Brief overview

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Ajit Kanitkar

As mentioned earlier, we selected the social workers to be profiled, based on their work, besides a couple of other factors. Having profiled them, we decided to look at the diversity, through various aspects such as gender and region.

The following tables present an easy-to-assimilate overview of the analyses we have done in the following three chapters.

Gender diversity

Men 18
Women 4
Total 22


Regional diversity

North 3
West 3
South 5
East 3
Central 4
Northeast 4


Religious diversity

Muslim 4
Christian 3
Hindu 15


Educational qualification

Less than graduation 1/22
Graduation and or above 21/22
Postgraduate studies and professional qualifications 10/22
Medicine 2/22


Economic background of parents

Higher middle class None
Middle class 18
Lower middle and indigent 4


Profession of parents

Salaried job in the government 6
Teaching 4
Salaried job in private sector 1
Self-employment / business 3
Farming and farm labourer 2
Politics/social work/preaching 3
Other 1
Lost earning member during early childhood 2


Profession of spouse

Social work or related profession 7
Other than social work 15


Prior experience of working with NGOs before starting own NGO

No prior experience 4
Worked for some years with other NGOs 18


Focus of activities of the NGOs covered in the study

Agriculture, water and livelihood creation 8
Organising and empowering marginalised 4
Health and wellbeing 4
Mental health issues 2
Urban poor 1
Digital divide 1
Runaway children 1
Supporting role to NGOs 1


A quick overview of all the above tables indicate that all the social workers come from backgrounds like the rest of us, had no special privileges while growing up, most of them cut their teeth on the job, working with some NGO and getting introduced to the world of social work. Aspects such as geographical and religious diversity and socioeconomic background of the social workers clearly demonstrate that they are not barriers when there is an inner urge to do something for the society. While we have made categories of core activities of the NGOs under headings such as livelihood and health, in most of the cases, these categories are not strictly water tight compartments. Those working in the field often work on several issues simultaneously. For example, somebody working on promoting livelihood is also engaged in organising and empowering women that is the basis of the subsequent livelihood promotion work.

In the next chapter, we have discussed their journey in detail and the lessons one can draw from them.

Living the life of a changemaker

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Ajit Kanitkar

What prompts certain individuals to become social workers? What gives them the desire to bring about a change in the lives of people? What makes them resolutely pursue their mission in spite of hardships?

In this section, we look at the journey of all the individuals profiled in the book and how and in what way their schooling, family background and atmosphere, environment in the society, and experiences while growing up might have (or might not have) influenced their decision to engage in social work.

We notice some patterns in the 22 profiles. These do suggest that the early years of each one of them had an abiding influence on their personal and professional growth. We discern the following patterns across the profiles:

    1. All of them hail from a middle-class background.
    2. The parents and families of most of the individuals profiled had modest livelihood resources;hence they had no parental assets to fall back on, when each of them decided to pursue social work as a career.
    3. Conduct of parents and in some cases, relatives and teachers acted as a moral compass that laid a strong foundation of values and commitment. The experiences and interactions of the early years have stayed with them in their sustained motivation to do something for the society.
    4. Peer group in educational institutions, especially during graduate and postgraduate studies, was a critical influencing factor in shaping the lives of the individuals profiled in this publication.
    5. A few individuals and institutions have played a stellar role in shaping the visions of many of the individuals. Many of the social workers had the benefit of being coached and mentored during the formative years of their journey.
    6. Exposure to the society and new experiences during college education and at the beginning of their respective professional careers shaped the worldview of the social workers. Those exposures often built up the foundation for their subsequent and lifelong pursuit of a career in social work.

In the following paragraphs, we present insights from the extensive interactions we had with them during the research study.

Parental influence

Parents and immediate family members had profound influence on the personality of all the social workers with whom we interacted. Each of them narrated a number of anecdotes and stories from their childhood and adolescent days, recalling fondly, even after many decades. Such has been the impact of the early years and values that their parents instilled in their kids, not by preaching but by practising.

The jobs that the parents held also had a direct or indirect influence on the individuals.Parents of some individuals profiled in this publication held government jobs that meant frequent transfers – Pramod Kulkarni, Sudhir Katiyar and Akeina Rongmei. A few of them were in teaching profession either in a school or a college - Yogesh Jain and Prithibhusan Deka.

A parent being employed in a government or private sector organisation assured steady if not great income for the family - Osama Manzar, Ashis Mondal, Vivekanandan and Johnny Oommen.

However, it should be noted that some of the social workers lost a parent very early in life, necessitating an urgency to seek secure employment right after the completion of their studies - Vivekanandan, Sarat Das, Prithibhusan Deka, Ashis Mondal and Sarbani Das Roy. Ashis’s brother supported him financially in completing his studies.

In the latter part of this note, we have discussed in detail, the risks that the individuals took, both on the personal and professional front. None of them had a privileged childhood with wealthy parents providing whatever comforts the child asked for. There were moments of struggle while growing up.

Vivekanandan lost his father when he was in school. Sarat losing his father at an early age meant that he had to choose studies that would assure regular employment immediately after the completion of his studies. As a young girl, Sarbani Das Roy had to leave Kolkata and spend a few years in Delhi, before her mother succumbed to cancer.

The story of Madhukar Dhas, to whom we have dedicated this book, is extremely touching. Madhukar’s father worked as a daily wage labourer. In fact, Madhukar also worked as a daily wage earner, under a labour contractor.

Akeina recalled her father's uprightness and his refusal to accept favours from contractors while serving in a government department, a position that many might have used to amass wealth. She remembers her mother always coming to the rescue of the needy and the poor when the situation so demanded. Her mother was also actively involved in a political party. Listening to animated discussions about political and social issues of the times in the neighbourhood opened up Ashif’s mind to prevailing injustice and discrimination in the society.

Chingmak’s father is a politician serving his fifth term as a member of the legislative assembly. That exposure surely helped Chingmak to be a different person. It might have been easier for him to step into the shoes of his father, but he decided not to.

Dr Johnny’s inspiration clearly stems from his father, who was a pastor in a church. He served the cause of humanity in and outside India. Johnny’s interaction with his father and his father's message to him, ‘When you leave the room, make sure you turn off the light’ is a great lesson in transition and succession management.

The conservative beliefs of Jameela’s family did not provide a supportive and encouraging environment to fulfil her aspirations. Her family did not appreciate or encourage her urge to express herself through painting and writing. However after marriage, she continued writing poetry and later formed Shaheen, an organisation that rescues and rehabilitates women lured into sheikh marriages.

For Osama, his father's strong association with an educational institution in Ranchi created a lasting impact on him. Though his father was employed in a public sector engineering company, he volunteered most of his free time to educate children from the community. He and his friends established a formal school that enjoyed a reputation of its own in the city. Pramod has fond memories of his mother and the time he spent with his grandmother. He recalled the love, affection and warmth he received in full measure while growing up in his grandmother’s house, as his father in government service got transferred to different locations. Pramod’s work in later years with children rescued from railway platforms probably reflects the same emotions where he understood the importance of repatriating and reuniting the child with his family. ‘A child needs loving care of the family’ is his simple message in the work that he took up later.

Prithibhusan Deka's father impressed upon him the need to be completely selfless when engaged in any public activity or social work. "One should not partake of any prasad till everyone has got a share" was his spiritual message as someone who believed in probity in public life. This message, simple and straightforward, stood Prithibhusan in good stead when there was rampant corruption in relief and rehabilitation activities of the government after floods. As a volunteer, he exposed some of the corrupt practices.

Vivekanandan’s inspiration was his uncle who was an activist, besides being involved in a political party. His uncle’s collection of books opened new vistas for the young Vivekanandan. He recalled with pride, his father's association during India's freedom struggle, stories that he heard directly from his father before his death.

Inspiring individuals

Mentoring does play a critical role as seen from many of the life stories of social workers. Though mentoring was not a fashionable word during those years, being in the company of a few motivated individuals influenced and benefitted the young minds. Interacting with them certainly inspired some of the social workers.

The mentoring and coaching happened in different ways and forms. Ashis and his initial team of founders in Action for Social Advancement (ASA) found such thoughtful mentoring support in the Jagawat family of NM Sadguru Foundation in Dahod. Mrs Jagawat provided the ASA team with a typewriter and a two-wheeler besides practical advice and guidance. This initial support was extremely valuable to Ashis and his team when they had limited financial resources.

Ashif learnt many a valuable lesson during the time he spent with a number of renowned activists like Swami Agnivesh and Kailash Satyarthi. He drew a lot from the activism of both these individuals.

For Nimesh Sumati, a businessman before his venture into philanthropy, mentoring by stalwarts like late Baba Amte of Anandwan and his teacher in the vipassana meditation guided him to take the work of Caring Friends as his life's mission.

Similar to being inspired by his uncle when he was young, Vivekanandan found inspiration from late Dr Varghese Kurien in Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) during his postgraduate studies.

Sudhir's stint in Prayas in Chittorgarh brought him an awareness about the plight of workers employed in the quarry mines and brick kilns.

Identifying his inclination, Osama's faculty advisor in Aligarh Muslim University encouraged him to opt for a course in arts rather than struggling in a science stream, that was not to his liking.

Dr Narayanan was Sarbani’s mentor and colleague. He encouraged her to examine why people with mental illhealth were homeless and had to be literally on the streets when their families abandoned them. He offered support in her effort to rehabilitate them. Eklavya gratefully acknowledges his learning from many stalwarts in the field.

Institutions as mentors

Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a reputed organisation working in the development sector for over 35 years has been a home to four individuals profiled in this book. These four social workers had their formative years in PRADAN before branching off to form a new organisation.

Rajesh Singhi worked in PRADAN in Alwar. Anil Verma was associated with PRADAN in Bihar in north India and Pramod Kulkarni in Karnataka in southern India. Rajesh’s association with PRADAN, though a short one, helped him respond to his passion for development work, though after toying with other options including a brief stint in his brother's business.

Sudhir Katiyar studied in IRMA, where he got his vision of working for the marginalised. Rajesh and Vivekanandan are also alumni of IRMA. Akeina studied in Nirmala Niketan in Mumbai, another reputed institution. Ashis is an alumnus of Xavier Institute of Social Services (XISS).

We suggest readers to go through the individual profiles. In each profile, we have described at length, the influences these institutions had in shaping the dreams of the social workers.

Embracing the unknown

Many of the social workers whom we have portrayed in our publication took risks in deciding to take up social work and often giving up secure jobs and steady incomes. There is a widespread misconception, especially in the last few years, that social work pays well and voluntary sector organisations offer lucrative salaries to their employees. There is a belief that those who work with civil society organisations enjoy a lavish lifestyle, travel abroad frequently, stay in luxury hotels, enjoy exclusive perquisites and so on. This perception is not entirely misplaced and perhaps true for only a handful of professionals who are employed with international donor organisations or UN organisations. But this number is an exception rather than the rule.

There are a large number of individuals who have been working on paltry salaries and in harsh environments devoid of any comfort. The social workers about whom we have written took huge risks to initiate developmental activities often with no or very meagre resources at hand. For some, the risks involved quitting a steady job and taking a plunge into the unknown. Another risk factor was relocating to a completely unfamiliar terrain where they had to struggle for many years to understand the local customs, cultural practices and get accepted by the people in the new locale.

