Dr. Prabhash Ranjan graduated as a lawyer from University of Delhi. Thereafter, he went for higher studies to SOAS, University College, London. Later, he attained his Ph.D from King’s College, London. He worked as a consultant to Oxfam, taught at NUJS, Kolkata and NLU, Jodhpur and presently he is an Assistant Professor at South Asian University.
Being a person of great insight into Academics, we asked him about:
- Studying Law from Delhi University
- Pursuing LL.M and Ph.D from reputed universities in London on scholarships
- Experience as a consultant at Oxfam and as a professor at NUJS and NLUJ
- Necessary changes in the Indian Education Regime
How would you like to introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about your childhood and pre-college life as well as educational background. Do you have academicians in your family?
I am an academic lawyer who teaches and publishes in the area of International Investment law and World Trade law. I hold bachelor degrees in Economics and Law from University of Delhi. For my LL.M, I read at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and University College London as a Chevening scholar. I hold a Ph.D. in Law from King’s College, London. I was born in Chandigarh and grew up in different cities like Bhubaneswar and Delhi. In my school life, I took part and won prizes in many debate competitions and other extra-curricular activities. As a kid, I aspired to become a medical doctor. I was very fascinated with the idea of having Dr. appended to my name. However, I gave up on this ambition once I realised that one has to be good in Biology to become a medical doctor! However, today I am happy that I have been able to fulfil my cherished dream of having Dr. appended to my name by earning a Ph.D.! In my school days, I greatly enjoyed studying Mathematics and also History (especially Modern History) and Political Science (Civics). Unfortunately, I couldn’t study History and Political Science after class 10th as I opted for Science stream. In those days, as a de facto rule, every good student was expected to study Science after class 10th! I am the first academician in my family. However, I come from a family, which has deep interest in academics and writing. My father earned his Ph.D. from University of Leipzig, Germany (then Karl Marx University in East Germany) in Veterinary sciences. My brother, a senior Army Officer is a very avid reader and is currently researching on naxalism as a Fellow at the ‘Centre for Land Warfare Studies’ (CLAWS). My grandfather, a freedom-fighter who went to jail several times during India’s freedom struggle from British colonial rule, was a prolific reader and writer in both English and Hindi and contributed articles to many English and Hindi newspapers.
After doing B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) with Honours in Economics you pursued LL.B. from Campus Law Centre, Faculty of Law. How did your interest gravitate towards law?
While pursuing Economics (Hons.), I had made up my mind that I would pursue Master’s in Economics and probably pursue a career as a professional economist. However, my father urged me to write the entrance examination of Faculty of Law, Delhi University. So, in many ways, the credit for me becoming a lawyer goes to my father.
Tell us about your college life. How different was it from that of your students?
My undergraduate college life of six years at Delhi University was quite exciting. I used to travel almost 20 kilometres everyday in Delhi University Special buses (old DTC buses popularly known as U Specials) from South Delhi to North Campus of DU in North Delhi. North campus of DU is a great place to study. It has leading colleges of India and various faculties and postgraduate departments providing a unique opportunity to mix and interact with students from different backgrounds. It also provided an opportunity to take part in a wide range of academic and cultural activities. Being part of DU Law Faculty was a terrific feeling for two reasons. First, I was delighted about the fact that I inherited a great legacy of legal scholarship of scholars like Upendra Baxi, P K Tripathi, Lotika Sarkar, M P Singh to name a few. Second, it was a proud feeling to be part of an institution that has produced many eminent academicians, numerous Supreme Court and High Court Judges, many Attorney and Solicitor Generals, leading advocates and attorneys and national leaders. At the Law faculty, I was lucky to be taught by outstanding scholars like Prof. M. P. Singh, Prof. B. B. Pande, Prof. P N Singh and Dr. Kamala Sankaran. Apart from academics, I took part in debate and paper presentation competitions and won a few prizes. My college life was very different from the lives of students I have taught both at NUJS and NLU Jodhpur, primarily because I was a day-scholar and my students were hostellers.
After LL.B., you pursued a joint LL.M. from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and University College, London (UCL) as a British Chevening scholar. How was this course?
