In Conversation with Jasdeep Randhawa, Lawyer and Public Policy Analyst with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme

In Conversation with Jasdeep Randhawa, Lawyer and Public Policy Analyst with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme

Jasdeep Randhawa is a Lawyer and Public Policy Analyst with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi, Kenya.  She has previously consulted for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Government of India, the World Bank, Gates Foundation, and the Water Security Initiative at Harvard. She has also served as a Law Clerk in the Supreme Court of India and as a Judicial Marshal in the High Court of Hong Kong. In 2013, she represented India as a Young Delegate at the G20 Youth Forum held in Russia.  Jasdeep has also taught courses in both law and public policy in New Zealand, India, United States, and Kenya. She has been selected for a number of competitive international leadership programs. Recipient of several scholarships, academic awards, and fellowships, Jasdeep holds a master’s in law from Yale Law School where she received the Lillian Goldman Scholarship for Accomplished Women, a bachelor’s in civil law from the University of Oxford where she was awarded the Salve Scholarship and the Oxford Faculty Award, and a master’s in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School, where she was a recipient of the International Peace Scholarship for Women. She is a proud alumna of Government Law College, University of Mumbai. 

Live Law: Jasdeep, you attained your law degree from GLC Mumbai back in 2007 and then, your Masters from Yale Law School. What encouraged you to depart from the conventional legal practice? 

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: During my final year at GLC, Mumbai, I applied and was fortunate enough to get selected for a Clerkship under Justice S.B. Sinha in the Supreme Court of India. My Clerkship year gave me the opportunity to work on some interesting cases that were at the intersection of law, ethics and public policy. For example, I found myself confronted with questions regarding whether capital punishment should be struck down as unconstitutional, how workplace equality norms look like, and what should be the role of the private sector in delivering basic public services. Simultaneously, having the opportunity to assist Justice Sinha with his presentations on themes involving case management, judging in a globalized world, etc., at the National Judicial Academy which is India’s premier judicial training institute, encouraged me to think about how law could be used as a tool to bring about social change and impact.

During my time at Yale Law School, I took a number of courses that enabled me to think of law as a powerful interdisciplinary and normative tool that could actually influence public policy. Thereafter, I went on to work for Dr. N.R. Madhava Menon in the Commission on Centre-State Relations. Here, I got the opportunity to assess the relationship between the national government and the states with regard to some extremely fundamental social, political and economic challenges that India was facing, and to use my legal education and experience to make policy recommendations to amend the Constitution, design a new framework of cooperative federalism and to urge the states to adopt a more participatory approach towards policy making. I also worked at the Department of Justice to organize the first ‘National Consultation on Access to Justice for the Poor’. The Consultation was both a fascinating and sobering experience. It was sobering as it gave me an insight into how our laws were being misused to prolong proceedings that was resulting in denial of justice to the most marginalized communities of our society.  Simultaneously, the experience was also fascinating as it gave me the opportunity to be entrepreneurial and design participatory tools, develop court management techniques and apply the data on case backlog to draft a judicial reform plan. The plan got funding from the Ministry of Finance for implementation in the district courts that would impact over 600 million poor people.

It were experiences such as these that gave me the conviction that the purpose and utility of law went beyond practising in a court of law or working for a law firm. I found satisfaction and a deep sense of purpose in using law as a mechanism to influence public policy,to address complex societal issues and to be able to impact decision-making with regard to the most vulnerable sections of our society.I eventually went on to do a degree in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government so as to be able to work proficiently in the field of development, governance and poverty.

Live Law:Tell us something about your life at GLC Mumbai.

