important to break down this belief based on the demographics of students enrolled in the institution, and ask what changes the domicile reservation is likely to result in if it implemented.
A look at The Elusive Island of Excellence - A Study on Student Demographics, Accessibility and Inclusivity at National Law School 2015-16, the first comprehensive demographic report prepared by students of the institute between 2015 and 2016 is instructive in this regard.
Between 2011-2016, among 389 out of 397 students surveyed (97.9%) – 37 belonged to Karnataka, which stood third in demographic strength only after Uttar Pradesh (64) and Maharashtra (40). Compared to their shares in the national population, only Delhi has a greater overrepresentation in the student body than Karnataka.
If we break down the data on Karnataka students’ hometowns, 29 (76%) are from Bengaluru, followed by two each from Davangere and Mysore, and one each from Bidar, Kolar, Mangalore, Tumkur and Udupi. While it can be empirically ascertained that students at NLSIU belonged to very privileged city backgrounds, the data shows that 133 (34.2%) students belong to Tier-1 cities – Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Chennai, Gurgaon, Howrah, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune and Thane. Amongst them, the highest number of students are from Bengaluru.
It is safe to say that, if the domicile reservations are implemented, NLSIU would be admitting a Bengaluru student, not merely at the expense of students from other metros like Delhi and Mumbai, but also likely at the expense of students from smaller cities and towns across India. And such a reservation, which does not make any consideration for backward districts of Karnataka, would hardly be of any benefit for those areas.
A horizontal domicile reservation, cutting across the existing General, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes reservation would also do little to improve geographical representation within Karnataka. Amongst all the three categories, Karnataka students disproportionately belong to Bengaluru.
Also, whereas the gender ratio is 50:50 amongst these students, nearly all (36 out of 37) identified Hinduism as their family religion. As with the whole of NLSIU, Brahmins (11) formed the biggest caste group among these students, followed by Adi Karnataka students (3). Other groups like Bhovis, Bunts, Patidars, Chettiars, Lingayats, Mochis, Mudaliars, Nairs, Vysyas, Kurubas and Nayakas, also had representation, though marginal.
All of the students spoke English, and 25 of them also spoke Kannada. However, none of the students reported knowing Tulu, Kodava, Konkani or Urdu, the other major languages in Karnataka. While 29 students identified Bengaluru as their hometown, as many as 34 of the Karnataka students reported that they had completed their PUC (or Class 11 and 12) in Bengaluru. Only two of the remaining students had completed the final years of their schooling elsewhere in Karnataka.
From this data, we can see that a domicile-based reservation for Karnataka, for which the only requirement is residence or education for a particular number of years in the state is not going to benefit a great number of intended beneficiaries. It would not help religious minorities of the state nor linguistic minorities nor students from anywhere but Bengaluru.
The good news, if we were to look really hard for it, would be that a higher number of students from Tier-I cities will bring in a greater number of students who know foreign languages. Everyone would be able to speak and write fluent English even before they enter college.
It would also mean good news for local businesses in Nagarbhavi, for Tier-I students spend a considerably higher amount every month (Rs 7700) than others (Rs 6500). Of course, there is not enough data to indicate if Tier-I students actually prefer the local Andhra Swathi restaurant to Swiggy or autos to Ubers.
Three out of four Karnataka students admitted through any admission category between 2011 and 2016 were from Bengaluru. On the other hand, in recent years, the total proportion of students from Tier I cities across India has been coming down drastically. With the implementation of the quota as desired by the Karnataka Assembly, this trend would be reversed, leading to a drastic reduction in diversity in the student body. What this implies is, diversity would be stemmed not merely in geographic terms, but across all indicators.
It is at a great cost however. The results show that while almost all who claim to know the foreign languages belong to Tier-I and Tier-II cities, it is amongst the students originating from smaller towns that we find a greater socio-linguistic diversity. It is in the latter group that we find there are speakers of a variety of Indian languages such as Hadoti, Maithili, Pahadi, and so on. It is these students who have made it to NLSIU from small towns and villages across India who would become endangered. NLSIU Diversity Census (2015-16) data suggests that the likely Karnataka-domicile Bengaluru student is going to quite privileged.
While his/her privilege in itself is not the point of contention in this paper, the impact is. Only in recent years, the proportion of students from Tier-I cities has come down drastically (from 45% to 28%). It is students from other cities and towns who have gained.
Now if the domicile reservations are implemented as mandated, the disproportionate benefit will plausibly go to the students from Bengaluru, as they would outcompete students from other parts of Karnataka. Meanwhile when the all India seats are halved, the probable outcome will be that more privileged students from around the country will displace others. As a consequence, such reservation will make the demographics of NLSIU's student body even more confined to large-city and privileged backgrounds.
NLSIU is arguably the country’s premier law institute. Whether there ought to be domicile-based reservation in an institution which is held in such high esteem, is beyond the purview of this piece. But the form of reservation proposed by the Karnataka government is evidently not in the best interests of Karnataka students.
The Karnataka government would do well to remember that the founder-director NR Madhava Menon had tried to reserve seats under a ‘rural quota’ in the early 1990s. Though the quota was challenged in courts and was decreed unconstitutional, it holds lessons for the present government. If the domicile quota must be implemented, it needs to be qualified by economic, regional, and/or socio-linguistic criterion.
The full text of NLS Diversity Census Report – “The Elusive Island of Excellence - A Study on Student Demographics, Accessibility and Inclusivity at National Law School 2015-16” is available for download at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2788311.
Now graduated, Chirayu Jain is a practising lawyer in Delhi. His merit *cough* privilege *cough* had gotten him admitted in National Law School-Bengaluru five years earlier. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Note: This article has been contributed by an independent contributor.