Pursuing LL.M at SOAS and UCL was a terrific experience and perhaps one of the best things that happened to me. And winning the coveted Chevening scholarship for my LL.M was indeed a great thing. I opted for the following courses in my LL.M – World Trade Law; International Investment Law; IPR and Development; EC Competition Law; and wrote a 15000-word dissertation on Indian Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs). One of the best parts of the LL.M programme was to be taught by leading academics of international stature, from both SOAS and UCL, like Professor Peter Muchlinksi, Professor Joanne Scott, Professor Valentine Korah and Professor Philippe Cullet. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to a totally different pedagogy and method of teaching. Students were expected to read and come to the class. The lecture itself used to be more like a seminar with students and the professor debating on many issues. Further, there was less focus on classroom teaching as such with just one two-hour lecture for every course per week. Rest of the time, students were expected to read on their own some 100 to 200 odd pages per subject for the next week’s class. Reading lists were very carefully and meticulously prepared. I had access to an excellent library and all the major legal databases – something that was missing during my LLB studies at DU. I greatly enjoyed this system, which encouraged me and gave me ample space and time to do my own research, reading and writing. I worked very hard and earned a Distinction in my LL.M and published my dissertation and other course essays in leading international journals. Today, when I look back, I can easily say that my LL.M-year at London was perhaps the most productive year of my life. I simply couldn’t have gained all this by pursuing an LL.M in India.
During this period, you were a research assistant to Prof. Valentine Korah, Emeritus Professor of Competition Law at UCL for her book on EC Competition Law. What benefits can a student derive out of such endeavours?
Yes! Professor Korah of UCL taught me Competition law. She was very happy with my performance in the class and thus offered me to be her research assistant for her textbook on EC Competition Law published by Hart Publishers, which she was updating. Though I had never worked in the area of competition law, I readily said yes because it was an offer made by someone who is an authority in competition law not just in UK and Europe but globally. My stint as her research assistant was immensely useful as it gave me an opportunity, not just to earn a few extra pounds, but also to learn a great deal about competition law. I would encourage students to readily grab such opportunities of research assistantship, which not only helps one learn the subject but also helps a great deal in strengthening research skills. I always offer such opportunities to my students, as far as possible, whenever I am doing a paper or involved in a research project.
Before that, you worked as a consultant to Oxfam, Great Britain in India as a Research Officer. How was the experience?
It was a great experience. Oxfam GB is a global brand with established reputation in the development sector. In 2004-05, they had started a new project on trade and development in South Asia. I was selected to work in this project. My job profile included conducting policy research and advocacy on international trade law issues affecting South Asia. One of the most exciting things at Oxfam was to develop and implement new ideas and work with some amazing bunch of individuals who have left a lasting impression on me. In particular, I would like to mention two of my ex colleagues and dear friends – Biplove Choudhary and Robin Koshy – extremely talented individuals from whom I learnt a great deal.
When did you decide to pursue International Investment Law and Trade Law as a career option?
The choice to work in the area of international trade, in many ways, was made in the final year of my LLB in 2003, when I interned at a research and advocacy based-NGO called Gene Campaign. As part of my internship, I worked on the TRIPS agreement and the Agreement on Agriculture of the WTO. I thoroughly enjoyed my work because it gave me an opportunity to put to good use not just my training as a lawyer but also my knowledge and skills in economics. It made me realise that a career as a researcher in international trade law is something that I will definitely enjoy. During my internship, I learnt about an organisation called Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) – an Indian international NGO headquartered in Jaipur, which has done extensive work on international trade. During the course of my final semester LLB examinations, I applied to CUTS and was selected to work as a Legal Researcher on international trade. This was my first job. CUTS proved to be a great training ground to learn many things about international trade and WTO and also about professional life in general. It further cemented my interest and resolve to work in the area of international trade. There has been no looking back since then. As regards investment, I picked it up much later – during the course of my LL.M. While working on international trade, I realised that one also needs sound knowledge of foreign investment laws and thus the motivation to study international investment law.
In 2009, you were awarded President’s Graduate Fellowship by National University of Singapore. Why did you decide to decline it?