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: I have many fond memories of my time as a law student in GLC, Mumbai. I was very active in participating in the National Moot Court Competitions and that really helped me to hone my analytical, drafting, and persuasion skills.  Mooting enabled me tothink about certain legal issues more deeplyand to apply judicial reasoning to advance legal arguments. This experience proved invaluable during my Clerkship year as I was able to apply the law instead of only having the theoretical knowledge. Furthermore, some of the classes that I took at GLC, particularly those delivered by Professor Pithawalla provided me with a sound understanding of some very fundamental legal concepts that continue to help me in my profession to date. Also, I found GLC to be very strategically located – close to the Bombay High Court and the law firms which gave me and my classmates the opportunity to complete several internships as a student, which helped in getting a holistic overview of what the practice of law would look like. There was also this congenialatmosphere in GLC of being an entrepreneur by establishing some type of student society. Finally, I felt extremely privileged to be enrolled in India’s old legal institution that has produced several of the country’s most eminent jurists, statesmen, lawyers, politicians, and academics. My interactions and meetings with some of GLC’s alumni during my time as a student inspired me to do something worthwhile with my law degree and challenged me to continuously push boundaries and question the conventional. Even today, several years since my graduation, I continue to have a strong network of GLC alumni as my friends and colleagues.  

Live Law:So, that was all about the entire journey you’ve had so far. What actually helped you to make it to the prestigious Yale Law School? 

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa:During my clerkship year, I was undertaking a lot of comparative research to assist my judge who was dealing with extremely interesting questions of substantive law that would impact the average Indian, and developing jurisprudence that would be a precedent for other courts in India. As a result, I got curious to learn about decision-making in the United States Supreme Court and the evolution of legal norms since the Indian Supreme Court was clearly influenced by its counterpart. Furthermore, the debate on judicial overreach had started gaining prominence in both the academic and policy circles with constant media attention in India. This made me interested in learning more about the legal and political history of the founding of the Constitution of the United States, the influence of the President over the selectionof the Justices in the United States and the role of media and the public in influencing and shaping the Constitution of the United States and its laws.

Given my interests, Yale Law School (YLS) seemed to be a good fit. YLS is a leader in the so-called “progressive law” professoring. Ithas the‘movers and shakers’- the faculty that exercises influence over theUS Supreme Court and in Congress. The Professors at YLS are not only lawyers but economists, historians, philosophers, sociologists and jurists. Thus, I was very much attracted to YLS as it seemed an unconventional law school that would give me ample opportunities to explore my research questions in great depth, be a part of normative and policy debates happening both domestically and globally, and have access to a powerful network of distinguished alumni and faculty in a liberal research and student friendly learning environment. 

Live Law:Jasdeep, you’ve studied in most of the best universities of the world. How would you assess the educational standards in India and that in abroad? 

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: In the Universities that I have studied at, the focus is on the students rather than the instructor. In most of the countries, law is not the first degree and/or students come with several years of experience before undertaking a master’s. The cultural and international diversity of the class allows different perspectives to the same issue.  Students are encouraged to bring their personal and professional experiences into the class discussions to make the seminars engaging, interactive and personalized. For example, my class at Harvard had army veterans, doctors, economists, social activists, lawyers and diplomats. The discussions as you can imagine become very diverse and there is no one right or wrong answer- what really matters is your contribution.   It is actually seen as a good sign to have a different viewpoint from the professor and to play the ‘devil’s advocate’ so to say.

Grades are not based on one final exam at the end of the semester. Rather, it is accumulative of class participation, presentations, and reaction essays. The size of the class is either really small as in Yale or the students are split into a number of small groups.  The intention is to ensure that every student feels comfortable in contributing in class discussions and the faculty is able to give individual attention. In Oxford for example, we had tutorials where after a class we were asked to write an essay on an issue that we had discussed in the class. The essay was then discussed in groups of four students with the instructor.

Another tool that is being frequently used is the case study method. A real life challenge with incomplete information is presented to the students. The class is tasked with doing background reading and applying the concepts to provide solutions to the problems raised.This enables student centric learning wherestudents rather than the professor teach themselves and their classmates. It helps to get prepared for the real world. There is also a lot of scope to really narrow down your research interest and work closely with a professor in your field of expertise by writing a paper, working on a project or doing a summer internship in an affiliated research department.

Increasingly, these universities are encouraging its graduates to become entrepreneurs and providing the space and the resources to develop their own start-ups. The idea could even come from a class discussion or be an extension of a class assignment!Finally, thereis theopportunity to either become a specialist or a generalist during your Masters. At Yale and Harvard, in any given semester, there were typically around 40-50 courses to select from and to ‘cross-register’ that is , attend courses from other programs and also other universities- such as from the business school, divinity school, school of public health, the design school, and, the education school. So, to sum up my assessment, the difference lies in the teaching tools, the learning methods and the development ofreal life skills.