A good number of social workers also had to risk their professional background and diversify into a completely new thematic area of work. While their social orientation would help them diversify into new themes, it involved unlearning and acquiring new skills and knowledge necessary to be effective in the new domain.

For a few, it was literally a question of life and death as they had to face threats to their lives from some quarters who found the work being championed by the social workers a hindrance to their ulterior motives. Many felt the risk of swimming against the tide, being ridiculed and criticised, of losing community and family support and fear of being isolated while pursuing their cherished goal.

Sarat Das left his cushy job in a financial institution and later another one in Delhi to return to Assam to work on livelihood issues. He had no other financial resources to support his family and thus as a compromise, took up a salaried job briefly, but quit when he was certain of some seed funding for his work.

Rajesh Singhi could have continued in his brother's business, but his IRMA background and initial stint in the Mewat region of Rajasthan left him restless in his secure and well-paid job. Pramod Kulkarni realised early that a corporate career was not his calling, though he had credentials as a successful graduate from a prestigious management institute of the country, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Akeina declined job offers from international donor organisations. Instead, she returned to her home state of Nagaland and began working with a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Ashis Mondal along with his colleagues was performing well in Krishak Bharati Cooperative Ltd (KRIBHCO), another reputed organisation. When they realised the limitations of working within an organisation, they chose to begin afresh with a small initiative that later grew into a big NGO, Action for Social Advancement (ASA).

We have profiled three physicians in this research study. All of them would have had a steady and financially rewarding career if they had held onto a predictable career as medical practitioners. None of the three did that and instead took risks. Dr Suresh Kumar, a trained anaesthetist working in Calicut Medical College ventured into palliative care as he felt that was his calling. For Dr Johnny Oommen, a degree from Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore and Dr Yogesh Jain from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) were sure passport for raking in money either as a private practitioner or for continuing in the prestigious institutions where they studied. Both had other ideas.

Dr Johnny chose to work in the remote regions of Bissamcuttack in Odisha; Dr Yogesh and his friends from AIIMS decided to relocate to Chhattisgarh to work on health issues of the poor.

Both were risky personal and professional decisions that could have had negative consequences for them as well as their families. They took a plunge albeit with lot of thought and careful considerations. Dr Yogesh visited various community organisations to study their work before choosing to begin his work in Ganiyari near Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh, now a part of Chhattisgarh.

In all the profiles, we have several examples of risk-taking behaviour of individuals, who put their life at stake at an early stage in their career. This is significant since none of them could predict how their decision would turn out to be later, say after 20 years.

Vivekanandan, an engineer, had a job offer from National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) after he completed his course from IRMA. NDDB was a dream employer in the early 1980s. The newly emerging fishermen’s federation was an unknown entity and not exactly a great employer but Vivekanandan chose the federation over NDDB.

So did Osama Manzar. Working in a Hindi newspaper in Aligarh after completing a media and communication course must have been comforting in those years. Instead, he decided to leave Aligarh and move to Delhi as he wanted to establish himself in the English print media. He did not have a regular job for almost three years. He had to stay in a slum where he could afford to pay minimal rent and for some time even had to depend on the fellowship of his spouse before he articulated the idea of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF).

For someone who is trained in theology, the role of a pastor in a church has a predictable career path. For a pastor based in a village, the path progresses up to state or even regional level work as a preacher. Dr Reverend Chingmak Chang knew this career ladder. However, instead of being confined within the four walls of the church and restricting himself to performing limited religious duties, he opted to work on many issues that the community was facing. Drug addiction was one such issue. However he had no knowledge of drug addiction and associated HIV infection. A pastor working on such issues was unheard of. He didn't mind venturing, another evidence of risk-taking and embracing the uncertainty.

Akeina narrated challenges that women social workers face, bearing responsibilities at work and also at the home front. National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) officials persuaded her to attenda meeting that was to be addressed by the RBI Governor. “I was carrying my second child and in the eighth month of pregnancy. I was not sure if I could manage the travel and also sit through the meeting for a long time,” she recalled. “After the meeting, I was unwell, and had to be admitted to a local hospital, but fortunately survived the stress.”

In addition to all the examples of risk-taking described in the above paragraphs, we found at least three examples where there were physical threats given to individuals if they continued in their mission.

Prithibhusan Deka's work started in lower Assam region when insurgency was at its peak. He motivated youth to shun violence and instead channelised their positive energies into constructive and peaceful developmental work. He persisted amidst threats to his life. Chingmak and his spouse Phutoli were working in villages close to the border between India and Myanmar. He worked with youth who were caught in the deadly nexus of drug trafficking, underground insurgency activities, and many other vices. He and his family were threatened on many occasions. He continued amidst the threats.

Sudhir Katiyar’s work with migrant workers was to give voice to the exploitation of brick kiln workers. The workers were always at the mercy of their employers and contractors who had hired them.

The women engaged in manual scavenging were in a similar situation. Entrenched in a hopeless situation with deep prejudices, Ashif Sheikh had to fight against the system. It needed courage of a different kind. Such struggles against the powerful did sometimes lead to backlash from the establishment for both Sudhir and Ashif. They chose to stand their ground. Thus, when most of the social workers profiled here began working in the late 1980s and early 1990s, their choice was almost like a gamble, a big personal decision fraught with risk. They embraced the unknown and charted a path whose trajectory was unclear. It involved a great personal risk of leaving a secure comfort zone. It is also to be noted that all the social workers had a middle-class background about which we have discussed earlier. None of their parents had accumulated financial wealth that could have been a cushion for the social workers if they failed. The parents had modest incomes and this compounded the risk perception.

Since all of them had to start from scratch, besides the lack of adequate financial and human resources to support them in their journey, the decision in itself, was a leap of faith. They did not have a legacy of an established organisation to bank upon. Family and parental support were mostly moral. There were no established models to imitate and therefore to replicate. Each step in the journey, at least in the initial years, posed challenges and uncertain situations that needed to be responded with both limited financial and intellectual (experience) capital. Thus risks of failure were significantly high. The individuals portrayed in our study and their work is thus remarkable in the light of the above situation. The readers will find details of their experiences in individual profiles presented in this publication.

Moment of epiphany

We tried to read the individuals’ journey of becoming a social worker looking for answers to a question: Was there an epiphany, an ‘ahh moment’ that helped them decide that social work would be their call of duty? Or was it a series of experiences and the impact of those experiences that shaped their journey?

The answer we derived from the stories is that actually it was a combination of both, a critical and impactful incidence coupled with a series of steps that led to the social worker taking up his dream. It was not just one single episode or a turning point. It was a culmination of factors including parental influence, socialisation, mentoring by seniors and well-wishers, experiences in the first few years of professional work and most important of all being the reflective practices of the individuals. There were some coincidences or chance factors too in an individual's journey.

Eklavya Prasad always wanted to work in his home state of Bihar after having studied in Delhi and worked in Rajasthan. It became his life’s mission when in a North Bihar village, he came face-to-face with stark poverty and scarcity amidst plenty of resources like lack of drinking water during recurrent floods. The paradox of scarcity amidst abundance was the turning point for him to work with communities on water and sanitation issues in North Bihar.

Dr Johnny's epiphany happened during his first visit to Christian Hospital Bissamcuttack (CHB) in Odisha when he was a student in Christian Medical College in Vellore. The initial exposure to CHB helped him determine his future course of action.

For Chingmak, the funeral of a child, who had died in a hopeless situation of extreme poverty was an eye-opener. He could not remain oblivious to the ocean of helplessness and hopelessness around him. His decision was then to leave the comfort of being a preacher and face the challenges around him head on. Losing a family member to the deadly menace of drug addiction was another jolt for him. It was a personal blow of what the consequences of drug addiction would be. Such events strengthened his resolve to address social issues. However, in his story, one also finds a constant dialogue between him and his spouse Phutoli during their study-years on the purpose of life and his wife persuading him to take up social work.

Mamoon's resolve to start a school in the slum area that he lived in stemmed from a bitter individual setback when the school that he attended closed its doors on him, his fault being his inability to pay the school fees on time. The school denied him permission to appear for the annual examination. There would have been hundreds of such not so fortunate individuals who would have experienced similar humiliation. Mamoon turned this situation of personal insult and shame into an opportunity and challenge that propelled him into initiating a number of community development activities in the slums of Kolkata.

Bhopal gas disaster was a turning point for Dr Yogesh who went as a volunteer to assist the victims of the gas leak. In Dr Yogesh's own words, “In Bhopal I observed the oppressive power of the state being used against well-meaning citizens and not against perpetrators of the crime.” While Bhopal was indeed a turning point, Yogesh was also an active member in the student days at AIIMS and recalled a story book given to him by a visiting lecturer. The book that captured the life of a poor Dalit woman struggling to get medical treatment left a deep impression on him. He began thinking about the political economy of healthcare provisions for the poor and how its absence had the maximum impact on the poor. A series of such incidents became cornerstones behind the foundation of his work in later years in the form of Jan Swasthya Sahyog.

Sudhir Katiyar experienced oppression in two incidents that taught him valuable lessons. When he took a principled stand against injustice and falsehood in the Sainik school where he was studying, majority of the students did not support him. In fact they became violent against him and a few of his friends who were right. In another incident, he was witness to a blatant violation of law when police fired at agitating contract workers in the university campus where his father was employed and the family resided. More than 20 workers died in the firing incident but nobody came to the rescue of the powerless, unorganised labourers. The two incidents had a deep impact on him and his later choice of activities. The activist in him did not rest with any other intervention except that of organising the unorganised.

Sarbani Das Roy's turning point is dramatic and happened literally on the road when she came across a person abandoned by family, eating from a garbage bin. That person’s ‘fault’ was that he was suffering from mental illness. Sarbani decided to work for the hundreds of such people abandoned by their near and dear ones and literally living on the streets of Kolkata. Her resolve to begin a shelter for women with mental illness and living on the streets was the result of a tragic and shocking incident. A tribal girl living on the sympathy of a roadside vendor died after being sexually assaulted by some men. Sarbani decided that no woman or girl would live on the streets;she felt compelled to construct a shelter for women in distress and suffering from mental illness.

An accident in a factory in Ujjain in which a few Dalit workers died changed Ashif Shaikh’s perspective on the structural exploitation in society. He realised that injustice and inequity were the result of not just class factor but also of caste. Only Dalits were employed in such hazardous work as manual scavenging. The society, through a systematic mechanism, ensured that they continued to do the same work so that the interests of the exploiter could be served. Once this form of exploitation became clear to Ashif, he decided to work on transformation than on a patchwork solution.

Serendipitous solutions

While there are indeed such life-changing events in the lives of social workers, there were also deliberate journeys, an exploration with a purpose. When there were goals yet to be crystallised and clearly articulated, a chance encounter with a person or a brush with a situation showed her/him the way ahead. We found many such examples.