This fellowship was part of the Ph.D programme at National University of Singapore (NUS). It is quite prestigious and I was tempted to take it. However, I also had very good Ph.D scholarship offers from UK Universities and I finally decided to accept the Ph.D. scholarship offer of King’s College London. Always wanted to go back to London – a city that I am very fond of – for my doctoral studies!
Being a professor may not be a very lucrative job as compared to other disciplines. Why did you decide to take up teaching as your career option?
Yes, sadly that’s true. Being an academic is not as lucrative as pursuing a career in a corporate law firm or even practising law in higher judiciary, though a good academic can earn extra bucks through research consultancies and grants! I was earning much more at Oxfam GB without an LL.M than what I earned at NUJS (my first fulltime academic job) with an LL.M. It is very important to make the teaching profession lucrative to attract the best talent for the job. Temperamentally, I always considered myself more suited to a job that required reading, thinking, writing, and talking about my research. I was somehow never very comfortable with the idea of working in a corporate law firm or practising in courts or becoming a civil servant! (my parents were quite keen that I should write the civil services exam, which I never did, and become a civil servant!). I started my career as a full-time legal researcher and worked as a researcher for more than three years before deciding to pursue LL.M. My career as a full-time researcher was immensely satisfying and rewarding as it gave me an opportunity to read and research on a wide range of topics on international trade law. However, the research agenda was determined by the institution and not by me. Also, I didn’t get much opportunity to talk about my research or subjects in trade law that I enjoyed reading and researching. Thus, I thought that a full-time academic career will give me both the opportunities – to talk about my research (i.e. teach), which I enjoy a lot; and to set my own research agenda and do research. It is for this reason that I decided to pursue fulltime academic career after my LL.M. Today, when I look back, I can say with full confidence that I took a correct decision to pursue an academic career. I am very happy and satisfied with my academic career that gives me opportunities to teach young bright minds (now not just from India but from whole of South Asia), research and write on issues that I am passionate about, and also travel the world! God has been kind! Teaching and researching with the objective to generate new knowledge and contribute to numerous policy and academic debates is indeed very very satisfying and fulfilling.
How was your experience of teaching at NUJS, Kolkata and NLU Jodhpur?
NUJS was my first full-time academic job. It was a fantastic experience with challenges and enormous learning opportunities. At NUJS, I worked under a dynamic leader – Professor M P Singh – who introduced many reforms and bold experiments ranging from changes in the curriculum to changes in examination and evaluation pattern in order to make the system academically more robust. He also went out of his way, to appoint bright young faculty like Shamnad Basheer, Pritam Baruah, Saurabh Bhataacharjee and Daniel Mathew. This made a huge impact on the academic culture of NUJS and also positively affected the lives of students. Clearly, Professor Singh’s tenure at NUJS will go down in history of NLUs as a path-breaking phase. I got an opportunity to teach very bright students at NUJS – I learnt more from them than what they learnt from me! I worked at NLU Jodhpur (NLUJ) for only about 16 months. I shall remain grateful to Justice Mathur for giving me the opportunity to teach at NLUJ. Like NUJS, I greatly enjoyed teaching at NLUJ as well. NLUJ also has very bright students. However, I was not very happy with the service conditions at these law schools. Another major problem was huge teaching and evaluation load particularly at NLUJ. At NUJS, the academic reforms initiated by Professor Singh had brought down the teaching and evaluation load from unreasonably high levels at the time of my joining. This was done with the objective to give more time and space to faculty to read, write and publish. However, at NLUJ, I taught 16 hours a week and corrected scripts of some 120 students six times over in a semester (which makes it evaluating 720 scripts in four months). This was totally insane! With so much of quantity of work, quality of work got affected. At NLUJ, I often tried to argue for reducing the ‘quantity’ of teaching, focus more on ‘quality’ of teaching and give more time and space to faculty and students to think, read and write. However, I wasn’t very successful in persuading my seniors. Also, such enormous teaching and evaluation load meant, very little time was available for research and publishing. This forced me to work long hours on weekdays and also work on Saturdays, Sundays and other holidays to publish my papers, which became quite stressful in the end. Eventually, this forced me to look for opportunities outside the NLU system where there was a better balance between teaching and research, and also better service conditions. Thus, I landed at South Asian University. However, I feel very satisfied that despite such heavy teaching and evaluation load, I was able to publish my papers. I am happy that I never allowed the researcher in me to take a back seat despite no institutional motivation to research and publish. In such situations, one has to be self-motivated and internally driven. Also, recognition by the academic community at large motivated me, and continues to do so, to publish in leading international journals.
