In conversation with Adya Jha and Dakshita Chopra on launching SAHYOG- A Pro Bono Research Project

Adya Jha and Dakshita Chopra are recent graduates (2020 batch) from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. Adya is an incoming associate at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co. while Dakshita is an Associate at L&L Partners. Last year, they launched SAHYOG, a first of its kind pro bono research project in an Indian law school to improve access to justice.

They have been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Raksha Raina who is currently pursuing law from NUJS.

  1. Hi Adya and Dakshita!Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with our readers.Can you tell us a bit about SAHYOG and its vision?

Hello!Thank you for having us for this interview. SAHYOG finds its roots in the principle of access to justice for all, which is deeply ingrained in the Constitution of India. The burden of work amidst the lakhs of pending cases often acts as a limitation for accomplished lawyers to advocate the cause of the needy. SAHYOG, as an initiative, proposes to ease this restraint by providing a platform that connects student researchers from NUJS with lawyers and organisations that provide pro bono services. We started this project in September 2019 with the hope of channeling our legal education towards improving access to justice in our country.

As we move forward on our journey, we see SAHYOG extending its reach as far as possible. Accordingly, we hope to increase our base to student researchers across law schools and not just NUJS, in the near future. We would also like to work towards bringing home the model of legal aid camps in law firms, as is prevalent abroad. We believe that our research assistants can successfully share the additional work burden to ensure that pro bono work is undertaken as effectively as regular work in these organisations.

2. How did you develop the idea behind SAHYOG? What motivated you to start such a unique project?

SAHYOG’s idea is a fairly simple one. Law students shoulder the burden of lawyers and organisations involved in pro bono work by way of providing research assistance. This originated from a chance conversation that led us to question how a simple model capable of making a difference in the community has never been implemented in an Indian law school. Both of us instantly knew and believed that SAHYOG would prove to be the perfect avenue for us to inculcate the culture of pro bono lawyering in NUJS from the very beginning of a student’s legal education. We were also motivated to use our legal skills to further our commitment towards equal access to justice.

3. How has your journey been so far? What are your main areas of focus?

The experience was incredibly challenging but equally rewarding. Thepast year has been a period of tremendous learning for us, including the experience of contributing  1000+ pro bono hours. The overwhelming interest and the positive feedback we have received reinforces our team’s ambition to reach those pockets of society that were earlier implausible in the capacity as mere students. The beginning of our journey has built a solid foundation for SAHYOG, where we have been able to make a tangible difference by regularly working alongside lawyers and organisations such as Justice Ventures India, iProbono, Chambers of Mr. Arvind Datar, Mr. Adit Pujari, Ms. Surabhi Dhar and Mr. Suhail Malik.  Last year, we worked on legal issues across a wide variety of areas like constitutional law, criminal procedure law, labour law, human trafficking law, POSH, and  POCSO.  However, we have not restricted the scope of research assistance offered by our team to specific areas of law. We are now also taking up drafting work and have already concluded assignments on drafting bail applications and trust deeds.

4. Did you face any roadblocks? If yes, how did you overcome them?

We faced our first roadblock at the beginning of our long journey when we pitched our proposal to a lawyer for the first time. She rejected the proposal and suggested we remodel our project to the conventional internship system as lawyers might not be willing to outsource their work to another organisation. However, one of our founding principles has been to provide a platform for the personal involvement of studentsfrom the beginning to the end, unlike an internship where one only works on some legal issues for a few weeks. We strongly believe that personal involvement in the legal issues of the disadvantaged can be one of the most gratifying experiences in the life of an aspiring lawyer. With this goal in mind, we continued working towards building a space for SAHYOG, wherein we have now successfully assisted in over 25 assignments.

Another roadblock, less of a problem, more of a learning experience, came in the form of the disorganised chain of communication that exists between lawyers and students. Initially, the two of us were managing all forms of communication from introducing SAHYOG, understanding the assignment, assigning RAs to seeking clarifications, and being involved in the follow-upprocess. Since the number of projects has been steadily increasing, we have learned the importance of streamlining different stages of an assignment.We felt the need to have dedicated teams for Public Relations and Design to expand our reach.  We are also encouraging more communication between our commissioning partners and senior research assistants to ensure more effective completion of assignments. These changes have helped us in taking up more assignments and contributing as far and wide as possible.

