The central government has come up with a Bill to ‘standardize’ and ‘regulate’ professional social work in India. The government recently circulated the National Council of Social Work (Education and Practice) Bill, 2020 to invite comments from social work practitioners, educators and other stakeholders.
No comments on how widely the Bill was circulated (or not circulated) for comments. But primarily, the Bill seeks to regulate quality, flexibility and autonomy in social work education and practice in India. Good intentions perhaps and not without precedent, but the Bill has been critiqued on several grounds. Concerns have been expressed about the membership and accountability of the National Council of Social Work, as also the reflection of regional perspectives in the legislation.
Going by the Bill’s emphasis on recognizing only social work degree holders as professional social workers (presumably those who earn a part or all of their income from social work as an occupation), the question arises about who can be a professional social worker or who can’t be one. What about engineers, entrepreneurs, economists, journalists, teachers, healthcare professionals or myriad others who learn different aspects of social work through experience and practice it as professionals without having studied social work as a discipline?
India’s social work sphere is vast and diverse, and has largely grown organically in response to numerous discriminatory social norms and serious deficits in the functioning of government and private organizations (including I daresay educational, healthcare and media institutions). Rather than recognizing the contributions of social workers originating from different fields to the sphere of social work, the Bill talks about registration of professional social workers and as a corollary, it intends to criminalize professional social workers who don’t have the necessary academic credentials! What about years and years of their learning, training and expertise gained on the job? Can this be the way forward for social work to evolve qualitatively in India?
If a social work ‘qualification’ is so crucially important, what about devising a way of recognizing social workers who don’t have a formal degree in social work but have spent a lifetime in the sphere? What about thousands of community development and outreach workers who may not have any kind of higher education qualification at all but have done the all-important spadework on the ground (read last-mile delivery) that actually makes the government healthcare and social welfare programmes effective? Are they all to be treated as criminals now because they don’t have a social work qualification, or should they be encouraged and supported to acquire one? And what if they’re unable to acquire one or don’t want to? What happens to their professional future?
Critiques of the Bill have rightly pointed out that social work in India is not just about services delivery. A lot of it is about community mobilization and development that have been processes very specific to the social, economic, legal and political marginalizations of the communities concerned. Will formal courses in social work in future acknowledge and factor in these issues in the syllabus?
Here’s an example (something I closely identify with as a queer activist and erstwhile full-time professional social worker). Till September 6, 2018, thanks to Section 377, Indian Penal Code, my sexuality and certain sexual behaviours were supposedly in the wrong and I was effectively an ‘unapprehended felon’. But I did social work to advocate against Section 377 and contributed in some way or the other towards the section being read down and queer people being decriminalized. On the other hand, if the proposed Bill becomes law and I continue to do professional social work around sexuality (or any other issue for that matter), I may again be criminalized, this time for my work.
One small part of me can’t help think that this seems like a ‘punishment’ for what not just I but thousands of other gender, sexuality and human rights activists achieved in the past through their social work, whether backed by a social work degree or not. And not just in the sphere of gender and sexuality, but also issues like sex work, sexual assault, workplace harassment, disability, environment, public health, and public accountability – all issues that often upset no end governments and other power holders in society.
The larger question, however, is that does social work education teach ‘how to be a criminal and yet bring about social change’? Will an ‘improved’ social work curriculum include such issues?
Counting from the 1980s and the 1990s, so many queer activists, my contemporaries, have spent a life time in mobilizing queer people, organizing and training them, trying to create new options for them, helping them advocate for socio-legal change and access scarce resources, above all listening to their stories of pain and offering them solace. In a broad sense, we’ve so often acted almost ‘in loco parentis’ for people whose own parents and families turned against them, not to speak of their friends, neighbours, colleagues and teachers. Does the government’s vision include ‘teaching’ such ‘parenting skills’ to social work practitioners?
2 responses to "From ‘being criminal and doing social work’ to ‘doing social work and becoming criminal’"
This news is a wrong interpretation. The bill intents to regulate the Social Work training programs (BSW/ BA (SW)/ MSW/MA (SW) etc.) and the practice of those who practice Social Work after completing this qualifications.
It does not touch those people who do social service activities.
Social work is a internationally recognised profession. Social work education and practice has been regulated in all developed countries through Counsels. But there is no control by Social Work Councils for doing Social service activities in these countries.
The proposed Indian Bill also intents to do the same.
This is a response to the article titled “From ‘being criminal and doing social work’ to ‘doing social work and becoming criminal’” By Pawan Dhall | November 30, 2020 on the Varta webpage. I write in reply to the author to respectfully disagree with his arguments.
Firstly, the National Council for Social Work (Education and Practice) (NCSW) draft bill 2020 is not brought up by the Central Government. Recently, a group of senior social work educators formed a voluntary working group to work on drafting a bill seeing the urgent need for a council on social work education to help the nation go through the current socio-economic transitions effectively. In fact, the idea of Council has been there since the 1960s when the First Review Committee on social work education and then the Second Review Committee in 1980s recommended for establishment of such a body to set standards for the quality of social work education programmes in the country. The bill has been circulated and widely discussed. The feedback will be incorporated into the bill.
Secondly, there seems to be a misunderstanding about professional social work in the author’s mind. While “I taught English to underprivileged children” would not be professional social work, as the author has mentioned, India’s social work space is vast and diverse. In fact, we have three practice spaces or practitioner types. First, the non-social work voluntary practice which is the predominant space and encompasses the work from Gandhij’s to the contemporary development practitioners (engaged by engineers, entrepreneurs, economists, journalists etc) including the activists’ work the writer was mentioning; second, social work development practitioners who mostly identify themselves with the first category though they have a social work degree for a variety of reasons, and; third, social work practitioners who work in specific programmatic positions such as for example, in child protection contexts, in family counselling centres, in special cells, and so on. The Bill that we are discussing here covers the last type of practitioners and social work educators. It does not have anything to do with the first two types of practitioners and their work contexts. As a matter of fact, social work professionals have drawn much of their learnings from the voluntary sector and historically became more a method-based and specialized occupation eventually. In our training, we study about voluntary sector’s contributions, and during our internship, we work with the development practitioners and draw inspiration from them. In a sense, “experiential learning” is an essential component of social work coursework and is completed under the supervision of a social worker and ends with a strict evaluation. This is also to say that for example, an engineer has the skills of a civil engineer to build a bridge, in the similar manner an MSW degree holder holds the skills to program evaluation, casework, group work or community development and advocacy.
Thirdly, training in social work is not just about services delivery and goes beyond it. In response to the question asked by the author “will formal courses in social work in future acknowledge and factor in these issues (community mobilization and development) in the syllabus”?, I respectfully inform the author that Social Work education has been proud of working with marginalized and oppressed sections of the society, keeping them in the center of all their interventions, with a rights-based approach to bring about social change and justice in this ever-changing society. “Community Development” is not only compulsory coursework in our first year of MSW but also a specialization called community organisation and development practice in MSW. And to his last questions ‘does social work education teach ‘how to be criminal and yet bring about social change’? Will an ‘improved’ social work curriculum include such issues? – I would like to say that advocacy is not alien to social work education. We have learnt and practice advocacy for our activist self. Professional social workers are as much part of activism and movements be it women’s movement, anti-caste movement etc. in the country.
Lastly, I end this response by stating that I as a dominant caste, upper class, and urban woman from North India completed her MSW in women centred practice from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the year 2016. This education helped me deconstruct my privilege, understanding of oppression patriarchy caste system we as women suffer in, helped me critically engage with all stakeholders and carry with me ethics of a professional social worker in “reimagining futures”.
Gender-based Violence Consultant