Do you think that the Indian law universities need a change to match up to the standards of foreign universities? What can be done in order to make NLUs more conducive for learning? How do you think Indian Universities may improve the education regime?
Indian law universities and law departments or faculties have to do a lot of catching up if they wish to meet the standards of foreign universities. First and foremost we need to de-bureaucratise our universities. By de-bureaucratisation, I mean two things – first, excessive and undue interference of regulatory bodies like the UGC, MHRD, BCI etc needs to end. Universities should be given complete autonomy within a broader accountability framework. Second, the bureaucratic mind-set that pervades our Universities needs to change. I have seen many older academicians behave in a deeply bureaucratic, feudal and hierarchy-oriented manner, often considering academic institutions as their personal fiefdoms. This bureaucratic and feudal mind-set has to change if we wish to compete with the best in the world. Currently, Indian legal academia is largely an ocean of institutionalised mediocrity where mediocre people, barring some exceptions, are appointed, nurtured, rewarded and promoted. While NLUs and some other prestigious law departments at traditional universities like Delhi and Bombay have been successful in attracting bright students to study law, it cannot be said about the teaching community. To break this institutionalised mediocrity;there is an urgent need to attract bright and competent lawyers to teaching. There are many law graduates from NLUs and other Universities who went abroad for L.L.M. and Ph.D. and are pursuing academic careers abroad. They are doing very well in their careers and have made a name for themselves in their respective areas of law. Imagine the impact on Indian legal education, if all these people were to return and teach at Indian law schools! Our law schools have failed in creating right conditions to attract these talented people. For this, a number of reforms are needed. As mentioned above, teaching profession should be made more lucrative. I don’t buy the argument that if you wish to earn money you should not pursue a career in academics. Why should one be forced to make a choice between earning money and pursuing academics? Why are earning money and becoming an academician considered mutually exclusive? I fully realise that salaries in Universities can never be as high as salaries in the corporate sector because the nature of the two sectors are very different. However, it is certainly possible to make it better than what it is right now especially at the entry level i.e. at the level of Assistant Professor. However, giving monetary incentives is just one part of the solution. Another key aspect is to create an atmosphere where young and bright lawyers feel motivated to join academics and after joining, feel motivated to achieve greater heights. For this, it is important to treat faculty, especially younger faculty with respect and honour – which means they should be involved in the process of institution building and decision making, should be given academic freedom to design their courses, research goals and other work plans, and should feel emboldened to freely speak-out and comment on any University policy at appropriate forums. Unfortunately, I have seen younger faculty often being treated in a very feudal-like manner, where they feel intimidated to even speak-out their mind. I have often seen that subjects allotted to young faculty members are randomly changed without discussions or consultations. They are over-burdened with teaching and mundane administrative responsibilities. All this demotivates a younger faculty member to work hard and leads to a loss of sense of belonging to the institution, which could prove detrimental to the institution in the long run. The need is to mentor younger faculty so that they can blossom into outstanding teachers and researchers. They should be encouraged to publish, for which ample time, space and resources should be made available. There is a crying need to provide good working conditions to faculty members like modern and independent offices to work, with the best possible infrastructure and other amenities for recreation; a dedicated personalised research fund for academic travel, buying books and other academic expenses; world class research infrastructure and library and many other such things. Also, there is a need to create an academic atmosphere where there is free exchange of ideas and knowledge unhindered by superficial boundaries of hierarchy and seniority. More specifically for NLUs, there is a need to give up this mad obsession with round-the-clock teaching and evaluation. To foster learning, students should be encouraged to think and read widely and deeply, which is possible only if there is a reduction in number of classes and tests, which have become counterproductive. A very important function of a University is to generate knowledge, which means researching and publishing. NLUs are oblivious to this part of their social responsibility. It is high time that NLUs give emphasis to academic publishing along with teaching and make it mandatory for faculty members to publish at least one paper in a leading peer-reviewed journal in a year.