We think that if one finds a purpose that they feel passionate about and a team that they enjoy working with, everything works out. Fortunately, we have all found such a purpose and team in SAHYOG.

  1. How has your experience been with your team so far?

When we started in 2019, our team consisted of around 32 members. This year, the SAHYOG family is 70 members strong, with Devashri Mishra and Swarna Sengupta of the 5th Year coming on board as Coordinators. Dhwani Parekh and Vani Kaushik are heading our PR team, and Sreekanth R is in charge of our Design team.

Speaking of our experience with our driven and dedicated team over the past year, it has been nothing short of phenomenal. Their personal investment in SAHYOG has been extremely rewarding not just for us but for the initiative as a whole. Each member has been very cooperative and understanding, whether in terms of meeting deadlines or excusing us for certain oversights on our end. Without them, SAHYOG wouldn’t have metamorphosed from just an idea into a movement for encouraging pro-bono lawyering.

Devashri and Swarna have been a very integral part of our scaling-up process, which began a few months ago. They plunged right into the initiative, treating it as their own, and brought fresh perspectives on the table, which SAHYOG had started lacking. Since taking charge, Dhwani, Vani, and Sreekanth have increased our digital presence multifold and are making an effort every day for SAHYOG to become bigger and better.

  1. Can you tell us about the most gratifying case you have dealt with so far?

There was a case of a mother and daughter being prosecuted under the Passports Act for illegal entry into India even though they had been trafficked from Bangladesh and forced into local prostitution. We assisted by researching on the repatriation process of sex trafficking victims, placing a special focus on the Bangladeshi and Nepalese victims, as the traffickers in India frequently target victims from these two neighbouring countries.

This project was especially gratifying because not only were we able to help the victims in the instant case, but the handbook on repatriation procedures prepared by us was issued as a ready reference to all branches of Justice Ventures, the organisation which we had collaborated with for this project. The lack of clarity on procedures is a major hindrance in such cases. We hope that our research and assistance would give a clearer idea about how to facilitate repatriation and help more such victims.

  1. How did you balance law school activities and academics alongside running SAHYOG?

We feel that the key to pursuing any extra-curricular or co-curricular activity, along with maintaining steady grades, is effective time management and sticking to a schedule. In the initial months, SAHYOG required an investment of around 2 hours every day, which kept reducing as the months went by. We knew that this would require us to sacrifice a little bit on the time we spent with our friends but made sure that 2 hours of our day were spent in conceptualising SAHYOG. So, you just need to mentally make a note of the number of hours you want to spend on a particular activity and follow through on this commitment you have made to yourself.  This way, any academic commitments remain undisturbed.

  1. What is your biggest takeaway from the process of establishing SAHYOG and working so efficiently for almost a year now?

The biggest takeaway over the past one year has definitely been that perseverance never fails anyone or anything. Despite all the rebuffs and doubts that a few persons from the legal fraternity cast on the initiative, we were able to build a community of public-spirited students just as we had envisaged. Even though it only human to feel disheartened when SAHYOG did not resonate with someone, we did not lose hope. Every day we made an effort to plug any gaps that existed in our proposed model and stayed the course. Our advice to anyone who is embarking on a new venture, hold tight and give in your best; the rest will follow.

  1. How can interested students and lawyers get in touch with you?

Our team is currently restricted to the students of NUJS, Kolkata. However, setting up chapters of SAHYOG in other law schools is also in the pipeline. We have already received requests from students in other parts of the country and are working out the modalities to facilitate such an expansion.

As for lawyers or organisations who are interested in collaborating with us, they can drop us an email on sahyog.probono@gmail.com. We will revert to them within 24 hours. More information about SAHYOG and the work that we do can be found on our Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn handles.

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