Live Law:Please share with our readers your experience working with the United Nations. Has the Indian legal education benefited you in any way? 

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa:I work for the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi, Kenya. The mandate of UN-Habitat is to promote sustainable cities in an increasingly urbanizing world with a focus on urban planning, urban legislation, governance, urbaneconomy, basic services, youth, human rights, climate change, resilience, slum upgrading, and gender equality.  This is an exciting time to be working for this agency given the recent adoption of the post-2015 development agenda by the member states. These development goals provide a road map to the member states on how to achieve the absolutely minimum essential levels of sustainable and inclusive development in their countries and how to measure their progress. With rapid urbanization, these development goals are particularly relevant in cities and require the local authorities to be made partners for their effective implementation. I am the Project Manager for the United Nations Advisory Committee on Local Authorities whose mandate is to represent the voice of the local authorities on issues relating to sustainable urban development within the UN system. This role focuses on building the capacities of the local authorities to enable them to have dialogue with their national counterparts on these issues. It is to assist the local authorities in implementing the post-2015 development goals in their cities and measuring the achievement of their progress. Simultaneously, I work closely on projects relating to public space whose objective is to develop spaces that are inclusive and accessible to the most marginalised sections of our society especially, the women, the children, the disabled and the youth.  In summary, my work focuses on designing negotiation strategies, building partnerships with urban stakeholders, and developing frameworks for addressing urbanization challenges, while focusing on poverty, governance and human rights.

Ihave been very fortunate to have studied under the Indian Legal Education system. We often work in fragile states and post-conflict countries which are in the process of rewriting their legislations or in countries which are experimenting with new urban regulations and rules. I have found it particularly useful to refer to and bring the experience of  our advanced legal system and the rich interpretation of issues – whether human rights, gender equality, environment, protection of the vulnerable communities, federalism, access to housing, by our courts to my work in these countries.

Live Law:What do you think is the relevance of law in the social context? How would you appraise the credibility of our public policy enforcers or the law enforcers?

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: Law has a huge instrumental value in the social context.  Globally, social movements have used human rights as a tool to engage with our policy makers to demand change whether for attainment of woman suffrage, abolition of slavery, or more recently for demanding democracy, social and economic equality. In India, the momentum of the social movements touching upon important social issues such as rape, homosexuality, climate change, corruption, gender equality in work place,or capital punishment that challenge the status quo of existing social norms and cultural mind-set are on the rise. This is partly due to the influence of media and partly due to the increasing participation from the real stakeholders- the youth and the civil society. In turn, the Supreme Court then responds to these social movements by reviewing the existing laws to reflect the societal sentiments or it takes the support of change in similar laws from other jurisdictions to ask the executive to formulate new laws or amend the existing ones.  Several examples come to mind from the public interest litigation movement in India.

Closely related to the use of law to trigger social change is its utility in demanding accountability from our law enforcers and for reforming our public institutions. Our law enforcers primarily use law for accomplishing politically desirable purposes which sometimes are contrary to the needs of the people, in particular those belonging to the poor and marginalized communities. Consequently, the conversation that is generated amongst the people, the government officials, and the courts enables our government officials to introspect and respond in a manner that realizes the core norms of democracy and human rights.

Live Law:What are the current global challenges and how can law aid in this situation? What are some of the tactics used by the international organisations to bring the laws into action, that is, implement the solutions?

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: I would call a lotof these global challenges whether it is transnational terrorism, climate change, health epidemic, or the on-going migration crisis as problems without passports. These challenges are affecting all the countries- whether developed or developing, in an adverse manner. The experience of these challenges has brought us to one inevitable conclusion- global partnerships and collaboration of all the affected stakeholders to address these challenges is absolutely essential.  These stakeholders are not just the government officials, but the affected communities especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, the civil society and the local authorities whose participation in identifying the most feasible solutions and implementing them is indispensable.

