We interviewed Akshetha Maithri Ashok of ODRways, who along with her team envisions to make mediation as the primary method of resolving dispute in India.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Akshetha Maithri Ashok, a final year law student at WBNUJS, a partner at ODRways and a chief coordinator of Indian Mediation Week.
Why ‘ODR Ways’, what does it do, and how?
ODRways started with the intention to work on the problem of access to justice in India, by finding ‘Other Ways’ to resolve disputes.
From an online arbitration model to an online mediation platform to an aggregator of mediators in India, this is the third version of ODRways.
It envisions to make mediation the primary method of dispute resolution in India, by tackling two challenges- Awareness and Accessibility.
1. Increasing awareness: ODRways in collaboration with National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata organise a pan-India mediation awareness campaign called ‘Indian Mediation Week’. In the last two years, more than 5 lakh people have been sensitised with the benefits of mediation in 102 cities across the country.
2. Increasing Accessibility: With 98 mediators in 21 cities across India, the platform intends to make mediation services easily accessible to the common man of India. It answers a simple question- “How to find a good mediator in India?” You can file a dispute on the online platform and get connected to a mediator within 24 hours.
In less than 12 months of launching the platform, the platform received over 2000 cases. These disputes range from family disputes to property as well as commercial matters to high stake environmental disputes. You also have the option to use the online mediation platform to resolve disputes without stepping outside the house.
You are a college entrepreneur! What does a day in your life look like?
College entrepreneur! It’s one of the coolest things that has happened to me in college, that’s for sure.
Of course, it requires a little restructuring of your schedule and a new plan of action to balance existing important aspects of life like academics, extracurricular activities, relationships etc.
You sort of have a head start on a glimpse at what work life is going to be like as compared to most of your peers, so you tend to view work very seriously despite the atmosphere around you.
Yes, there are sacrifices that need to be made but it’s the same ones that come along with prioritising and then focussing on those priorities, so no complaints because the results are rewarding.
The excitement of being able to curate and provide a service that we believe is so necessary and to be able to promote a process that we truly connect with, while also attempting to make a living out of it, is just supremely exciting and a little scary (but more exciting, I promise.)
The life of an entrepreneur is a roller coaster but we as a team have so much to offer, we’re all strapped in and ready for the ride.
How has “ODR Ways'” journey been till now?
From being recognised as the ‘Socially Most Innovative platform in 2015’ by Google to being listed in the ‘Top 10 Social Ideas of 2016’ in the Tata Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, the initiative has also been supported by judges, lawyers and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) organisations such as Indian Council of Arbitration (ICA), Centre for Advanced Mediation Practice (CAMP) and Delhi Dispute Resolution Society (DDRS) among others.
It was also recognised as a “Sustainable online mediation model for developing countries in Asia to get high stake matters” at the Global Mediation Forum, Bangkok in May, 2017, organised by World Mediation Organisation (WMO) and the Thailand Arbitration Centre.
In August, 2017, ODRways was identified by Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, in the list of 12 Alternative Dispute Resolution agencies across India, which will aid the government departments in reducing their burden of court cases.
It’s very tough to look for a result like a change in mindset but the road to that becomes easier based on how strongly connected you are and the faith you have in the cause or process you are promoting.
This is a team that wholly believes that mediation is a holistic, fruitful and required mode of dispute resolution, especially in India.
A team that fully sees and understands the short term and long term benefits of adopting a process like mediation and who also sees the individual and collective good this process will have once frequently and correctly adopted and executed.
Coupled with this specific goal and vision is an equally dedicated team of over 2000+ volunteers across the country.
It would be right to say that the success achieved so far can be credited to the consistent strength of our faith in the process and growth in the IMW family across the country.
Apart from changing mindsets of the people from an adversarial “I’ll see you in court” to a more amicable “let’s sit down and figure this out” which indeed is a huge challenge, the quality of mediators would be the next big challenge.
Mediation is only good and useful when conducted by a good mediator who is trained and who maintains the sanctity of the process. Considering that we are still on the journey of making mediation a primary method of dispute resolution, currently, converting inquiries into cases have been tough as well.
Through Indian mediation Week, continuous empanelment of highly qualified mediators and continuing the work we are doing, we aim to overcome these obstacles and meet both our short-term and long-term goals.
Tell us about the Mediation Week.
ODRways answers the important question of ‘where can I find a mediator for my problem?’ but with time we realised that there is a larger underlying issue which was that the awareness about the process of mediation was really really low.
Low enough for people not file their cases with us or even come looking for a mediator. This gave birth to a pan India mediation awareness campaign – Indian Mediation Week.
The primary focus is simple ‘Tell everybody about this process called mediation.’ The means of doing so is endless and ever-growing.
Mediation awareness drives are one of our primary methods but our other methods also involve seminars, competitions, informal talks, workshops, music, dance, art, storytelling, business mediation summits etc across the country.
The campaign has been supported by Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India, Atal Innovation Mission, NITI Aayog, and Hon’ble Justice Madan Lokur and Supreme Court Mediation and Conciliation Project Committee (MCPC).
In two years, 2400 mediation awareness drives were conducted with 2000+ volunteers working in 102 cities across India and sensitising over 5 lakh people by encouraging them to adopt mediation as a method of dispute resolution.
Parallelly there is a strong social media campaign as well with the tag line, “Suljhao Magar Pyaar Se” (translation: Resolve, amicably) which saw support from the former Law Minister Mr. Salman Khurshid, the Hon’ble Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur as well as K.N Tripathi, Governor of West Bengal and Sushil Kumar Modi, Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar.