Sarat Das always had a desire to return to his home state of Assam and work with the poor to improve their income through livelihood interventions. He took up a few jobs initially but never lost sight of his goal. A chance conversation with a friend from the Northeast fructified later when his friend began working with Tata Trusts. Trusting Sarat's sincerity and commitment, a seed grant from Tata Trusts gave the much needed initial boost to Sarat to pursue his dreams.

In a similar chance interaction, Dr Suresh Kumar met a lecturer - a visiting nurse from another country - who shared her experience of providing palliative care. Dr Suresh Kumar knew that relieving pain through medicines alone was neither giving him satisfaction nor reducing the ultimate suffering of his patients and the caregivers. He had to go beyond prescribing lifesaving medicines. The road to his work on palliative care opened after this chance encounter with the nurse.

Jameela in her interactions with the Muslim women in Hyderabad came to know about the terrible practice of sheikh marriages, where parents from poor families married off their daughters to men from Arab countries, in exchange for money. Her determination to work on concrete issues and not limit herself to writing poetry about women’s rights and emancipation was consolidated after the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. That incident prompted her move from being a poet to an activist working towards communal harmony and confront injustice and discrimination in society. Thus Shaheen was born in Hyderabad.

Eklavya Prasad spent close to two years visiting his home state of Bihar, shuttling regularly from Delhi and meeting a number of civil society organisations in North Bihar. He was undecided about working in Bihar after he had learnt a lot from his earlier assignments with other reputed NGOs in Rajasthan and Delhi. He did not give up, though he lacked direction on how he should proceed. His deliberate search for answers led him to find about scarcity amidst abundance. Devastating floods were a recurrent annual feature in Bihar. Amidst plenty of water, the communities struggled for access to clean drinking water. He subsequently zeroed in on water and sanitation as his work theme. He formed a network of like-minded NGOs with whom he engaged regularly for a few years before shifting to Bihar to work there.

While studying at AIIMS in Delhi, Dr Yogesh Jain and his friends were associated with a group that dispensed medicines in nearby slums. They were deliberate in their decision to work on issues of health for the poor.

Nimesh Sumati cut his teeth in social work when he and his family members offered food and shelter to many citizens stranded on roads after the heavy rainfall and floods in Mumbai in 2005. He was actively involved with an NGO that worked on animal welfare then. His friend Rameshbhai Kacholia introduced him to Baba Amte. That meeting proved to be a turning point for him, spurring him to plunge deeper into social work, culminating in Caring Friends.

Pramod’s introduction to the world of children found on railway platforms in Raichur was almost dramatic. Though he had worked for over 15 years in the developmental sector, it was mostly with farmers and rural communities on irrigation and water management. When a college student studying social work wanted to do a project, he suggestedthat she did one about children on railway platforms. The student's short-term project later turned into a full-scale mission for Pramod. In the last 20 years, SATHI has rescued close to 50,000 children who end up on railway platforms after fleeing their homes.

For Anil Verma, the journey to focus on strengthening roots both of the plants and of people is indeed a constant exploration. He didn't hit upon the System of Root Intensification (SRI) in one go. It was like a trial and error. The initial pilot was with a few hundred farmers. It proved to be extraordinarily beneficial to them. The farmers reported three to five fold increase in the crop yield. Anil then decided that propagating SRI would be his mission. Anil expanded the pilot in a big way, reaching close to 30,000 farmers. He improvised on the extension methodology, creatively linking Hindu mythology and modern agricultural practices to effectively communicate his message to a large rural population in Bihar.

To conclude this section, the individuals whom we have profiled found their calling not overnight or accidentally. There were foundational years that shaped their values, and a supportive network of family and friends that helped them sustain their motivation. On their part, their restlessness sustained them to search for answers that they desperately wanted to find. Coupled with all the above, a chance meeting or a particular incident did prove crucial. But overall it was a conscious journey that led them to where and what they are now.

Support of spouse

While interviewing the social workers for this study, we observed that their immediate family members provided them critical support in all the stages of their journey. For many of them, family members offered not just significant moral support but even pitched in with crucial financial contribution as the social worker did not have an assured income to keep the family running. The spouse's earnings came handy in such situations.

When Akeina joined Rongmei Baptist Association, Reverend H.M. Rongmei – whom she later married -mentored her. Akeina acknowledged the critical role played by Rev Rongmei in initiating developmental activities and also in his support towards her work.

Chingmak had many discussions with Phutoli, who later became his life partner, when they did a Master of Divinity course together in Pune. Phutoli nudged him to take up community development work rather than restricting himself to religious duties within the church. After many discussions, Chingmak agreed. Phutoli has been contributing significantly to the health and overall growth of Eleutheros Christian Society after spending the initial years of her career outside Nagaland.

When Osama Manzar was struggling to decide on his future course of action, with only a few assignments in hand as a freelancer, his would-be life partner Shaifali Chikarmane supported him.

For Jameela, born in a conservative Muslim family, her husband’s support has been critical in her work. This support was significant from two perspectives. As a woman, she was fighting against men who were perpetrators of injustice against fellow women. But another critical aspect was that, as a Muslim woman, she had to face conservative elements within the society who did not like her activism. Her husband is welcoming and supportive of her work. If one reads the story of Vandana Gopikumar and her work with those suffering from mental health, one realises how thankless and traumatic such work can be for the individual and her team. Vandana acknowledgesher husband Senthil’s support in her work.

Madhukar's wife Vijaya was a co-traveller with him right from the beginning of Dilasa, the NGO Madhukar founded. In the early years, they started an orphanage for children of sex workers. Vijaya continues to be with Dilasa, leading several interventions. Her responsibility has increased manifold after the untimely demise of her husband Madhukar. Incidentally, we have dedicated this publication to Madhukar and many such heroes who work relentlessly without any fanfare. Nahichira, nahipanati - an adage in Marathi aptly describes their selfless sacrifice. “There is neither a plaque built nor a lamp lit for them”. Still they persist.

Pramod Kulkarni in his interaction mentioned that when he and his wife moved to rural Karnataka, they lived in a house that didn't have a separate kitchen and an attached toilet. His wife accepted this challenge rather heartily. She supported Pramod in his journey, and associated with Mahila Samakhya work for over 15 years. Pramod was candid enough to share with us his financial situation when he retired from SATHI. “We don’t need this information,” we said. His reply was that the readers should know that while he did not end up as a billionaire being in the NGO sector, he did not remain a pauper either! At the end of his professional career, at the age of 62, he said he had a reasonable bank balance and owned a small house in the outskirts of Bengaluru. His compliment to his wife was that she had to wait rather long to be in her own house that he built close to his retirement from SATHI.

The life of a social worker especially if the place of work is rural can also be a limiting factor for the family members as Rajesh's spouse experienced in Alwar.

Rajesh Singhi chose to work in Alwar in Rajasthan and continues to stay there. His wife Aarti, a qualified homeopathy doctor, initially did not find the place suitable to offer heropportunities for a growth in her career. But to support Rajesh in his work, she has been working in Alwar.

When Dr Suresh Kumar decided to quit being a practicing anaesthetist to a professional offering palliative care, he also experienced a dip in the earnings for the family. Fortunately his spouse got an employment and the family was able to overcome the stressful situation.

Dr Yogesh married a doctor colleague and they moved to Bilaspur. Dr Rachna continues to practice in the hospital that they established near Bilaspur. She provides solid support as an equal partner in the growth of Jan Swasthya Sahyog.

Dr Johnny Oommen married Mercy, a highly qualified professional in nursing. She heads Christian Hospital Bissamcuttack’s nursing department. Johnny used to travel extensively in the interior areas of Odisha, with no means of contact. Mercy and their young son remained at home, his son eagerly awaiting his father’s return. There were many moments of stress and anxiety and the family survived the stressful situation.

Sarat Das and his family went through a similar situation in Guwahati. Sarat wanted to work in his home state of Assam and that too on promoting financial access and market linkages for rural women. While the overall goal was clear to him, the breakthrough was not visible immediately. After marriage, with a family to support, he decided to take full-time employment in Delhi to build some financial security. His wife stood behind this decision wholeheartedly. At the opportune moment, Sarat quit his job and returned to Guwahati.

Ashis had to face a similar situation when he and his colleagues from KRIBHCO founded Action for Social Advancement. He and his colleague Jayanthi decided that while Ashis would venture into forming ASA, Jayanthi would continue to work with KRIBHCO that would earn her a monthly salary so that the team would be able to overcome financial uncertainties in the initial years of ASA. Ashis's spouse Sangeeta fully supported his mission.

Prithibhusan continues to reside in his native village that is about 80km from Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. His spouse Karabi expected - a natural and obviously aspirational assumption - that the family would move to Guwahati after their marriage. The Deka family did not. We are sure that all those who went through a similar experience had to sacrifice a lot not just for themselves but for their respective spouses and even more for their children and other well-wishers.

To conclude, it is important that one acknowledges the contribution of family members of the profiled social workers and the strong moral support each of them provided for the growth of not just the individual but his or her life mission as well.

Moral, spiritual or religious moorings to be in social work?

In this study of the 22 individuals, we have diverse representation as far as the religious background is concerned. Three of them are Christians and four are Muslims. The rest are Hindus. There are four women and the rest are men.

For the purpose of this research, we did not ask any of them either implicitly or explicitly about their religious beliefs or their views about religion. Therefore we don't have data (from interviews) about their opinions on the meta-physical aspects of life. However, in interactions with some social workers, we did get indirect glimpses of their philosophical and spiritual orientations. Needless to emphasize, all of them are torchbearers of human values and work for the cause of humanity.

Osama Manzar, at the end of our conversation in Delhi, summed it up nicely when he said that he believed in the wishes of many that accompanied him all the time. He said, "I never felt that the world has been unkind to me. I always thought that I needed to work harder.

We have taken risks. My confidence has come from my inner voice if you call it that way. There is a difference between stress and feeling exhausted. I don't have mental tension as I have a loving family. I am surrounded by many well-wishers. I feel that I am guided by a divine power, somebody who walks the path with me and those good thoughts accompany me all the time."

Akeina Gonmei and her husband Reverend H M Gonmei are part of the Baptist Church. They are practicing Christians and hold official positions in the church. Chingmak Chang and his wife Phutoli studied in a theology college in Pune before they began work in the developmental sector. Akeina too added to her previous qualification of Master of Social Work (MSW) another degree when she completed Master of Divinity, a formal training needed to be a preacher/pastor in the Baptist Church. Both Akeina and Chingmak expanded their vision to work with the needy and deprived rather than being content with religious duties.

Mamoon Akhtar had a difficult situation to handle when he mobilised significant support from the neighbourhood community in reviving a defunct school. Some members suggested that the proposed school be a madrasa. Mamoon categorically opposed the proposal and argued that what children from poor communities needed was educational opportunity in an English medium school imparting quality education. The residents agreed to his vision and they built a school that would later open up avenues of employment for the prospective students.

Prithibhusan Deka was influenced by the Gandhian values of peace and engaging in constructive activism. Apart from his father who was very religious, Deka learnt these values from Robindra Babu, a noted Gandhian leader of the 1950s, who chose to make Assam his home and place of work immediately after independence. Those values stayed with Deka amidst violence unleashed all around by extremist groups, besides threats to his life.