Law regulates the relationship amongst the various actors and enables the improvement of the condition of some of the most vulnerable sections of our society. However, in a world of increasing global crisis, law by itself cannot help to generate trust for the collaboration amongst the government and non-government actors to collectively address these issues. Ultimately, we need to remember that the United Nations and other International Government Organizations are the product of agreements among the member states, and to that extent have limited representation from these other stakeholders and are less inclusive. To give an illustration, the post-2015 Development Agenda is a progressive looking document that has set ambitious targets relating to eradicating extreme poverty, attainment of climate change resilience and attaining universal education, health, water and sanitation coverage, and a number of other social goals by the year 2030. However, it is impossible to think of the implementation of these goals unless these other stakeholders are included in the consultation process by each country when drafting its national policies on the post-2015 Development Agenda so that development is indeed bottom up and inclusive.

Since international organizations such as the United Nations is really a consortium of member states who make and implement international law, the current model of implementation ignores the vital role of the non-government actors such as the civil society and the local authorities in implementing the law. The good news however is that the essential role of these actors in the implementation of law has started becoming increasingly recognized by international organizations by the development of partnerships with these ‘other essential stakeholders’ them. International organisations are therefore now moving towards a structural transformation in the decision-making process to accommodate the viewpoints of these stakeholders by using the tool of ‘participatory consultation’ to ensure that the views of those who will be directly affected by the implementation of law is heard and included. This also reflects the increasing sensitization that the implementation of law needs to suit the local context and cannot be applied in a uniform way.

I think what law can really do is to provide the legitimate forum for these actors to come together and debate these issues in a coherent and informed manner. The role of law therefore would be to negotiate the representation of these stakeholders to ensure their participation and inputs in developing the indicators for the implementation of these goals and monitoring them.  In short, law provides the legitimacy for a more inclusive participatory model that helps everyone to own the solutions to global challenges and cooperate in implementing them at the local level as legal norms are ultimately a product of the values and judgements of these actors.  

Live Law:How do you view the recent trend amongst law students to opt for the purely virgin arena of Legal Journalism? 

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa:Legal Journalism does provide a very good understanding of the latest developments in law. I have used a few websites from India which are extremely proactive in analysing Supreme Court judgements, the draft Bills, Law Commission Reports and the Parliamentary and media debates on the legal issues. I have had the opportunity to work as an Editor for a number of leading Law Journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Yale Law and Policy Review, the Oxford Transitional Justice Journal, and the Oxford Pro Bono Publico. From my experience as an Editor of these Law Journals, I believe that advanced comparative researchinto contemporary legal issues is of immense value to the jurists, the lawyers and students of law.  These publications can help us in becoming more informed lawyers, litigants,judges and law students.

Journalism can be an influential tool to inform public opinion, but only when it is backed by evidence. Legal journalism must also push itself into the realm of sound empirical analysis to influence policy making.  I have come across a number of law websites from India, including Live Law which are aligning themselves to the understanding that the audience who are smart, globally aware, young professionals and tech savvy require a brief overview of the issue backed by statistics to be persuaded one way or the other. This development is encouraging and law students who are into legal journalism must advance this initiative further. Finally, law is ultimately an interdisciplinary subject. Given the global crisis that are transnational in nature and which have an impact on law and policy making, it becomes essential that legal journalism takes into consideration the expansion of its contours into the ‘Law and’ realm. For example, how can law assist in addressing the Ebola crisis or for that matter the on-going refugee crisis?Therefore, it is critical that law students interested in legal journalism should start thinking about the nexus between law and these global issues to diversify the application of their legal skills because I really see a huge potential for law to give a bold perspective and provide concrete solutions on these issues.

Live Law:You worked under Justice S. B. Sinha, a former Judge of the Supreme Court and also in the High Court of Hong Kong. What are the different perspectives on your experience of the functioning of both of the judicial systems? 