The campaign received international recognition from luminaries including Mr. Daniel Erdmann, Founder of World Mediation Organization, Thomas Valenti from Valenti Law, Rahim Shamji from ADR-ODR London to Young Mediators Initiative of International Mediation Institute (IMI) along with Mediators in South Korea, Australia, USA among others.
You can follow our Facebook page to see what we’ve been up to and all our future activities on this Facebook page and check out the mediation embassy website to track the mediation awareness activities across cities conducted by law schools across India as a part of our initiative.
How did the tie-up with the ministry happen? How has it helped you?
Funny story actually.
It would be really helpful if someone could throw light on this for us as well. It was so out of the blue and unexpected, not just the news but the way we received it. Pranjal literally had a Facebook message from the Joint Secretary of Ministry of Law and Justice which stayed in his unread messages because they were not Facebook friends at the time.
The message was then discovered (huge surprise would be an understatement) and then the ball got rolling once communication commenced and it ended up with our tie up. It gave us recognition for the work we are doing and also led to the inflow of a lot more enquiries and cases
Biggest lessons from this, do not underestimate the power of social media and check your other inbox as well because you never know!
Please tell us about your team.
I think this is always going to be one of my favourite questions.
Currently, Pranjal Sinha (also a final year law student at NUJS), Vikram Kumar (an engineer) and I, form ODRways. It started with Pranjal, Vikram and then I got on board.
I’m still really young and new in my entrepreneurial journey as ODRways is really young but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt it is the immense importance of a good team.
We all firmly believe in the work that we do and connect to the cause. We’re extremely supportive of each other and that is probably our biggest strength.
“We’ll figure it out” is our go-to phrase whenever the universe is swinging curveballs at us and that’s a great mindset to keep the ball rolling and in all honesty, it’s what keeps the ball rolling.
How can law students and young lawyers contribute to your initiative?
Indian Mediation Week, as mentioned, is to get the word out about mediation and its benefits. If you have an idea to spread awareness and would like assistance to execute it, just reach out to us. Specifically, for law students, we have the mediation embassy program.
You can volunteer to become an IMW student ambassador for your college, form a team of volunteers and start your awareness activities and drives. Your progress will be monitored and the top student ambassadors are recognised for their hard work and effort with cash prizes, goodie bags, mediation kits, access to internships etc.
Young lawyers after becoming trained mediators can register on ODRways and receive cases.
Is your venture self-sustaining? If yes, how does it take care of the money question? If no, what are your plans on that?
Our current business model is when a client comes with a dispute, we connect him to a suitable mediator post a conference call and fact sharing session which gives the mediator an opportunity to understand whether he or she can go forward with the case. On agreeing to take up the case, a 10% commission on the total mediator fees comes to ODRways.
We are presently making a revenue which is a good sign but we haven’t reached a stage where we are breaking even as of yet.
The positive signs are that we have seen a 200% growth in the number of enquires filed on our platform in search of a mediator and the current goal is for us to be able to successfully convert 50% of these cases by the end of the next 2 months.
You are a mediator yourself. Tell us about your experiences as a mediator.
As I am also a full-time law student, a full-fledged practicing mediator is not achievable at the moment. While trying to understand and identify my own unique style of mediating I’m always striving to watch and learn.
I’ve shadow mediated roughly 50 to 60 mediations under various practicing mediators to give myself the opportunity to fully understand the process. The skill set one acquires by virtue of being a mediator is helpful in maintaining relationships and better communication in all spheres of my life.
What’s the future road-map for ‘ODR Ways’?
ODRways aims to make mediation the primary method of dispute resolution in India.
ODRways intends to become the largest aggregator of mediators in India and a one-stop shop for mediation services in India.
We aim to increase the reach of our mediation awareness campaign to more cities across India and bring in more mediators on the platform.
For the longest time, mediation has not been seen as a profession and rather an evening/pro-bono activity for lawyers in India. ODRways aims to change this scenario by converting more mediation enquiries into cases, and professionalize mediation services in India.
Your advice/message for future entrepreneurs, innovators, and change makers.
Just start working on your vision. The first step is to get up and do. An idea no matter how small or big can only turn into something when acted upon.
Surround yourself by the right people both personally and professionally for it has a huge impact on your growth and journey as an entrepreneur. Always stay open to constructive criticism and words spoken in good faith from people who are speaking based on experience are gold, so listen up.
Have faith in yourself even when the going gets tough, don’t give up, work hard, dream BIG but most importantly, always stay kind through it all. Trust me. It matters.
Which books, movies, and resources (courses/experiences/online tools) have informed or inspired you the most?
My first mediation accreditation was done from ADR-ODR International under Mr. Rahim Shamji.
This course will always remain special to me for it was when I fell in love with the process of mediation and truly understood the beauty of this process. Humanising the process of dispute resolution resonated with me on a very personal level and it’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Music holds a very special place in my life. Apart from performing, writing my own music is a very intrinsic part of my life. It’s an extremely powerful way of making you feel and connect to people, places, memories and dreams.
Apart from prioritising my professional life, I am someone who places equal importance in aspects like my personal growth, mental health, family and relationships.
There are many books and movies that serve as inspirations in various times of my life but the different short stories series written by Sudha Murthy is so beautifully written and serves as a constant reminder of how the little things in life matter and the powerfulness of simple acts of kindness.