Dr Johnny's father was a pastor in a church and worked in and outside India for the church’s mission. A discussion that Johnny shared with a friend, a confirmed atheist, centred on the eternal search that many individuals have - What is the purpose of life? And what or who is God! Johnny and his friend had endless debates. Johnny knew and believed that he would serve humanity as God wanted him to be useful for others. “If God wills that work happen here, then if Dr Johnny is present or not, it will. If God wills that work doesn’t happen here, then even if Dr Johnny tries, it won’t happen. Something my parents taught me: our calling is to obedience, not necessarily to success. So the aim is not success in life, the aim is obedience to a higher calling, to what God and need requires of you. The story is not about us.”

Pramod Kulkarni on the other hand was more of a pragmatic and rationalist while his spouse was deeply religious. Pramod ended his conversation with us on a very philosophical note, a kind of renunciation, a ‘let go’ attitude which is a typical philosophical belief in the Hindu system of Vanprasthashram- the third phase in an individual’s life when one has to begin slowly leaving the worldly things behind. To quote Pramod, "It is good for NGOs and all organisations that the founder steps down and gives way for the new generation to function. Mine was a good decision to retire. It is necessary to disconnect with money, fame and power. Letting go is good both for the organisation and the individual," he said.

Anil Verma has an interesting interpretation of Hindu belief systems and modern agricultural innovations such as system of root intensification (SRI). He compared strengthening of roots of a plant to strengthening an individual and the community. He uses this metaphor in all his community meetings and interactions, often creating songs around this value. He observed that such messages stayed with the villagers.

Also to be noted is that in our list of social workers, there were some individuals who grew up and assimilated values that were clearly not pro-religion! Dr Yogesh was associated with a group in college that believed in secular values and probably in ‘left of the center’ world view. So also with Dr Suresh Kumar whose association during college days was with a youth group. Vivekanandan’s uncle was an active politician with the communist party though Vivek never considered politics as a career. Ashif was certainly influenced by his father who was an active worker with a political party. He later came into contact with many firebrand activists such as Swami Agnivesh. These were certainly influencing factors in his later work. However his own reflection on several incidents of atrocities happening around him made him realise that there was a deadly nexus of class-caste and religious identity when it came to systemic oppression. He noted that there were multiple oppressions because someone was a woman, and a Dalit and also a Muslim. Even within the Muslim community, to his dismay, he observed deep-rooted caste hierarchy.

For Jameela Nishat, in the cosmopolitan yet deeply divided old city of Hyderabad, bridging the trust deficit between Dalits and Muslims proved to be a huge challenge. Though both were neighbours, there were many wrongly held beliefs and perceptions about one another. It was through Shaheen's effort, the NGO that she founded, that she could bring both the communities together. Akeina faced a similar challenge. Though her association was of Rongmei Nagas, they made it a point to be inclusive in their developmental programmes. In her own words, "We are taking a clear position that development effort of RBA is for all. We don’t categorise the villages according to clan affiliations. RBA has programmes in Zeme villages too. For us, a socioeconomic programme means a path to social harmony. We do not take any programme that does not bring harmony in the community. We also recruit staff carefully giving preference to their commitment and integrity irrespective of whether s/he is an Aao Baptist Naga or Catholic or Seventh Day Adventist. Our efforts have slowly opened up minds of the community and leadership within the church.”

Social workers as human beings and not God!

How do the social workers see themselves after having spent over 20 or 30 years of their career in serving the underserved? Do they think as normal human beings or are they under constant pressure to be a super human being, bearing the cross of the sufferings of all the poor and the neglected? We had some glimpses of their thinking.

Rajesh Singhi said, “I often wonder, if I would ever retire. If I do, I would want to go the mountains. They are mystical and carry a unique charm for me. I have always been attracted to them. But then, what would I do there? I would have no work, nothing to keep me occupied. A Sunday in Alwar, becomes torturous for me sometimes. I don't think I can ever retire.”

Pramod Kulkarni's ambition is different. “I want to go back to teaching mathematics. I think I am good at teaching. Actually, I have started teaching in four primary schools around the place I live. If I can run a summer school for bright children around the villages, that will be a good contribution. I want to teach teachers who offer tuition classes and private coaching. Continuing my work in SATHI, I want to open more shelters."

Chingmak Chang observed rather jokingly, “I am tired of social work. I want to be a pumpkin farmer, growing vegetables in my own field!"

Dr Suresh was more philosophical. “Developing an institution is easy, but leaving it is the most difficult part. The issue is within you and not with the people working with you. Tomorrow if I die suddenly, the institution and its people will have to survive. But once I decided to quit, I had to do it, I had to overcome the barrier within me. I believe in the philosophy that ‘you are not you are because of what you are’. Certain opportunities are given to you and you make the best use of it to become successful but these opportunities are not equal. You are making use of what is available to you. People may say that I worked hard, studied hard, etc. But reality is, you had all those opportunities and I think those who get better opportunity and succeed have a responsibility to help others.”

Dr Yogesh Jain thinks on similar lines. Was it a sacrifice for him to have relocated to Chhattisgarh? “No way,” he said. Did he make a big sacrifice by coming to a small place? Yogesh thinks otherwise! “People who live off the pen and of one’s mind like us, are much inferior to those who live off the land, who grow things, who labour on the ground; they make the biggest sacrifices and not we.”

Musings on social work as a career

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Sanjiv Phansalkar

As against purely personal activities intended to earn more income or build wealth, social work is a different set of activities, intended to improve society’s wellbeing. But people do carry out activities that are neither in the nature of social work nor are intended to maximise incomes. They try to promote a traditional sport such as atya-patya in Maharashtra; they take time away from jobs to travel, they nurse and care for stray animals, they work towards cleaning or reviving rivers and towards conserving threatened species. In a strict philosophical sense, everything one does is because it gives one satisfaction: atmanastu kamay, sarva idam priyam bhavati. Only a subset of activities that are not oriented towards earning income can classify as social work.

International Federation of Social Workers defines social work as a ‘practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change, cohesion and development, besides empowerment and liberation of people, with social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities as central principles’. To the extent, this does not include actions that may not primarily be directed at enhancing communities’ wellbeing (activities such as protecting rare species of plants or conserving forests), this definition is a shade incomplete from our point of view. I would like to view social work as a class of activities that are not undertaken primarily with a view to earn money or benefit one’s own family and kin and which have a direct relation to a public goal.

Attributes of social work

  • Self-appointed: There are of course many of us who get employed in NGOs or other social service organisations and we get paid for the work we do. But the person who begins the work often does it because s/he feels the urge to do it. Virtually never is one formally asked to undertake social work. Except for paid professional staff of these organisations, it is voluntary or at least starts in voluntary mode.
  • No formal mandate or authority: Even more importantly, the social worker does not have any formal authority or legal mandate to engage in what s/he does. In fact, for a substantial period of time, his/her locus standi can often be questioned not only by lay people but also by state authorities, and at times with fairly serious consequences. For instance if a socially oriented lady decides to help women victims of domestic violence, she may feel compelled to intervene in marital affairs of impugned couples without any formal mandate. The husband, his family and the neighbours can question her locus standi. And if she goes on to create a halfway home or a shelter for women who want to escape tyranny of the husband and parents-in-law, she may be accused of holding these women without their consent or even worse felonies. This is no exaggeration, there have been such situations in reality!
  • Spectator views: The work is meant to benefit others and /or the public. The person doing it has no mandate. So every passer-by who may not have the slightest intention of contributing anything will air his or her views on what ought to be done and whether the person initiated it is doing it right. If I buy a few laptops, get internet connections and teach digital transactions in a village, chances are that someone would tell me that I should have used the money to feed the children good food or give the women sarees! This would be in addition to the comments pertaining to the desirability of teaching villagers internet (“they will visit only inappropriate sites”) or my ability to teach them!
  • Negative effect on stakeholders: Seldom do people carry out bad, oppressive things wantonly. Usually one does something because it helps him / her or provides a gain. A husband beats his wife because he can then snatch her wage to get himself a drink. If he knew she had no money, chances are he would perhaps abuse her very badly but may fall short of hitting her. A teacher screams at a Dalit boy because he wants the boy to clean the school toilet. If there were no toilets and nothing to be gained by beating or ill-treating the Dalit boy, the boy might have been just shunned and neglected. A poor Muslim father sells his daughter to a sheikh because the sheikh pays him money and the father is relieved that the daughter is off his hands for now. If a social worker intervenes in such situations it might negatively affect the interest of an individual or a group.
  • Challenging established practices, authority or hegemony: There are occasions when social workers challenge existing social practices or customs. When a social worker insists on women entering a temple, the established custom of the temple is challenged. When a social worker teaches women to make them literate and independent, the men feel that their women are ‘getting out of hand’ and hence feel threatened. When a social worker encourages people to guard and protect bamboo in their forest, the bamboo contractor’s hegemony is challenged.
  • Intended changes and consequences: This is not intended to be a mere repetition of the definition. The point is a little subtle but of course often a subject of debate and comments. Had the social worker not done anything about the matter, status quo would have continued. People were used to it. Poor young women were used to being thrashed by the drunk husband or by the parents-in-law. The Dalit boy was used to being forced to clean the toilet in his school and given leftover food from the tiffin boxes of others. The Muslim family had resigned to selling their young girl to a sheikh, knowing well that he would discard her after making her pregnant. The chemical factory was happily discharging its effluents in Belandur lake and the fire in that lake made for an interesting if frequent news. There may have been eyebrows raised and impotent anger expressed in poetry or cinema, but life went on.
    But now the social worker intervenes and changes the situation. For a while the young woman is not bashed up. But the husband and the family resent the interventions. The Muslim family cannot sell their daughter to the sheikh and the alcoholic father resents it. The teacher now has to make arrangement to clean the toilet or it remains dirty and the headmaster resents it. The chemicals cannot be let into the water body and the factory owner resents it. The social worker may not be around forever. It is also uncertain that s/he would receive future alerts as a result of the campaigns, or there would be sustained state watch or public support.
    So when the young woman goes back, the husband and the family may make life more miserable for her, and the Dalit boy may be at the receiving end of more anger and despise. The factory owner may not let the effluents into the lake but may let it out right outside his factory in the middle of a slum! Thus the short-term relief that gave the social worker the sense of doing a public duty may make matters worse in the longer run for the very same people!
    So we have a peculiar situation: what the social worker does out of compassion often challenges customs or power of some people, interferes in the lives of others, or hurt some people’s interests unintentionally. The social worker’s action is for achieving what s/he considers is good, without any mandate or locus standi or even a guarantee of being there to manage the situation after the desired outcome. Is it not important to see why people do such seemingly irrational acts, what makes them undertake these acts, who undertakes what kind of acts and how they manage them?

