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Caring For Those Who Care: Social Workers In India

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I’ve been working in the NGO sector for nearly two years now and have been volunteering for as long as I can remember. I might be saying it at the risk of ruffling a considerable number of feathers, but it’s almost fashionable to say so.
“What are you doing now?” my classmates ask.
“Oh nothing much, I’m Head of Social Concern at a private firm.”
“Oh good stuff, good stuff,” they say, almost embarrassed to talk of their corporate ascent.

Image Courtesy: U&I
Image Courtesy: U&I

They don’t need to be embarrassed though. I’d like to tell them that someday. No one fancies becoming a corporate slave. I understand that. Everyone has financial mismanagement to rise above or a family to look after or stomachs to feed. We’re the middle class. The ‘aspirational’ class caught bang in the middle of the rich and the poor, not entirely sure where our identities lie. Given that I’ve graduated from a college that swears by social justice, it’s almost impossible to not feel guilty about having gone the corporate way. In fact, for the longest time, corporate entities weren’t allowed to carry out campus placements in our college, but then they realized. They realized that not everyone could afford to go the NGO way. You see, working in the social work industry in India is a very, very costly affair. Opportunity cost, if you will excuse my Economics-student parlance and since we’re talking economics anyway, I suppose it boils down to one question, is your investment reaping profits over and above the seed costs? Yes, no, maybe? Well, my answer, without a doubt, is yes. But then again, it’s a luxury not everyone can afford.

We live in a country whose history and whose people are ridden with pain. Essentially, everyone needs help and that is pretty much why the Care Industry in India is on a rapid scramble up the charts. The poor need it, the rich need it too. Everyone needs to be cared for and there’s a growing realization of this fact, especially in India’s urban and semi urban spaces. As I mentioned earlier, it was easy for me to get into social work. I wanted to help people at the grassroots level and I could afford to make a career choice out of it. I have friends who have had to make many sacrifices simply because they wanted to become social workers and their efforts are all the more commendable and praiseworthy on that account. Regardless of our personal choices and circumstances therefore, we have all made a choice and we’ve all invested our time and effort into something we believe will reap profits someday. Our immediate gratification as social workers would quite simply be the intrinsic value of having done something good and of having eased someone’s pain. On some level, it’s even selfish, a license to adopt a self condescending air about being the select few who are ‘actually doing something’ while everyone else is pursuing money or fame or women or godknowswhat. That’s where we’re wrong, all of us are social workers at some level barring the most obvious difference that people like me are probably more focused upon the job at hand. It’s almost like everyone has an MBA, but our specializations determine where we’re headed.

So when people ask me what social issue I hold dear to my heart, I say it’s the one that plagues our country the most — the social workers themselves. In a country of six billion people, a depressing fraction of our population is actually employed in the social work industry and most people participate in it on a voluntary basis. There is a dearth (and I’m sure you’ve heard this complaint before) of social workers in this country. There is a dearth of specialized social workers in this country. There’s a dearth of well qualified social workers in this country. The opportunities are plenty, but the incentives are not. If you ask me, all social issues are of immeasurable importance and no one’s pain can be diminished in relation to another’s, pain being the personal experience that is. What we do need is a significant rise in the number of people addressing these various types and kinds of pain with the wherewithal to cater to the various degrees in which it manifests itself. In an ideal situation, the proportion of people being helped in relation to those giving it should be equal and reversible but lest I be accused of Utopian inclinations, let me get back to ground reality.

What I would like to emphasize then, is the need to create a well-structured framework for social workers to operate within because as things stand, they are spilling out of every industry and every nook and corner of this country with seemingly no direction except, as many will accuse, the sword of eloquence, impassioned speech and shaky foundations. In countries abroad and forgive me for comparing, social workers are not just well rewarded, but their tasks are well defined and their roles a lot smoother to carry out as a result. There are representatives and activists from all fields who safeguard and fight for the interests of others without having to make trade union movements out of it and particularly not at the cost of their paychecks. What we also need, are incentives. In a country such as ours, I am of the firm belief that this is probably the only thing that will work like a charm. Social workers are after all people with families to feed and look after, not too different from corporate folk themselves and if anyone points fingers at NGOs saying they’re too busy misusing funds, one can say the same about corporate entities and government bodies with the same breath.

There is much that can be debated, deliberated upon and discussed with regard to social workers in India. I present perhaps one of the many concerns that this career path is plagued with and I come with my own share of experiences, or the lack thereof. Having said that, I know I speak for many others like me who sense a pressing need for certain structural and societal changes that will accommodate a far smoother flow in the operations of social workers in the country so that their investments will not go in vain and so that their voices will not go unheard. More often than not, people don’t empathize with social workers, the odds they work against and the various roadblocks that can sometimes affect their whole lives and their families’ lives even. Nevertheless, the one thing we need to always strive to do as human beings, let alone as social workers, is to make a difference.

As Julia Carney once said —
“Little drops of water,
little grains of sand,
make the mighty ocean
and the beauteous land.”

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  1. Raj

    While you are most welcome to engage in social work (or any non-harmful activity for that matter), you need not look down upon the ones you call “corporate slaves” who fund your activities. They are the productive people who earn the money you spend on the poor. Where does that money come from? From the Govt.? Where does the Govt. get it’s money from? From people who do productive activities.
    What about the corporations who support you directly through grants or indirectly through taxes they pay? But first, who are the corporations? There are no corporations who pay taxes, they are people. Every paisa that a corporation has is either owned by some or the other individual through shares or is owed to someone else (like employees or suppliers). The corporation you so casually deride, doesn’t exist. People who work for them, who get paid by them and who own them, they exist. And they are the ones who directly or indirectly fund your activities. So don’t look down upon them.

    And your college doesn’t allow corporates to hire? Sorry but I smell the stench of hypocrisy. No doubt your college eats the tax-payers money and spits on the same plate it eats out of. Remember, there are no corporations, only people. It’s the people who pay the taxes, either through direct taxation, taxes on goods and services sold or through inflation. And the Govt. has no money and does not produce any, it takes money from the people and re-distributes it. When it can’t balance its books, it prints more money, thus destroying the value of the currency.

    So if you want poverty-reduction, try out a little free market capitalism. Works wonders!

    “So far as poverty is concerned, there has never in history been a more effective machine for eliminating poverty than the free enterprise system and the free market.” ~Milton Friedman at Stanford University in 1978

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