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?

Quote: 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? 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?