Appeal of social work

Let me hasten to add. Social work is a desirable facet in any society. Dedicated social workers make the society more livable and leave their inevitable influence on others. For our world to become more livable for everyone, for positive changes in the lives of the poor and the voiceless, for the future to be more secure for our children, social work is a necessity. I certainly do not place too much hope in governments. Governments tend to maintain the status quo: they defend those who control resources, they defend unjust legal and social customs and through bureaucracy they tend to be tolerant and partial to those who hold power in the society. Since governments by themselves will not bring about desirable changes, there is a real need for people who will strive to do so. Social workers fulfil this need. While it is desirable in abstraction, every specific manifestation of social work will tend to have some, if not all, of the attributes noted in the above paragraphs.

The mentoring and coaching happened in different ways and forms. Ashis and his initial team of founders in Action for Social Advancement (ASA) found such thoughtful mentoring support in the Jagawat family of NM Sadguru Foundation in Dahod. Mrs Jagawat provided the ASA team with a typewriter and a two-wheeler besides practical advice and guidance. This initial support was extremely valuable to Ashis and his team when they had limited financial resources.

Is social work only for the career outliers?

In general people are attracted to wealth, prestige, power and comfort in life and hence seek them. America explicitly recognises ‘name, fame and pursuit of happiness’ as the proper means to an end of individual citizens; elsewhere we may not recognise it so explicitly. Economic theory too talks only of a ‘rational economic man’, subtly hinting that anyone not working towards wealth maximization is necessarily other than rational. So when they get an opportunity, their efforts are to discover and take up careers that help them achieve these perfectly respectable and understandable ends. There are people who get influenced in their childhood through their samskara to strive for goals other than wealth maximization. There are individuals who get drawn to religious pursuits. One may get drawn to non-economic goals because of some deep personal experience. Above we saw that those who engage in social work may encounter situations where their locus standi would be questioned. They may be held responsible for consequences of their work when they stop working and they may face the wrath of those whose interests they hurt. The end results of social work are desirable; but neither do they meet the life goals of typical ‘rational economic individuals’ nor do they offer a smooth career trajectory. Then why would anyone wish to engage in social work?

Current cost of professional education

There was a time when education was highly subsidised. I for one, graduated in science from a college, where my annual fee was Rs 144 and the university examination fee was Rs 56. Against this total of Rs 200 that I paid the college or the university, I used to get a scholarship of Rs 150 per month through the three years. Such was the level of subsidy I enjoyed in education, up to graduation. Even when I joined Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) in 1977, the fees including basic mess bill for two years was a shade short of Rs 11,000 and my salary in my first job was Rs 1,200 per month; which was perhaps close to the average salary drawn by fresh graduates then. Thus the cost of education was about nine times the first salary drawn. In today’s world, the cost of IIM education has perhaps reached an average of Rs 28 lakhs, which is about 18 timesaverage monthly pay of a fresh graduate. Thus the level of subsidy in this stream has come down substantially. The level of subsidy in engineering or medicine fields has perhaps reduced even further. As a number of students take educational loan, repayment of that loan weighs on their mind. Naturally such students cannot think of joining social work where the level of remuneration, if any, would be quite low and there would always be a question of uncertainty about the income. This naturally makes engagement with social work less attractive.

Motivations and incentives

Yet it is creditable that people take to social work. They are outliers because they do not behave in a rational economic manner and are willing to face the potential issues outlined above. They are somehow blessed so there is no need to worry about recovering or repaying the cost of their education. Even when this is granted, one needs to understand their motivations and what attracts them to social work. I venture to hypothesise that there are three broad categories. The first category is of compassion. The second category is of a strong commitment to an idea or an ideal. The third category is one of wanting to prove one’s mettle in addressing and successfully solving a challenging problem. I do not imply that an individual fired with the zeal to solve a challenging problem has no compassion for the people involved. If an ideal fires a deep commitment in an individual, it does not mean s/he would feel challenged by technical or managerial complexities. Thus I do not mean that these are mutually exclusive categories. The motivation in the first category is perhaps dominant in most ‘human service’ activities. Late Baba Amte’s work in tending to and caring for leprosy affected persons squarely falls in this category. The second category is of motivations arising out of ideas or ideals. This class may include ideals of social transformation and thus could have political overtones too. Commitment to an ideal or idea is perhaps illustrated by say the personnel of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) working towards their goal of education for all children. Another illustration could be those who sincerely try to conserve threatened flora and fauna because they strongly believe in the idea of biodiversity. In an argumentative manner it can be said that BGVS people felt deeply for the poor children because they believed that the children remained poor due to lack of education. Their compassion took the form of bringing them education. But surely there is, or so it appears to me, much higher, closer human touch in tending to leprosy patients than in running learning centres for children. And the case for compassion of biodiversity activists is often compromised because of infamous and unnecessary dilemma between tribal people and tigers that arose when the Forest Rights Act was being debated. The third category of doing social work because one is fired by the challenge of solving some complex problem is illustrated by a fair number of technocrats who work on evolving appropriate technology solutions.

It is not pertinent to discuss who, or rather who among the outliers will get attracted and fired by which motivation. It is tempting to argue that engineers and scientists will get motivated by the third category while doctors will really find a happy convergence of their professional training and motivation in providing compassionate healthcare. But such statements would remain in the main to be mere stereotypes. Human beings are amazingly unpredictable. Also we seem to be attracted by different motivations as we transit through our life cycles. Ideals and challenges may fire when we are young, while security, stability and compassion may drive our actions in middle age. It is perhaps more pertinent to explore the implications on the personal lives of social workers. It is possible to argue that society sees that the needy need and deserve service; when they see someone providing it, the society looks at him / her with favour and may even offer assistance and support. Those who are fired by an ideal are quite likely to ruffle many feathers and tend to challenge existing order. They therefore are likely to be viewed with much concern by at least the establishment. The establishment therefore could make their lives difficult. The third category of people striving to demonstrate their mettle to solve some challenges that affect humanity are quite likely to be least understood and appreciated. After all, we get used to a problem and a way of solving it. We often may not see it as a problem. Even if it is seen as a problem, we may have much greater trust in proven technology and solutions. This preference is often coloured by our almost ubiquitous reverse racism in which we believe that something developed in America or Germany is ipso facto superior. When a maverick sees that as a challenge and tries to develop a local solution, we may find it difficult to appreciate his efforts.

Domains and characterisation of social work

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Sanjiv Phansalkar

The word domain here refers to the constellation of tasks that an organisation executes. An organisation works in a task environment. The latter comprises the broad community in which it exists, namely

  • (i) The public it serves - customers or clients,
  • (ii) The people who provide it with resources - investors in the case of a for-profit entity and donors or the state in the case of an NGO,
  • (iii) The regulators of the specific domain -Directorate of Health for someone offering health services or Directorate of Education for those who work on pedagogy or improving learning outcomes, etc and
  • (iv) Competitors who provide similar services.

Naturally the word competitor drawn from the commercial world has no exact parallel in the social sector. However, there often are many organisations working for a similar cause in either very similar or different situations and in their own manner. They do demand resources from donors and the state and demand regulatory clearances. As the donors / state have limited resources, they need to allocate them judiciously; therefore there is an inevitable choice to be made between the multiple entities demanding the resources. When many NGOs compete for the same resources, possibly even in case of regulatory clearances or public outreach, the state may have to choose a few NGOs. When this task environment considers a focal NGO offering a particular service as normal, we may assume that there is a consensus on the domain in the task environment. Henceforth the word domain is used to represent that set of activities about which a consensus is reached.

In this chapter we look at domains in which the social workers profiled here are engaged. We characterise these domains on certain attributes. We then explore two dimensions from the case profiles in the context of these characterisations. The first pertains to the choice of a domain and the second to the difficulty and challenges in making significant progress in the chosen domain.


Sanitised domain

There is an overall agreement in society that it is important to reduce the prevalence of communicable and non-communicable diseases among the poor, besides catering to the nutrition needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating mothers and children. After all, if the NGO is effective, it only results in better overall performance of the district. Thus anyone working in this field has social and possibly official acceptance. Everyone agrees that the task that the NGO concerned is undertaking is genuinely a desirable, useful task. This agreement may not, and usually does not, translate automatically into any significant material support even from the official agencies. This may be due to their resource constraints. Or this may be due to their perception that providing such material support to NGOs will only strengthen the contrast between the quality and diligence of services provided by the NGO vis a vis the state agency concerned. There also are efforts to exercise stricter control on the way NGO service providers work than on equivalent state agents when the need for exercising controls arises. But in the main, providing health services is viewed as desirable and reflects well on the NGO. A similar positive outlook could prevail for NGOs that undertake promotion of better agriculture, landscape planning and development, installation of water harvesting structures, encouraging higher enrolment and longer retention in schools and so on. When the society and the state consider the tasks good and desirable, they passively encourage the NGO to carry out the same. There may be tacit or even explicit encouragement and at times grudging and halting sharing of resources. For easy reference, I will refer to this class as sanitised domains. The conventional term used for such work is constructive development initiatives.

Contested domain

On the other hand there are many domains of NGO work where the state or even the community is either in a denial mode or has not yet recognised the existence of the problem. For instance no district administrator formally agrees that there is prevalence of child labour or trafficking of children and women from his district. No state government admits that it has failed to control the rampant misuse of pre-natal sex determination that has led to worsening sex ratio. No one agrees about the reality of pathetic, near-slavery conditions for labourers in brick kilns or sweet shops. Prevalence of domestic violence, dowry related abuse of women and similar incidents are brushed under the carpet. State does not want to take cognisance of child sex abuse or ills like sheikh marriages. Atrocities on Dalits are not considered to be happening at all. Usurious money lending practices leading to farmer suicides are vehemently denied. Death due to starvation is studiously denied.

There is a range of social ills that the state chooses not to acknowledge. When an NGO works to prevent such heinous acts, to fight the legitimacy that society accords them or to provide succour to the victims, it becomes a nuisance for the state officers and even to the rest of the society. The NGO is often identified as a troublemaker out to paint the society in black. Established and locally powerful people who could perhaps be connected with some of these acts feel exposed and threatened. Often in connivance with lower echelons of bureaucracy and police personnel, they institute measures aimed at controlling, compromising or eliminating the presence of the NGO.

The second and for the journalistic writing, far more interesting contestation occurs between a group of people with vested interests and a poor, hapless community seeking justice. This of course is a very obvious case of contestation. Not only in films or sensational media reports but often in reality too, vested interest groups manipulate all relevant agencies of the state to abort, weaken, defeat or kill anyone opposing their interests. The classical ‘middle range theory’ of Robert Merton finds its beautiful illustration in most such cases. The first step of the vested interest groups is to deny the existence of the problem. Thus, as Jameela discovered, orthodox Muslim clergy deny anything to be wrong with marrying off girl children who have just crossed puberty; parents are brainwashed into denying it as well. The second stage is to acknowledge the problem but dismiss the proposed solution as worse than the problem itself. The third is to agree that something needs to be done and to make cosmetic changes to temporarily satisfy the proponents of change. The fourth is to claim autonomy in determining texture and pace of change. Finally the vested interest group changes only to the extent forced, while trying to protect its core interests. Naturally, social workers who take up such works have to contest at each of these stages and the task is thus one long struggle.

For easy reference I call this class as contested domains. The conventional term for this category of work is transformative development initiative. I personally find the word ‘transformative’ a little pretentious. For me the core issue is not transformation attempted, but the fact that it generates contestation and confrontation. Hence I prefer the term contested domain.

