Thanks to the Wellman Hill Internship Grant, I had the wonderful opportunity to intern at the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), in Chennai India. This organization was established in in 2004 to help people cope with the catastrophic effects of the 2004 tsunami. It is now an office that provides pro bono legal aid and social services to the Tamil Nadu community in areas ranging from child rights, environmental justice, women’s justice and disaster rights. This internship was a life-changing experience on many levels. Not only did I get a close look at the Indian and Tamil Nadu justice system, but I also got a chance to use my Tamil language skills and interact with a variety of clients from all backgrounds.
I located the HRLN through a news article I read in the Times of India. HRLN had won a case representing 23 children who had been kicked out of their school in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu because they were HIV positive. This story was truly inspiring, and I took a leap of faith and sent my resume and other relevant materials to the office hoping for a response. My future boss, Uma Palanisamy, contacted me and set up an interview and later offered me the internship.
I reached Chennai in the middle of June and went to see Uma at the officeShe went through the details of the internship stating that I would accompany her to court every day and that I would be observing a wide variety of cases at the Madras High Court. She said I would assist her in translating documents from English to Tamil for our clients who spoke no English, conduct research, travel to various offices to file complaints, and interact with clients on a daily basis. I inquired about her history and how she ended up working for this office and was touched to hear that she uses money from her private clients to fund her cases from HRLN, because the government, unfortunately, doesn’t support these types of organizations.
The internship experience definitely put me out of my comfort zone even though I was in my hometown of Chennai (a place I visit annually with my family). I had to navigate the busy streets via an auto driver and the office was located in a tiny corner of a narrow street in an area of Chennai called Parry’s Corner. This is considered “Old Chennai” and is a highly industrial area with a lot of foot traffic, a very poor population, and a lot of crime, so I had to be very cautious going to and from work. The office itself had two rooms, no air conditioning, no internet access, and the electricity would frequently go out.
The majority of cases I had the chance to work on were Public Industry Litigations, and many times they were against the government hospitals. The government-funded hospitals in India tend to be in bad shape and many times we would file complaints to improve patient care. Unfortunately, these cases take many years to come to a resolution and that was quite discouraging. There is also a high level of corruption within the police force, which often causes cases to be dismissed and ignored and doesn’t solve the problems. I spent hours going over post mortem reports that were tampered with by the police to solve discrepancies between what the doctors and police had misrepresented on the report and what the victim’s family stated actually happened.
Overall, this internship experience was the best experience of my undergraduate career, and it would not have been possible without the Wellman Hill grant. It truly opened my eyes and made me appreciate what we have in the United States. While the justice system may not be perfect, there is a certain respect for judges, due process, and the constitution, which seems to be lacking in the Indian judiciary. We are truly privileged. It made me reflect on the fact that the true state of a country may be determined by how it treats and provides services to its poorest and most disadvantaged citizens: basically, our clients. If we were to evaluate from this perspective, I would say India has a long way to go.