Modi government circulates draft Bill to regulate autonomy in social work practice, education

The government has circulated a draft of the National Council of Social Work (education and practice) Bill, which aims to regulate quality, flexibility and autonomy in social work education, practice

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Ashlin Mathew

The Modi government has circulated a draft of the National Council of Social Work (education and practice) Bill, which aims to regulate quality, flexibility and autonomy in social work education and practice. The last date for sending in revisions is November 25.

Through the Bill, the government aims to set up a National Council of Social Work (NCSW). The NCSW would have a chairperson, a vice-chairperson, and 20 honorary members. Of the honorary members, three would the rank of the additional secretary or higher to represent the ministries of Education, Women and Child Development, and Social Justice and Empowerment.

This council would then promote ethical behaviour of professional social workers by conducting their registration and its renewal every five years, develop a curriculum framework and minimum standards for social work education. The Council will also have the power to deregister social workers on any violation of the criteria for ethical behaviour and falsification of the required qualifications.

In July 2020, an unofficial meeting was organised at Niti Aayog, which was attended by Dr Muniraju, the deputy advisor to Niti Aayog, said sources.

Across educationists and practitioners there are concerns about the council. “I do agree with the need for accountability, but this Bill doesn’t really specify who the Council would be accountable to. It should be accountable to the larger group of educationists and practitioners. If a Council is being set up, we have to think of how it can be democratised rather than being centralised,” underscores Professor Mouleshri Vyas, who teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Vyas pointed out that as is the case with bar councils at state and national levels, those formulating this Bill could think of regional councils where there is more involvement of educators and practitioners. These councils can then nominate or elect members to the central council.

Adding to Vyas’s statement, academic and practitioner Dr Jahnvi Andharia said there needs to be much more consultations, especially from those working on ground because there are a variety of social workers. There are engineers who leave their plush jobs to go to villages to solve various problems, so “will the Bill call them social workers or leave them out of the ambit”? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed.

The government intends to formulate a curriculum framework and standards for social work in the country, in addition to developing a code of ethics to promote and regulate ethical practices amongst professional social workers. It aims to identify and register those who have obtained social work qualifications and carry out policy analysis related to social welfare and sustainable development.

The idea of regulating social work was first mooted during the Second Review Committee on Social Work Education by the UGC in 1980. It had recommended that a National Council for Social Work Education may be established in order to upgrade social work education and to maintain standards. Then the Ministry of Welfare prepared a draft Bill, which was sent to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. During this process UGC was consulted and a draft Bill was finalised in 1995.

According to the draft Bill, professional social work qualification would mean that a person must have a bachelor’s degree at least, or a master’s degree in social work from a UGC-recognised college or a university. This Bill will criminalise those who work as professional social workers but do not have the ‘qualifications specified by the government’. It will be a cognizable and non-bailable offence.

“Social work and professional social work are different. When we say professional social work, it is an internationally recognised job. In India, the first attempt to have a trained workforce in the sector came in 1936 with the establishment of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences,” said Professor Sanjay Bhatt, who teaches at the Delhi School of Social Work.

Till 2000, there were hardly 60 colleges offering a social work course, but now there are 526 colleges offering it. “So, there is a need to regulate. What I’m pleading through this Bill is that the educational standards in the sector across the country should be uniform. The draft Bill is in line with the New Education Policy,” highlighted Bhatt, who is also the president of the National Association of Professional Social Workers in India. According to NEP, all subjects which are professional in nature will have a professional standard setting board.

While there is a need for standardisation of the social work curriculum, Vyas said she had a few concerns. “The issues raised by educationists are real and that there is a need for maintaining quality in Social Work education is indisputable. But, what we probably need is a common minimum standard and curriculum to be set, and beyond that there should be space for regional and local components to be brought in. This Bill is making a pitch for standardisation and regulation instead,” explained Vyas.

The draft Bill makes a case for distance learning in social work, but Andharia wanted to know how it would work as social work requires field work. The University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines state that there must be 900 hours of field work, but the draft Bill does not address it.

"Historically, there has been a need to recognise social work as a profession. Even now, it is not in popular imagination, social work is not something that is seen as a profession. But, what does profession mean. The Bill is not clear about it. And is it a profession, because the government will give a licence or is it a profession because you are bringing in some values and principles of how to bring about social change?” asked Andharia, who was part of the ANANDI team, which is an organisation that has worked for more than two decades on women’s empowerment.

The Bill needs to focus on what it would do for human wellbeing, asserted Andharia. “This move was started by those in the profession and at a much later stage the government stepped in. The onus is on those of us in the profession to ask what the bill should do for us,” added Andharia.

Several of the academics and practitioners were worried if the Bill would accommodate the diversity in the field. Social work in the country is largely in the informal sector, so the question is how the draft Bill and the council would protect the interests of social workers.

As the Bill is looking at regulating practitioners with registration, "there is a need to clarify implications of non- registration, and whether registration can be refused or cancelled." This to me as an educator is a concern, because we could end up legitimising certain kinds of practice and not others in the absence of debate and clarity about such aspects,” said Vyas.

The voluntary sector has played a significant role in addressing social problems of various communities, but this Bill does not acknowledge their role adequately. In the social sector, there are not only trained and educated social workers who have played huge roles, but a lot of community level workers, who may have learnt through experience, and who form a significant part of the workforce. “Further, people from other disciplines such as law, engineering, architecture etc also contribute to development initiatives. The discussion on professional social work should acknowledge the inter disciplinarity that is its strengrh in education as well as practice,” elaborated Vyas.

Andharia suggested that the language of the Bill needs to be contextualised as it speaks only of women. It doesn’t talk of people with different sexual orientation and gender identity and neither does it talk about community-based social work, which is a large part of India’s contribution in the field of social work. “A lot of the developed world social work is around services, but in countries like India, programmes are geared towards community development. How is the Bill dealing with these realities?” asked Andharia.

There must be a three-pronged approach in the Bill– a focus on research, the practitioner and the academic curriculum. “The relationship between these three components needs to be brought out strongly. The International Journal of Social Work has listed multiple types of social work, so the realities of all of them must be addressed in the Bill,” added Andharia.

There are worries that government control will be misused. “There are groups such as the Nagpur-based Bharatiya Shikhshana Mandal, which is hoping for the Hinduisation of social work. I have always been opposing it. We cannot completely change the value system of any education. The council can be misused if the government insists on appointing only members sharing the same ideology. I believe ill designs can be checked and the Bill should have these provisions written in it,” remarked Bhatt.

Private interests have increased in the field of social work, so the Bill needs to acknowledge and address it. It only speaks of governmental controls and not the current reality. “Whom will the Bill serve, Andharia asked, “Is it the purpose or the people? The Bill should serve the purpose of social work and not people.”

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Published: 06 Nov 2020, 8:54 AM