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Hidden agendas, corruption, tokenism—why social work and politics cannot survive together

In ‘The Slum Queen’, visual artist Rouble Nagi documents the journey of her ‘Misaal India’ campaign and how she painted slums in Mumbai.

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A good social worker with grassroots knowledge about social issues can give valuable perspectives about the problems people are facing on the ground. They can help in formulating and implementing a framework for much required social policies. At the end of the day, politics is the overarching umbrella framework under which social policies are made. Social workers toil day in and out to implement these social policies efficiently, effectively and professionally. However, if a wrong political process for policy formation is employed, it could mean that social workers have the hopeless task of introducing a flawed logic that would, in turn, rally in favour of a flawed practice.

I have observed how an upcoming election cycle brings out the best social work undertaken by politicians. My ideals as a social worker have always been apolitical. However, we do have a unique perspective and obligation to acknowledge and be in contention with political intersections. Social work is ultimately the application of psychology and sociology towards social concern through which we can provide support to the disadvantaged and marginalised sections of society. We must strive to ensure that political motivations are kept on the sidelines or used correctly, so that they help in proper development.

I have always fought for the rights of the underprivileged, for their inherent human dignity and worth. I have always made it my focus to care for communities, families and individuals who are struggling due to faults of the socioeconomic order. At the same time, I have tried to challenge the factors that perpetuate or inflict harm and oppression upon this section. It is our duty to work, train and commit to intervening in their misery and fighting for their upliftment. It is our duty to organise workshops and initiatives, so that the issues they are dealing with (like oppression, suffering and neglect) can be eradicated. Then, they can truly emerge as free individuals who can choose the kind of life they feel comfortable with and wish to pursue.

Also Read: Indian elites holding back wealth tied in slums. Here’s what Modi can do

Having worked in slums on a daily basis, I have seen how the people living there have been impacted by poverty and deprivation. I feel that the poor have been disempowered by society, made weak, forcibly oppressed, and made to live without a voice. Their lives matter to people only when elections are round the corner. Slum dwellers have always been the victims of social injustice arising from economic forces and the inherent but unjustified inequalities that exist in our society.

While we were working on our Misaal project in 2018, I was told by a senior politician that he would support the cause but provide support only if I told the people that it was his initiative. There is no doubt as to why we need social workers within the political landscape of our country. If politics becomes a game of individual ambitions, it is up to social workers to take on the mantle and be the drivers of positive change. That is why I find politics to be corrupt and cut-throat; working with politicians always involves hidden agendas. They will put up their own motives before the welfare of the people they are supposed to help. Once, a Parliamentarian’s wife told me that I cannot expect a Member of Parliament to work with people on the ground Social workers, on the other hand, have hands-on experience when they are dealing with issues large on the ground.

While I was working on a Misaal Mumbai project in Bandra, I got a phone call from a friend of mine. He was serving as a Minister, and we had known each other for almost a decade. He had been planning to contest the elections from a constituency where I had been recently called to conduct a survey for implementing the same project as in Bandra’s Jaffer Baba. My friend was upset because I did not want to work with him. It strained our relationship, but it was something I had to forego. Being a social worker, I am not allowed to take sides or become biased towards someone. If not, the whole purpose of serving for the upliftment of a community is defeated. The only thing that should matter to a social worker is to serve humanity without being biased about caste, creed or religion. Social workers need to learn and respect the traditions of individual communities but, at the same time, uplift them from the superstitions and taboos they harbour.

Also Read: 12% slum households in India still without LPG connection. Five ways to improve access

After we had completed around twenty-five slum transformation projects, I was contacted by a well-known builder in Mumbai. I still remember when I had a cup of tea with him, he told me that I should convince the people living in the slum to make way for a luxury mall. These are the atrocities we have been fighting against. We cannot let such people trample upon the lives of the poor and oppressed. He went on to say that he would offer the residents sufficient money to relocate, and that he would be able to work out a better deal with them if I was interested. I asked him a question: What would happen to all those families who lived there? Money is not the be-all and end-all of life. No one should be forced to leave their houses with false assurances of a better place to live.

This excerpt from ‘The Slum Queen’ by Rouble Nagi has been published with permission from Garuda Prakashan.

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