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: I think it is the difference in the history of the legal experience.   Hong Kong in comparison to India is a recently independent political and legal autonomous state. The Courts in Hong Kong apply the Basic Law, which is an extremely progressive constitutional document on human rights and fundamental freedoms, but which is subject to the interpretation of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. As Hong Kong is under the principle of ‘one country two systems’, the influence of China on its social, political and economic policies cannot be ignored. Indeed, most of the cases that come to the Hong Kong judiciary relate to the relationship between the two countries with regard to the rights of their citizens. For example, the case that I assisted with raised the question as to what should be the scope of the social welfare entitlements that domestic workers from China should get in Hong Kong and how should it be balanced with the rights of the Hong Kong citizens keeping the Basic Law in consideration.  The High Court of Hong Kong is greatly influenced by the Common Law, in particular the jurisprudence from the courts of the United Kingdom.  On the other hand, I think the Indian Supreme Court actually sets precedents for other courts. It has a very sophisticated and advanced jurisprudence on constitutional law and administrative law related matters. It not only decides the constitutionality of social and economic policies, but also authorizes, supervises and monitors the state to develop and implement policies and legislations.  So I think the fundamental difference is that the High Court of Hong Kong is still a follower of the jurisprudence coming from the UK, whereas the Supreme Court of India is leading the development of jurisprudence globally.

Live Law:What is the application procedure for an internship with the United Nations?

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: Getting an internship with the United Nations varies from one agency to the other, but there is always a central online application form to be completed for being considered. The UN consists of a number of specialised agencies with very different mandates, but with an overarching goal- to fight poverty and promote human rights. Depending on the interest- whether it is environment, urbanization, humanitarian affairs, legal affairs, rehabilitation and disaster management, public health, woman equality, etc., one should focus on applying to that particular UN agency as it is very important to demonstrate an interest in the work of the agency as also some work experience. This said, it is crucial to know that irrespective of your interest and expertise, every UN Agency is looking for specialists that have advanced degrees in law, public policy, urban planning, economics, sociology, medicine, business management, education, IT, finance, etc. So, there is plenty of work to get around. However, getting an internship is extremely competitive as more than 200 applicants at any given time are competing for every open internship vacancy. Usually, the eligible candidates have advanced degrees with some even completing a doctorate degree and have demonstrated commitment towards international development work, have leadership skills and are able to work well within multi-cultural international teams.

The applications are on a rotating basis and the hiring needs of the team at that time. If the program manager finds your application interesting, then you will be invited for an interview. It is essential to make a strong case of your interest in the agency’s work, your passion for international development and to demonstrate that you have a set of skills that the agency will find valuable in delivering its outputs. Finally, I have also heard of instances where a chance meet with a hiring manager who is impressed with the candidate’s work and education accomplishments can open the doors for an internship.

Live Law:What is your message to the young law students who would want to study abroad and aspire to work with the United Nations?

Ms. Jasdeep Randhawa: I think it is really important to know yourself and to choose subjects and internships that willstretch your skills and potential to the maximum. It is extremely easy to get into this vicious circle where young law graduates follow their seniors who have gone abroad to do their LL.M., and then apply to universities and take subjects that do not really align with what they would actually like to do. I think it is really important to think for yourself, and decide how a particular university and a further specialization in any discipline can help you to achieve the long term career goals that you have set for yourself. Remember that you are a sum of your own experiences- personal, educational and professional and no two individuals are alike. Therefore, it is important to do a diverse range of internships- not necessarily in the legal sector and to experience being a part of several leadership and social initiatives that can help you in determining what it is that makes you feel satisfied at the end of the day. Remember to choose where you want to make an impact and who you want to help and then pick your profession and the university.

For those law students who aspire to work in the United Nations, I would advise you to be pragmatic. Working for the UN is rewarding as it helps to make an impact at the grassroots level and to work for the most vulnerable of the communities. However, change takes time. One needs to have the patience and aptitude to see the change occur.  I would definitely encourage the law students who are interested in the areas in which the UN operates to also be open to other organizations and non-profits who are doing equally challenging and socially impactful work. So, as a final message to the students- be prepared to get challenged, demonstrate your passion, identify who you want to help, network with your peers to find the work that will motivate and satisfy you in the long term, and then go all out for it- whether by doing an advanced degree or by gaining work experience.