This past spring break, I had the opportunity to travel to Delhi, India as a field trip extension of “Global Poverty and the Law,” a course taught by Professor Erik Jensen and Dr. Dinsha Mistree in the Winter Quarter at Stanford Law School. Each class during the Winter Quarter, we explored a discrete topic related to global poverty and corruption, ranging from different methods to measure poverty, foreign aid, legal rights to human development. During our weeklong visit in India, we were then able to see how many of the concepts and solutions we had learned about in the classroom were applied and implemented in the real world. Along with our two professors, a total of 12 students went on the trip. Thanks to the conscientious planning by our counterpart, Jindal Global Law School, I know I speak for everyone when I say that the Stanford team had a truly memorable, eye-opening experience.
Our agenda in India was filled with eventful conversations. During the span of five days, we met with lawyers, judges, politicians, scholars, leaders in civil society and senior bureaucrats actively involved in anticorruption efforts. Approaching similar topics from different angles, the meetings altogether helped us better understand India—a country that, while still suffering from extreme poverty and corruption, strives to combat both issues not only on the governmental and judicial levels but also on the grass root level. For example, we met with Dr. Bibek Debroy, economist at NITI-Aayog (a policy think tank under the Government of India) and the Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr. Shri K. V. Chowdary, the Central Vigilance Commissioner, Smt. Meekakshi Lekhi, a lawyer and member of the Indian Parliament. We also met with key decision makers in the judicial branch: we visited a District Court in Delhi, had a conversation over dinner with Justice Gita Mittal, the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court and visited Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri, one of the Supreme Court Justices, at his residence. The sessions were all very interactive, through which we were able to learn more about governmental programs such as the Right to Information Act (similar to FOIA in the U.S.), cash transfer and ration programs that assist the poor and legal services at different levels that help facilitate the poor’s access to justice. In addition to engaging with members in the formal political and judicial system, we also talked to advocates contributing to anti-corruption efforts from outside the system. For instance, we met with Mr. Venkatesh Nayak, a human rights advocate dedicated to using Right to Information to promote transparency and accountability of the government. We also completed a site visit to one of the rural villages covered by Sehgal Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to spreading legal literacy and awareness in rural India through the establishment of good governance at the village level.
And of course, while the trip was deeply rich in academic content, we also had a chance to explore what a country as culturally enriching as India has to offer. Before the formal meetings began, we made a trip to Agra to see Taj Mahal, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. On the second to last day, we made new connections while dining with a group of Stanford alumni now settled in the Delhi area. Over generous servings of butter chicken and garlic naan, the conversations carried late into the night as we shared our stories and spoke fondly of our experiences both at and post-Stanford.
Having been raised and grown up overseas, I found the international perspective afforded by the India trip instrumental to my law school training at Stanford. It is one thing to brainstorm poverty-reducing and anti-corruption measures in a law school classroom while situated in a developed world; yet it is a whole different experience going to a developing country and see how those problems can be most effectively addressed out on the field. And while big-picture ideas could unquestionably be applied across countries, it takes local knowledge into the intricacies of the geography, demographics and social strata to devise what works the best for each country. For example, while cash transfer programs can be extremely effective in providing for the poor in certain countries, those might not be the best fit for India, given that most of the poor lives in rural areas where the nearest shop is more than 30 miles away. Seeing creative solutions that are implemented to fight poverty and corruption in India highlights the importance of cross-cultural lawyering. It is indeed a humbling experience to see what works and does not work in other countries so that we, as future lawyers and policy makers, remember to keep those international perspectives in mind wherever our careers in the law may take us.
And above all, the trip gives me hope. Despite the pressing issues that still remain to be addressed, India as a country is certainly making strides in fighting poverty and corruption head-on at both the governmental and grass root levels. Take the Right to Information Act as an example. In the past year, 52,000 citizens drafted information requests, with 52% of those requests inquiring upon public interest matters. A conservative estimate of the total amount of Right to Information requests submitted each year is about 7.5-8 million, a quite sizable number when compared to the 3-5 million annual FOIA requests submitted in the U.S. Not only are citizens gaining easier access to information, they are also getting better access to justice. Thanks to the legal literacy camps and Citizen Information Support Center established by Sehgal Foundation, 1.2 billion poor people over 400-500 rural villages in India are now beginning to feel empowered to effectuate positive social and economic changes as they learn about their legal rights and have better access to legal aid when applying for governmental benefits. While no change can be completed overnight, the community-led development initiatives are certainly helping the poor fight poverty by providing them with the tools to lead more prosperous, dignified lives—a right interpreted by the Supreme Court of India as a fundamental right.
Monica He, JD ’19 is a second-year law student from Hangzhou, China. At law school, she is involved in the Social Security Disability Pro bono Project. Monica graduated from Wharton with concentrations in Finance, Accounting, Operations and Information Management, and plans to practice corporate law.