Rejuvenating Indian social work, culturally

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Rejuvenating Indian social work, culturally

Friday, 07 June 2024 | Vineet Prakash

Rejuvenating Indian social work, culturally

Integrating modern and indigenous methods enhances  the relevance of Indian social work, providing it with greater depth and effectiveness

Every profession is unique and essential for societal growth and development. Social work, however, carries an added responsibility - to serve people and communities, striving to uplift them. It involves working with people and their surroundings, considering external and internal factors simultaneously. Social work is not just about empathizing with others’ circumstances but also about reflecting on potential solutions and alternatives.

In today’s India, social work as a profession is emerging as one of the crucial sectors. Over the last decade, this profession has expanded its horizon and established itself across the country. It is encouraging to see a growing number of young professionals choosing this career path. India needs more such young minds and professionals who can work on the ground and formulate policies to address critical societal issues. However, it is essential to question whether we are truly fulfilling this need.

The Evolution of Social Work: Global and Indian Contexts

Social work as a profession has a rich history globally. It was formalized in the early 20th century with the establishment of social work education programs in universities. The United States and Europe played pivotal roles in the development of social work, focusing on scientific methods and systematic approaches to address social issues.

In India, social work has deep roots that can be traced back to ancient times when the concept of “seva” (selfless service) was integral to societal life. The profession, in its modern form, began taking shape during the colonial period with the establishment of formal training programs. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), established in 1936, was one of the first institutions to offer professional social work education in India. Since then, the profession has evolved, adapting to the country’s unique social, economic, and cultural contexts.

The Need for Indianising Social Work

Recognising Diversity

India’s strength lies in its diversity, with various languages, food habits, cultures, and climates. The country is home to numerous religions, castes, and tribes, each facing unique social issues. Solutions to these problems cannot be one-size-fits-all; they must be tailored to the specific community and location. India’s indigenous approaches have shown success in overcoming tough challenges, and integrating these approaches into modern social work practices can preserve and promote these valuable traditions.

Influence of Great Reformers

Great social reformers like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Savitri Bai Phule, Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Pandita Ramabai, Vinoba Bhave, and many others have not only addressed complex issues of their time but also laid down principles that continue to guide us. However, the current syllabus and course content of social work in India reflects more of a colonial-era influence than Indigenous perspectives. It is time to introspect and make necessary corrections. After 75 years of independence, it is imperative to Indianize social work education and practice, ensuring that it is relevant to the Indian context. While the exchange of ideas is valuable, it should be multidirectional, incorporating India’s rich social work heritage.

Historical and Traditional Engagement Areas of Social Work in India

Historically, social work in India has been deeply rooted in community development, public health, education, disaster response and relief, as well as advocacy and human rights, with practices that reflect indigenous approaches. Before independence, the Cooperative Movement emerged as a powerful tool to address rural indebtedness and enhance agricultural practices, empowering farmers through access to credit and collective bargaining power. Post-independence, the Chipko Movement exemplified community-driven environmental activism, with villagers, especially women, embracing trees to prevent deforestation, highlighting the importance of community involvement in sustainable development.

Pre-independence, traditional healthcare practices like Yoga, Ayurveda, and Unani played vital roles in providing accessible healthcare, particularly in rural areas, with practitioners significantly contributing to community health. Post-independence, the Pulse Polio Immunization Campaign demonstrated effective public health social work, with extensive collaboration between government agencies, NGOs, and local communities playing a crucial role in eradicating polio. In education, pre-independence, the traditional Gurukul system emphasized holistic, value-based education, fostering physical, mental, and spiritual development through personalized learning. Post-independence India has implemented educational initiatives reflecting indigenous social work approaches, such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and the Right to Education Act, all emphasizing inclusivity and community participation.

Pre-independence, social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar advocated against social evils like sati and child marriage, leading to significant changes in societal norms and practices. Post-independence, the Right to Information (RTI) Movement empowered citizens to hold the government accountable, promoting transparency and good governance. These examples underscore the rich history of social work in India, deeply intertwined with indigenous practices and values, emphasizing community participation, sustainability, and cultural relevance. Integrating these indigenous approaches into modern social work practices can help preserve and promote these valuable traditions while addressing contemporary social challenges.

Integrating Modern and Indigenous Approaches in Social Work for Sustainable Impact

The intersection of modern and Indigenous approaches in social work is vital for creating a sustainable impact in communities. Modern methodologies bring innovative ideas and technologies, emphasizing evidence-based practices and data-driven decision-making for measurable outcomes. Indigenous approaches, on the other hand, offer valuable insights rooted in local contexts, emphasizing community participation, traditional knowledge, and cultural relevance for long-term impact and resilience. By integrating these approaches, social workers can leverage the strengths of both, building trust, respecting local traditions, and empowering communities for more sustainable and impactful interventions.

Proposing “Bhartiya Samaj Karya Diwas”: Celebrating India’s Legacy in Social Work

Every year, the 3rd Tuesday of March is celebrated globally as World Social Work Day. This year, it was celebrated on March 19, 2024. Given India’s long history and significant impact in the field of social work, it is time to consider declaring and adopting a day as “Bhartiya Samaj Karya Diwas,” i.e., Indian Social Work Day. This would not only celebrate the legacy of Indian social workers but also promote indigenous practices to serve the people of India better. This will also lead to promoting and recognizing the efforts of local social workers, and they can be role models for others.

Revitalizing social work in India by integrating indigenous approaches and perspectives is not just a necessity but a responsibility. By doing so, we can ensure that social work remains relevant and effective in addressing the unique challenges faced by our diverse society. It is time to revive the Indigenous methods, honour our rich heritage, learn from our great reformers, and adapt our practices to serve the people of India in the most authentic and impactful ways.

(The writer is currently working as an American India Foundation Banyan Impact Fellow; views are personal)

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