The advancement of legal education in India depends upon the patronage of multiple entities — chiefly, the Union Law and HRD Ministries, their corresponding departments in the states, and the Bar Council of India. Unfortunately, these overlords have neglected their obligations for many years. As a consequence, India’s National Law Universities (NLUs) — once described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as “islands of excellence amidst a sea of institutionalised mediocrity” — lie in considerable disrepair.

A quick summary of the problem. Successive central governments have established elite institutions in professional and technical fields, funded them reasonably well, and quarantined them from various maladies that ail state government institutions.

Several of these institutions have also been declared as Institutions of National Importance (INIs), including the IITs, IIMs, National Institutes of Design, and Schools of Planning and Architecture. In contrast, the 23 NLUs have all been established by state governments.

The NLUs were linked, via the Common Law Admission Test, only after a school student petitioned the Supreme Court. The leading NLUs owe much to certain Chief Ministers. In the 1980s, Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde strongly supported the establishment of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bengaluru (his rapport with then Bar Council of India Chairman Ram Jethmalani apparently playing a part). In undivided Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu was keen to emulate NLSIU, culminating in the establishment of the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) in Hyderabad.

In West Bengal, Jyoti Basu (himself trained as a barrister in England) invited Professor NR Madhava Menon, the founding Director of NLSIU, to helm the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) in Kolkata.

However, some of the newer NLUs have been established with little foresight and witnessed student protests over the absence of basic facilities. Of late, even the older NLUs have faced serious shortages in funding.

Worse, many NLUs are becoming victims of regional political shenanigans, from the imposition of corrosive domicile quotas to questionable administrative and faculty appointments. In 2018, a study by NALSAR highlighted the drawbacks of NLUs being controlled by state governments that “may not be too invested in them.”

Meanwhile, a consortium of NLU student associations petitioned the central government “to take cognizance of the abysmal state of affairs” and bring parity between NLUs and the various INIs. In a welcome development, a private member’s bill, proposed be introduced in the Lok Sabha by BJP MP and lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi, seeks to address these concerns.

Lekhi’s bill (the National Law Universities Bill 2019) is not the first of its kind. A few years ago, Harvard professor and then Trinamool Congress MP Sugata Bose had introduced a similar bill. Both bills seek to repeal existing state NLU statutes, declare NLUs as INIs, replenish NLUs with central government funds, and lay down a common governance structure (Chief Justice of India as Visitor, Chief Justices of respective High Courts as Chancellors).

Both bills also seek to unify NLUs under a common brand, like the IITs and IIMs. Thus, dispensing with confusing abbreviations, NLSIU become NLU Bengaluru, NALSAR becomes NLU Hyderabad, etc.

There is, however, a critical difference between the two bills. Bose’s bill (as one might expect from the MP of a regional party) seeks to “firmly maintain the national character” of NLUs while “significantly being under State control to uphold the federal nature of the country”. In comparison, Lekhi’s bill seeks “the transfer of administration and management” of NLUs to the central government.

While Bose’s bill mostly entrusts the governance of NLUs in the hands of state government representatives, Lekhi’s bill (which I personally find more sensible) envisages a fairer mix of state and central government representatives.

Private members’ bills almost never receive parliamentary assent. Nevertheless, those concerned over the well-being of NLUs will hope that Lekhi’s initiative stimulates wider discussion. Here, a handful of regional political chieftains may refuse to change the status quo.

If anything, they may instead demand that the IITs and IIMs be surrendered to state governments! There may also exist valid concerns over academic freedom and autonomy, following recent controversies at central universities.

To obviate this, the Union Law Minister should initiate a genuinely bipartisan reform effort, involving eminent legal practitioners and scholars. Meanwhile, the Finance Minister’s budget speech has just promised significantly higher educational expenditure. Although the Minister predictably referred to medical, engineering and management education, the central government must also utilise these funds to uplift NLUs. As a sclerotic justice system keeps holding back India’s progress, it is high time that legal education receives its due.

The writer is a legal academic based at UNSW, Sydney and Jindal Global Law School.