One can easily contrast the approach of the state and the society in the above situations. While such a contrast is both intuitive and perhaps quite ubiquitous, its relevance to the main purpose of this book is not so clear. To me it appears clear that no social worker can remain forever in the contested domain. The second situation is far more poignant: the state strikes back at perpetual dissidents as several cases in the recent past have shown. This happens even if the cause for which the social worker is struggling is just and noble. Wrath of the state can be contrived by the bureaucracy or the elected politicians who have been coopted by those who feel threatened by the efforts of the social worker. This transpires when an NGO works towards abolishing bonded labour or improving the pathetic state of brick kiln workers or against bauxite mining in Eastern Ghats – like the agenda of NGOs Agragamee and Samata - since both involve strong vested interests. In such situations the state machinery can conceivably be manipulated by these interests to oppress the movement and the social worker.

The wrath can also occur when the state tries to paint a picture of Ramrajya to the world, and the social worker harps upon the social ill s/he is trying to eliminate. Those working to alleviate the problems of Dalits oppressed by atrocities could be cited as an example. Or it could happen because what the social worker does puts road blocks in the development plans and projects of the state - as can be seen in projects that lead to displacement.

The fourth possibility is that either out of genuine ideological inclination or because of sheer convenience, the intended goal of the social worker can be touted as being against public interest. I am reminded of the old play An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. In the play, Ibsen narrates how a socially conscious citizen who knows the dangers of using the water of a lake for drinking, launches a movement to stop its use; for the same reason, the state declares him an enemy of the people. People working to reduce the influence of harmful superstitions perpetuated by fraudulent godmen or people who use provisions of RTI to raise voice against land grab by powerful politicians are often portrayed as enemies of the people (epithets such as godless and anti-national come quite handy)and at times physically eliminated.

Lest it appears that I paint those working on such agenda as superheroes who are better than others and thus indirectly create a sort of hierarchy in social work, let me add a few points. I am sure that it is not possible for social workers working even in sanitised domains to avoid confrontation with the state; besides the opprobrium and discomforts such confrontation brings. I am putting forth my understanding of the nature of interaction between social workers and their respective NGOs on the one hand and the state on the other. I do not doubt that a few handful exceptions can be found to the seemingly discouraging statements that follow; but these are so few in relation to the total scale of such interactions that it tends to prove the rule rather than challenge it.

People familiar with the work and ethos of social development in the country know that the state is a difficult and insecure partner. The administrative costs of the state are so large and most state governments are thoroughly bankrupt that they do not want to allocate funds for development work being executed by NGOs. At times external donors mandate involving NGOs as partners and allocating them funds. Even when such formal agreements exist, the state defaults on its commitment, delaying fund release that it becomes irrelevant. The state machinery is statist and stausquoist by nature. Absence of outcome measurement makes the state functionaries indifferent to results and blind adherents to procedures. The archaic administrative system permits the local district head to claim credit for anything good that happens in his district. Often external donors are taken to NGO sites to showcase the achievements of state-run projects funded by them. The project may not even be the one the donor funded. Such instances are so many that one could write a book on them.

However, the bureaucracy knows the NGOs that execute works properly and those that do not. So an inevitable uneasy relationship develops between the state officers and an NGO that performs well. The state is the first to claim credit if things go right; but the state tells the officer concerned to learn from the NGO! Given the short tenure of officers, and their dedication being more personal than institutional, continuity in relations is a far cry. Often a successor considers it his solemn duty to undo and fault whatever his predecessor had done. If things do not go according to plan or when the community is against even formally approved state schemes, the state finds scapegoats in NGOs. Given these admittedly undocumented but well-known features, it is well-nigh impossible for any significant social worker to avoid confrontation with state officials and machinery. The way the state strikes back on NGOs working on sanitised domains is by delaying or even denying committed funding, finding fault in the utilisation of funds, accounts, compliances, particularly with the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), publicly holding them responsible for some of the glaring policy failures, etc.

Civil society has become quite vocal and strong and the courts have started coming to the rescue of civil society workers unjustly oppressed by the state for the wrong reasons. However the fact is that the power of the state is both ubiquitous and substantial. Therefore confrontation with the state and associated discomforts and opprobrium are occupational hazards for social workers. This would be the case with even the outstanding social workers we have profiled. Hence it is interesting to explore their behaviour, experience and responses. What has been the preference while choosing the domain and its rationale as revealed by these profiles? How do they cope with these problems? What diverse strategies are possible and seen to be used in practice? How have these social workers coped with reality? I try to summarise my understanding of this facet in Table 1.

Confrontations with the state

It comes through prominently that a majority of these social workers has been engaged in sanitised domains. This reflects much more on the choice of the domain rather than on the situation of the social sector itself. I would have in fact been quite surprised had it been otherwise. After all most of my contacts in the field of social work - and those of my colleagues in Tata Trusts – are with people engaged in constructive social work. But it is also true that a fair number of people working in sanitised domains face confrontations.

For instance, Akeina’s organisation was a pioneer in the field of starting SHGs in Nagaland and went through the usual struggles that SHGs have with banks. Nagaland being a ‘problem’ state from the point of recoveries, banks were even more reluctant and she had a tough time getting things off the ground. She has also been questioning the state in polite, tactful manner to ensure that the right things get done without affecting egos. Their organisation has been questioning the inclusion of rubber plants in jhum plantations since they believe that it is not the right plant for their region. Anil Verma has received significant blessings and support from the state for promoting SRI jointly in Bihar; but his work on diversion-based irrigation work had some contestation with vested interests and even with elements of left wing extremism (LWE). And he continuously contests the reluctance of established scientific communities in accepting and legitimising the no-chemical-input agriculture that he advocates.

With his position as a member of the National Advisory Council under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and riding the crest of the farmer producer company movement in the state, Ashis has limited occasions to contest the state. But his work does involve adversarial exchanges with the state. Chingmak mobilised the community to press the state to deliver on its responsibility as a prime health service provider; but he also worked with them to mobilise money. He had to negotiate space and legitimacy for his work with the church, a very dominant entity in the region as also the underground, an ever present reality. So contestation was not wholly avoidable despite being in a sanitised domain.

Johnny and Yogesh are respected medical professionals in their respective states and their organisations have formidable reputation of service to the needy and the neglected. Yet, they have had to work hard to overcome established prejudices and change the views, policies and programmes of the state. In both the cases, the overpowering presence of LWE brings them into situations where their positions could get questioned. Johnny said that even under severe duress, he refuses to go into the jungle to treat people. This stand of his has made him acceptable to everyone. Madhukar seldom experienced a situation of open contestation with the state. Osama was indeed a first mover in the domain of his organisation; a domain that has been forward-looking and a sort of ‘difficult to contest’ domain.

The state appreciates Pramod’s work in the field of child protection. But due to general beliefs and orthodoxies, he has to constantly defend his philosophy that reunification of an unaccompanied child with his / her family is the best solution. Rajesh Singhi’s agenda of working with the women of socially backward but economically stable Meo community is in line with the state objectives and hence his efforts did not create contestation with the state. Of course the work involved persuasion of the community leaders. Suresh Kumar was focussed on the compassion component of their work so as to avoid contestation completely. He just had to work on the reluctance of the medical fraternity in recognising the role of community volunteers in palliative care. Neither Sarbani nor Vandana had to face opposition from the state in performing their work in the chosen domain of mental health related services. But they had the task of persuading the state in changing or introducing policies on the subject.

The contestations referred above tend to be somewhat less poignant about appropriate methods. These confrontations are slightly sharper forms of debates about the best way to address a problem e.g. tackle malaria, improve nutrition of children under three years of age, look after children without adult protection, and tackle distress arising out of recurrent floods. The subject matter experts of the state believe in some method while the field experience of the social workers indicate a different method. As is to be expected, the establishment tends to maintain status quo. Whether this insistence arises out of xenophobic fear of innovation or due to vested interests that would prefer status quo, the opposition can be strong. Social workers push for what they consider to be more effective. Hence a confrontation ensues, at times resulting in a little acrid interaction between the two sides.

Ashif, Sudhir, Jameela and Vivek to some extent, experienced serious contestations while working in contested domains. Ashif’s work involves helping Dalits suffering from social discrimination and atrocities to get justice. He works in a deeply traditional, feudal society where a certain degree of legitimacy to oppression of Dalits pervades the society and the echelons of bureaucracy, often manned by members of privileged sections of the same society. This contestation took several forms including harassment, use of police cases to cow them down and so on.

During discussions with those working in contested domains, it was clear that coping with diverse mechanisms adopted by the establishment to make the social worker give up was a routine part of the profession. Sudhir told me how the state machinery and the local units of LWE picked on their colleague in the field. He works for the rights and wellbeing of poor rural workers who migrate across states. The state accused him of being supportive of LWE. The latter wanted his colleague to meet them. His wry comment was, “The situation is bad enough and if my colleague meets the LWE personnel, we will be finished, as then the police will really get after us.”

Jameela has to deal with superstitious beliefs and strength of people exploiting impoverished parents of young girls. She has little confrontation with the government per se. But the strong men of the community exert a real and tangible force with which she must contend. These are the people whose photographs one sees in large banners put up by various political parties. They support one or the other political party and therefore have strong influence on the police. And her group has to work among them despite incidents that they would not like to see happening. Her tactic has been to evolve alignment with the more considerate and conscientious elements within the community and use their social presence to deal with the musclemen.