You bagged King’s College London School of Law, Doctoral Scholarship and completed your Ph.D from King’s College, London. What was your doctoral thesis about? What benefit can the arbitration practitioners in India derive out of doing Ph.D?
Yes, a scholarship was a must to pursue a Ph.D. and I got an excellent offer from King’s. My Ph.D thesis was on ‘India’s Bilateral Investment Treaties and India’s Regulatory Power as a Host Nation’. Those who wish to pursue an academic career generally prefer Ph.D. However, in the west, I have seen many people pursuing a career as a law practitioner after a Ph.D. This trend is yet to catch up in India. I am not quite sure about the benefits that a practitioner can derive out of doing a Ph.D. – perhaps strengthened research and analytical skills.
You have been awarded a number of research grants/projects and consultancy assignments from various Government Ministries, United Nations (UN) agencies like UNDP and UN-ESCAP and FICCI as well. How did they happen? Also, can a law student assist researchers/academicians in such projects?
All these research grants and consultancy projects have happened because of my research work and publications. People/Organisations have found my research work interesting and useful and thus have offered me research grants and consultancy projects. All of these grants and consultancies have been in the field of investment law and trade law. Yes, law students can help/assist academicians in such projects. As mentioned above, I have always tried to give opportunities to my students in such research projects.
You have published in many renowned international Law journals and also in edited collections published by prestigious publishers like OUP, Routledge and Hart. What role do publications play in the life of an academician, especially someone who holds a keen interest in International Law?
As already mentioned, publications are the soul of an academician’s life working in any field of law not just international law. An academic who simply teaches and does not publish is like a body with a heart but without a soul. In India, unfortunately, many people think that publishing is personal work of an academician and not part of his/her institutional responsibility. I have seen such mind-sets in many places especially in NLUs. Nothing can be more appalling than this. People who say or think like this do not understand the purpose of academics. Undoubtedly, a very important purpose of academics is to teach young students (i.e. reproduction and sharing of knowledge). However, this is just one part. An equally important purpose is to publish (i.e. to produce knowledge and contribute to the existing body of knowledge). If no new knowledge is produced what will one share with students? Also, if India has to make a mark on the global academic map, our Universities have to develop and encourage a culture of publishing. We have to strike a balance between teaching and research, which is currently tilted far too much towards teaching. May I just add that the word ‘publications’ alone might be little misleading in the Indian context. We need to distinguish between ‘good’ publications and ‘bad’ publications. We need to discourage the practice of publishing for the sake of publishing in the form of badly written books, badly edited and non peer-reviewed journals etc. The Indian legal academic market is flooded with many such bad books and bad journals, which have not passed any academic quality tests.
Thrust on CV building has seemed to dilute the quality of publications that a law student has. A law student tries to focus on the element of ‘quantity’ and not ‘quality’? What are your views on this?
To be honest, I would not expect a student to publish papers. If a student publishes, very well! However, as already mentioned the focus should be on the ‘quality’ of writing and not on ‘quantity’. One or two good quality publications are far better than having ten sub-standard publications.
Your focus of research is on International Investment Law and BITs. The issue of BITs has caught up more in the recent times after the White Industries Award. Do you feel that we have an adequate Investment Treaty Law regime in place in India?
I started working on BITs when it was not fashionable in India – these days it has become fashionable primarily because of so many BIT notices that have been issued to the Indian government. We do not have a robust BIT framework or policy. Our policy has always been reactionary.
Lastly, what would be your message to our readers who are mainly young lawyers and law students?
Study what you enjoy studying without worrying about so-called future prospects. Don’t choose your subjects because someone has told you that a particular subject has lot of scope. I can say from personal experience that every subject has lot of scope provided you study it well. Remember that the bottom is always very crowded, but there’s always room at the top! Also, determination, passion and commitment are keys to success and not intelligence, as many would like you to believe. Have fire in your belly, be clear in your mind about your goal, be determined and passionate about what you wish to do, work hard, and you will soon see yourself achieving your goals. There are no shortcuts to success!