Table 1

Choice of domain, experience of confrontation with the state and ways of coping

NumberSocial workerChoice of domainExperience of confrontation with the state or other actorsMethod of coping
1 Akeina Sanitised domain - livelihoods Not narrated Persuasion and tactful exchanges
2 Anil Sanitised domain – SRI, livelihoods Not narrated, ‘contest’ in the sense of demonstrating efficacy of SRI Evidence-based argumentation on scientific principles
3 Ashif Contested domain - atrocities and injustice to Dalits Quite a normal feature of the work Community mobilisation, use of media in highlighting issues
4 Ashis Sanitised domain - PIM, FPC, responsible crops Not narrated  
5 Chingmak Sanitised - health services Manages residual contestation by aligning with the state and the church Using community mobilisation to press the state to deliver
6 Eklavya Mixed: sanitised to the extent of services such as potable water or toilets but contested in terms of changing the overall response to floods Contestation in terms of change of mindsets from flood as cause for relief to resilience Community mobilisation and education
7 Jameela Contested domain - working with victims of sheikh marriages and other issues of oppressed women Strongly contested domain, contestation more with orthodox members within the community conflict, alignment with liberal and progressive members of the community, focusing on desirable aspects of absorption of modern education
8 Johnny Sanitised domain - health services and education of tribal children Contestation with regard to policy matters Builds strong goodwill with health department
9 Madhukar Sanitised domain - multiple activities of livelihoods No contestation  
10 Mamoon Sanitised domain - education No contestation  
11 Nimesh Not applicable as Nimesh is essentially a donor and a facilitator of chosen partners. The domains are chosen by partners.    
12 Osama Sanitised domain - digital empowerment No contestation  
13 Pramod Mixed terrain but sanitised domain - uniting unaccompanied children with their families Contestation mostly with other established voices in the same field, not with the state. Low key and persistent action
14 Prithibhusan Mixed: sanitised domain in education and livelihoods but contested in child trafficking Contestation experienced in curbing corruption in flood relief and in checking child trafficking Coping by strong links with community, acting as a sane force in a turbulent ethos using media
15 Rajesh Sanitised domain - microcredit, education Coping by strong links with community, acting as a sane force in a turbulent ethos using media  
16 Sarat Sanitised domain - microcredit, livelihoods No contestation  
17 Sarbani Sanitised domain - mental health services to homeless No contestation, positive interaction  
18 Sudhir Contested domain - rights of brick kiln workers Faces tough challenges including allegation of links with LWE Ensuring that their own workers stay strictly within the bounds of law and persistent and peaceful action using extant laws
19 Suresh Sanitised domain - mental health No contestation  
20 Vandana Sanitised domain - mental health No contestation  
21 Vivek Mixed: services to fishermen and uniting them against market forces Some contestation with the then established trade though not with the state Manages contestation through workers’ union or political activism
22 Yogesh Largely sanitised domain but strands of contestation on matters in health policy Contestation regarding methods of work and goals of policy. Manages by using proven performance and wide acclaim to persuade policy makers



The domain of any social worker and his NGO can be characterised by two other dimensions: level of intended beneficiary and the nature of engagement of the social worker in the domain. The level of intended beneficiaries can be an individual, a household, a village community, the whole society or perhaps future generations. A curative health service provider cures an individual. The work of a livelihoods promoter benefits a household. An educationist improving a school helps the whole community whose children study in the school. A social worker trying to change the state policy on, say persons with disability, has the potential to impact the entire society. Finally efforts of environmentalists trying to conserve flora and fauna and create a sustainable ecological environment benefit future generations or more immediately long-term future of current generations.

The second dimension is the nature of engagement. The engagement could involve for instance, just one time provision of something that is needed: we give uniforms to school children or loan to a family to meet medical costs, etc. The engagement could involve regular, periodic supply of material inputs such as food, medicine, seeds, etc. The engagement could involve teaching or building skills of individuals. The engagement could involve tutoring and mentoring a group of people and motivating them to be assertive in their interactions with employers, local governments or state administration. The engagement could involve collaborating with multiple agencies to make a complex set of developments in the village come through. Or an engagement could be of multiple facets, involving each of these and some more.

Table 2 combines these two dimensions and suggests that readers create a characterisation of the organisation. Current entries in the cells are purely illustrative.

Table 2

Characterising domains of social work

Nature of engagementLevel of primary intended beneficiary
  An individual A household Village community Broader society Entire nation Future generations
One time supply of inputs A loan to pay fees   Installation of water tank      
Periodic supply of material or other inputs Mid-day meal for children THR for infants and lactating mothers        
Teaching, training, skill building Literacy          
Mentoring, capacity building, hand-holding     Creating empowered gram sabha      
Impacting power relationship between stakeholders       Changing gender roles;rights based work with brick kiln workers    
Collaborating with the state     Creating irrigation facility      
Making investments in infrastructure   House construction Creating raised platforms in flood-prone areas River embankments New cancer treatment facilities  
Changing broad resource use           Landscape planning


One can see that when these two dimensions, namely, level of intended beneficiary and the nature of engagement are seen together, we can assess the hurdles the social workers face, ease or difficulty s/he encounters in making the work durable and sustainable, his /her ability to scale it and replicate it in multiple places and so on. We encourage readers to situate the work of the profiled social workers in this framework and to understand why they make some choices, and what those choices mean to them in executing and growing the work.

Akeina is engaged in multiple livelihood projects. The projects involve community organisation, landscape treatment, improvement of crops, etc. Her organisation thus has a household as its primary beneficiary in all its livelihoods programmes. But landscape programmes that improve availability of water, fodder, etc benefit the entire village or community. The engagement involves multiple tasks: supply of materials, mentoring and teaching new skills, building capacities in managing community assets, etc. This involves a degree of collaboration with agencies like NABARD and the state.

Anil Verma has been promoting system of root intensification (SRI), particularly with extremely poor small holder farmers. Thus the level of intended beneficiary in the main is a household. The task involves building capacities of farmers, for undertaking appropriate agricultural operations for growing crops in the SRI mode. Anil had also undertaken construction of a few diversion-based irrigation projects. He collaborates extensively with the state government, with agricultural research organisations, etc.

Ashis works primarily in improving agronomy of chosen crops such as cotton, pulses, and soybean. The farm household is the intended beneficiary. Their projects on management of irrigation canals, construction of check dams and the like benefit the local community by improving availability of water. In addition, these projects contribute to the livelihoods of participating households. The engagement involves building farmer producer companies (FPC), supply of seeds through them, building skills for responsible cropping (which limits the use of chemicals to as little an extent as possible), procurement of produce from farmers, marketing the produce, etc. Their work involves a substantial and ongoing collaborative engagement with many agencies.

Ashif works primarily with Dalit communities involved in conservancy work. The level of intended beneficiary is sometimes an individual (in cases of redressing atrocities and discrimination), but more frequently households. The engagement primarily requires working with a relatively hostile establishment that has its own agenda and policies. Work involves mentoring communities to stand for their rights, as well as collaborating with state agencies.

Chingmak works with dispersed communities in sparsely populated remote areas of Nagaland, providing them with healthcare services and livelihood support. The intended primary beneficiary is either an individual or a household. There is a degree of collaboration involved in engaging with the government’s health department.

Primary intended beneficiaries of Eklavya’s work are households that suffer displacement, loss of property and insecurity due to floods. Since floods hit thousands of households at the same time, one may argue that the primary intended beneficiaries are members of communities living in flood-prone regions. The work involves mobilising and mentoring these communities for collective flood mitigation efforts, collaborating with state agencies and to some extent supply of inputs and training of people.

The primary intended beneficiaries of Jameela’s work are individual women who fall victim to various forms of abuse such as sheikh marriages and domestic violence. By consistently working towards alleviation of their distress and by creating a climate of opinion that is more friendly towards young women, she also contributes to the well-being of a large community of women. Her activities include supporting, and providing shelter, training and skill building to women affected by one of these scourges. Her work involves a degree of collaboration with state agencies.

The primary intended beneficiaries of Johnny Oommen’s work are the communities in the chosen 53 villages where the organisation has its outreach programmes. However, through his larger engagement, his work has benefited a large number of people living in malaria-prone terrains of Odisha. His activities include patient care, prescribing medication, training and mentoring, besides capacity building and collaboration with multiple agencies.

Primary intended beneficiaries of Madhukar’s work - mostly connected with enhancement of livelihoods - are participating households. His previous work of providing shelter and education to wards of sex workers was intended to benefit individuals. Some of the landscape work as well as restoration of ponds benefited village communities. The works involved supply of key inputs, skill building, mentoring as well as collaborating with diverse state agencies.

The primary intended beneficiaries of Mamoon’s work are individual children who study in his school. The activity involves provision of usual inputs at school, organising teachers and helping students with their education.

Osama has facilitated organisations adopt IT to their needs and enabled organisations to do better marketing. The beneficiaries are thus agencies who in turn benefit households and communities. His work involves providing technology, training, mentoring and connecting.

The primary intended beneficiaries of Pramod’s work of uniting unaccompanied children found on railway stations are the children so identified. As his strategy comprises re-uniting them with the families, the families too can be classified as beneficiaries. His activities include identifying children, providing them shelter and food during transit, locating their parents, undertaking necessary legal processes and re-uniting them with their parents.

Prithibhusan Deka has several lines of activities and the intended beneficiaries are individuals, households and village communities. His work involves provision of inputs during flood rescue and relief, training, building skills, and collaborating with state agencies.

The primary intended beneficiaries of Rajesh Singhi’s work are women belonging to the socially backward communities in Mewat. His livelihood support activities help their households. His work involves provision of inputs, materials, training, mentoring, capacity building to the villagers, besides collaborating with state agencies.

The primary intended beneficiaries of the work of Sarbani Das and of Vandana Gopikumar are the distressed and poor homeless persons affected by mental illness. Both provide mental healthcare including medicines, patient care and shelter where warranted. They also collaborate extensively with the state health systems, police and other agencies.

The intended beneficiaries of Sarat’s work are households. His landscape work benefits a wider set of people in the village communities. His microcredit operations and livelihoods promotions include provision of credit, provision of inputs such as cocoons for making silk yarn, and linking producers to markets. This does involve collaboration with many agencies including state livelihoods mission and banks.

The intended beneficiaries of Sudhir’s work are families of brick kiln workers, labouring under precarious conditions and low wages. His activities involve organising, mentoring, training and supporting diverse forms of action of these workers vis a vis the kiln owners. He needs to collaborate as well as engage with the state machinery.

The intended beneficiaries of Suresh’s work are the terminally ill patients needing palliative care. His work includes training of volunteers willing to provide palliative care, as well as providing medicines to patients.

Intended beneficiaries of Vivek’s two or three lines of activities include fisherfolk households. His methods include providing inputs such as outboard motors for small mechanised fishing boats, providing credit, besides conducting organised fish auctions and trade.

Yogesh runs a huge, renowned hospital where the intended beneficiaries are poor patients coming from remote villages in the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh and beyond. His work comprises caregiving, providing of inputs, coaching, training and capacity building of community health workers and collaborating with state health agencies.

One can see from the above that a majority of the social workers profiled here chose to work at individual or household levels. Several points about this are noteworthy. In the first place, this tendency to work with individuals and households - palpable collection of warm humans rather than more abstract collectives so to speak, is perfectly natural if the social workers are driven by compassion. Thus this is the most natural choice of work for what we term as sanitised domains.

Secondly, the reach and capacity of the social workers are limited in their initial stage. Naturally they start small, with individuals and with households. Thirdly, unless they have something concrete to show for their outputs, the broader society and larger aggregates are unlikely to place much credence in them. So to build credibility, they have to work on the ground, at the grassroots, with touch-and-feel individuals and households. Close perusal of the profiles reveals that the work grows bigger in sweep and starts impacting broader society over time. I suggest that this happens because of two or three concomitant factors. The first is sort of emulative. Other start-up social workers tend to learn from and emulate the work of the focal worker; also communities flock to them, make demands on them and also learn and adapt behaviours preached by them. As their reputation spreads, state officers and experts in the field visit them and often invite them as advisers. There is a mutual influence. This starts their wider role as policy influencers. In my observation, most effective policy influencers are those who have demonstrated concrete work on the ground. Their bona fides and credibility have not only been proven through their work, the impact of their work are fungible and can be applied to related fields. On the other hand, those who attempt to influence national policy without own proven base, tend to sound hollow and as self-serving mendicants.

It is possible to argue that most work at individual and household level involving provision of material and ideational input and capacity building will be in the sanitised domain as I have defined above. (This of course need not be the case: to cite a hypothetical extreme, a radical outfit provides ideological brainwashing and weapons to individuals and surely not in a sanitised mode!) I encourage the readers to evolve combinations of these three attributes: whether the work is in a sanitised or contested domain, the level of intended primary beneficiary and the nature of engagement. This may be done not only as an academic exercise but also to relate it to the personal attributes and life trajectories of the social workers profiled here or encountered elsewhere.

Choices made by social workers in running their organisations

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Sanjiv Phansalkar


This chapter draws from my book A Guide to Building Effective Development Organisations. In this chapter I look at the specific choices made by the social workers in setting up and running the organisations through which they gave shape to their dreams for the society. In a majority of the cases, the social workers were also central to (if not the founders) the formation of the organisation. In almost all the cases they are quite central to the functioning of the organisation, whether they are the founders or not. The choices pertain to choice of the domain, the extent of donors’ influence, choice while expanding the scope of the work, etc. Readers may benefit by reading the above-mentioned book which elaborates on the pros and cons, as well as implications of these choices, on the functioning of the organisations. The choices that I look at are the following:

  • Did the social workers take up a domain based on demands of the community or did they choose thinking it was their pre-ordained duty? In the above book this choice is termed as between being community-driven and ‘brown man’s burden’
  • Did the social workers follow an agenda they set on their own or by pressures from donors?
  • Did the social workers grow the work by geographic expansion or by deepening engagement with the same community?
  • Did the social workers undertake a holistic development or did they focus on and specialise in a thematically focused task?
  • Did the social workers work on a ‘rights-based approach’ or did they follow a ‘service delivery route’?
  • Did they work with the state or despite the state?

The choices

The following table sums up the choices made by the social workers profiled here. I offer explanatory comments only when I feel there is likely to be a confusion or a doubt. This is done in the next section.

Choices made by social workers and their organisations

Social workerCommunity-centric or bringing in new agendaOwn agenda or donor-drivenExpanding geographically or deepening engagementHolistic development or thematic specialisationRights-based or service deliveryWith the state or despite it?
Akeina Community Opportunistically chosen own agenda Deepening Attempted holistic but largely livelihoods Service With
Anil Community Own agenda Deepening Thematically focused Service With
Ashif Community Own agenda Deepening Thematically focused Rights based Despite
Ashis New agenda Combination, opportunistically chosen Expanding geographically Thematically focused Service With
Chingmak Community Own agenda Deepening Holistic Service Despite
Eklavya Community Own agenda Geographical expansion Thematically focused A combination Despite
Jameela Community Own agenda Deepening Thematically focused Service Despite
Johnny Community Own agenda Deepening Holistic Both in part Despite
Madhukar Community Donor-driven Geographic expansion Thematically focused Service With
Mamoon Community Own agenda Deepening Thematically focused Service With
Osama New agenda Own agenda Geographic expansion Thematically focused Service With
Prithibhusan Combination Combination, opportunistically chosen Deepening Holistic Service With
Rajesh Community Combination Deepening Holistic Service With
Sarat Community Combination Deepening Focused Service With
Sarbani New agenda Own agenda Neither Focused Service With
Sudhir Community Own agenda Geographic expansion Focused Rights based Despite
Suresh Community Own agenda Expansion Focused Service With
Vandana New agenda Own agenda Deepening Focused Service With
Vivek Community Own agenda Both Holistic Service Both in part
Yogesh Combination Own agenda Deepening Focused on health Service Both in part

Assessment of choices

Community-centric or brown man’s agenda? The question whether an NGO’s choice is to work on community-centric agenda or work in response to the perception of the brown man’s burden is a forced one. Most social workers evolve a combination. They surely cannot become relevant unless they respond in some concrete measure to the community’s needs. To that extent their work is community-centric. And being educated, enlightened and concerned about community’s well-being, they introduce more appropriate ways of life to the community in respect of their domain. A doctor will surely need to cure people suffering from diarrhoea; but he will be failing in his duty if he does not advocate good practices about hygiene and sanitation. The question is which of the two dominates and whether the new practice sought to be introduced is wholly foreign to the ethos of the people. Most of the social workers have chosen to work on felt and articulated needs of the community. This sounds very fair and rational to me since they take to social work out of a sense of compassion and solidarity. Yet a new agenda, that is, an agenda that has not emerged out of felt needs of the community, is brought in as the social worker feels it would be useful to the community.

Ashis brought in a new agenda of responsible crop production in his work. This did not emerge out of felt needs of the community. He chose it opportunistically, to reap the advantage of the international responsible crop movement and to initiate sustainable agricultural practices. Eklavya works on helping communities cope with floods. But he combines it with exercises such as providing Ecosan toilets and using solar energy to supply drinking water - solutions to problems that people did not articulate directly. In the case of Jameela, the issue of early and undesirable marriage of Muslim girls has not been articulated by the community. But the need for helping victims of sheikh marriages and other forms of exploitation to lead a respectable life is clearly a felt need. While development organisations need to bring their management up to speed, they sure had not articulated their need for internet. Hence the agenda of Osama and his team was derived from global developments rather than articulated by the community. Prithibhusan started his work primarily on a strongly felt community need of flood rescue, relief and rehab. Later he took up the task of integrating technology in education, something that is so far from the community’s worldview that it could not have been the community’s demand at all. In the case of Sarbani, she works with homeless mentally ill patients. They are not only lonely and neglected, they are shunned by the community as well. Looking after them as she does, the demand could not have come from the community. A similar comment is applicable to the case of Vandana Gopikumar.

Own agenda or donor-driven agenda?

Most of the social workers profiled have been consistently following an agenda set by themselves. They have been opinion leaders and influencers on donor policies, rather than being governed by donors’ policies. It is true that some of them have opportunistically used trends in the donor world for the benefit of the communities they served. During the initial period, the scope of their operations was limited and they needed to make sure that their nascent organisations survived. So, as Madhukar did, they took up programmes suggested by donors. Once comfortable with both their own niche and their standing, they started consistently following their own agenda and influencing donors to support them.

Expanding geographically, thematic focus and holistic development

Two separate issues are linked in this discussion. So far as geographic expansion as a way of growth is concerned, the spread is a little more even. There are quite a few cases of social workers who preferred to expand geographically. It can be hypothesised that ambitious social workers who are committed to a set of widely relevant thematic activities tend to expand geographically. For instance, if my capacity as an expert providing prosthetic aids far exceeds the demand from a particular region, it makes sense to cater to more areas than to learn and provide different services in my present location. On the other hand, if my focus is the well-being of people in, say Dindori district, then I will first concentrate on their livelihoods. Then I will work on the education of Baiga children, then on health services and then on protecting forests and preventing soil erosion.The interventions will be confined to the district and chosen one after another as my resources increased and needs became apparent. The first case is driven by thematic competence, and the second by commitment to people of a locale.

Rights-based or service delivery

Of the social workers profiled here, 18 have preferred to work in the service delivery mode. This perhaps reflects the choice of those profiled (and by implication Tata Trusts’ preference, since Tata Trusts grantees dominate the list) than the personnel in the sector per se. In some sense this dichotomy has a conceptual overlap with the sanitised-contested domain dichotomy as discussed adequately in the previous chapter and hence it does not merit further discussion. Most service delivery oriented social workers turn to the state for resources. Alternately the state considers them facilitators. Certainly regulatory clearances are required from the state in quite a few thematic areas e.g. seeds production, landscape planning, child protection, welfare of mentally ill patients. Naturally service delivery oriented social workers have been working with the state, gently influencing the latter towards more people-friendly policies. Social workers working in the main on rights-based approaches have by force got to work on an issue chosen by them whether the state supports them or not; that is despite the state.

Making of these choices

A combination of factors shapes the choices social workers make on the matters discussed above. Some of the factors that I can glean from a reading of the profiles are:

  • Personality of the people and their beliefs: An emotional person is quite likely to become deeply attached to the people s/he begins work with; then their well-being becomes the soul guiding factor of his/her work. Such a person may choose to remain rooted in one chosen geography and deepen his / her engagement with the same people rather than applying his / her skills to a larger set of people. Chingmak for instance, isrooted to the remote Tuensang district for such a reason. These orientations are likely to be reinforced by the institutional framework in which they work. For instance, Johnny works within the framework of an institution that focuses on a certain geography of Bissamcuttack. So his primary work remains within that area while he ‘grows’ by allowing his expertise to be transferred via training and mentoring to others. On the other hand Ashis did not feel the emotional compulsion to remain confined to Jhabua where he began his work, but saw fulfilment in applying his skills over wide areas.
  • Self-perception of their strength: This question is about comparative advantage. If I am very good at resource mobilisation and collaborations, but wanting in internal management, I am likely to find a colleague torun the organisation while I do the boundary spanning and look for new opportunities. A second line would thus automatically emerge. But if I look at the organisation as an extension of my own persona, feel supremely confident about myself and a shade dismissive of others, I could become a banyan tree and the decisions would all be mine. Did something along this line happen in any of the cases profiled here? Readers may form their own judgment.
  • Their assessment and conditions of resource availability: While it sounds appropriate that social workers must choose an agenda relevant for the communities they work with and not be swayed by donors’ directives, the hard reality is that resources are often available only for certain activities. Donor world has tended to be unpredictable, with the agenda often developed thousands of miles away in a British or an American university. But if one is starved of resources and has mouths to feed, it is academic to focus only on own or on community agenda. Strategic behaviour and sagacity lie in presenting the organisation’s agenda in a manner that aligns with donors’ agenda and to use available resources to meet donors’ objectives as well as community’s needs.
  • Their own sense of their calling: Each person comes to a view about his or her calling. This view develops as one evolves in life. Neither the available funding opportunities nor the range of problems of the target community may make a person change course if s/he does not think they match her calling.

Where do they go from here?

The choices presented and discussed above are about past decisions. Where the social workers, their organisations and most importantly their work would go from here is an interesting question. Social workers as persons would go through their life cycle as all people do. I am quite optimistic that their clients and the society at large will ensure that they have a comfortable life as they advance in age. Having proved their capability and credibility, their way forward is a matter of their choice and not subject to external forces. Going forward in their career paths is strictly a function of their own self-perception, their sense of calling and their beliefs.

However the same cannot be said about their organisations or the work they have done. Organisations are going concerns. Staff may work with reduced elan as they advance in age, their aspirations grow, infrastructureneeds replacement, etc. Yet being completely donor dependent, the organisations can never be assured of their continuity. Institutional and organisational sustainability may be a donor fetish but few organisations can be assured of this. Unfortunately even the most promising and highly performing social workers have to spend more and more time in resource mobilisation as their organisations become larger and mature. Given the changing nature of the donor world, they need to become flexible about their agenda and territory. The sustainability of the work in turn depends on the relevance of the work to the specific physical and social situation. There is a story about an ardent social worker who worked tirelessly for legalisation of widow remarriage. After years of his efforts, the government did pass a law. But he, his organisation and all their work suddenly became irrelevant! Such would be the positive outcome of someone’s work, though he would be rendered redundant. I am not implying that society must always remain so full of problems that social workers and their missions will remain relevant. The point is, the exercises of social workers have no inherent assurance of sustainability. The social workers need to reinvent themselves and change the course of their work to remain relevant to their objective of helping the needy.

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