Teaching Poverty in Classroom setting: An Anti-oppressive Social Work Practice

Deepshikha Carpenter, Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva Vishwavidyalaya, India

1           Introduction

The Social Work curricula development in India is a blend of methods, perspectives, theories relevant in contemporary world. It has evolved in India more than eighty years ago. Since the year 1936 mark as a formal development of Social Work; the curricula is diversified due to various stakeholders and complex social structures in the society. The social movements and developmental discourse for farmers, women, dalits and other under-represented sections formed a gradual impact to make the curricula inclusive over a period of time. Hence, the current social work practice is mostly on building the strength of the marginalised groups.

Historically, restoring an independent India offered holistic representation of the people drawn from various groups. It served as a medium of identity in nation building. The common sentiment was drawn of assimilating people across borders as one nation. B.K Roy Burman’s Beyond Mangal and After: Backward Classes in Perspective (1992) mentioned a historic speech by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru - ‘we have to do something for the communities which are backward educationally, economically and in other respects’. This Backward Class Movement from the 1920’s-1930’s onwards spread its ideology towards 1953’s Backward Class Commission culminating in the pillars of affirmative action for the people.

It is observed in the last two centuries that apart from the upward surge in population of India; there is still inequality and underrepresentation of the various communities. The principle of equality and hierarchy are the most constraining facts of political and social life. A certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people is indispensable to social life. Yet in majority of cases, hierarchy is identified with power. (Dumont, 1998). Mostly the power lies with the privileged sections of society. Social work as a profession caters to the micro needs of people living in poverty or at lower economic rung in the society (Hugman, 2009). The gradual movement from charity based ideology to right based agenda is to challenge poverty as a structural problem. The smaller communities identify itself with the larger communities for security. Not all caste, sub castes, tribes are truly represented as neither numbers, nor their plight is brought to the surface. The agenda is more political rather than serving economic sustenance for the people. In recent years, the World Bank Report of 2012 on Indian Poverty reveals that one in every five Indians is poor. The rate of poverty is 25% in rural areas and 14% in urban areas. More than 80% of poor live in rural areas. The poor have lower access to latrines (21%). electricity (61%) and tap water (6%) in rural areas. They are mostly marginal landowners (82%). The major source of occupation in rural areas is casual labour in farming and non-farming sector and self employment in urban areas. The Scheduled Tribe represents the highest poor percentage of 43%, followed by Scheduled Caste, that is, 29%. Around 45% of the poor in rural areas are illiterates. The Other Backward Classes indicate 21% of poor population followed by 12% of others. Therefore, it is imperative to note that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 to end poverty and all its forms everywhere is the need of the hour. The poverty in rural areas is 17.2 percent, three times more in urban areas affecting children and women more than men. Impoverishment limits access to material resources and structural opportunities (Gold, 2007). Living in poverty can be detrimental influence on the physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing of individuals and families (Perese, 2007). Several research studies have identified numerous variables linking economic factors to the achievement in school, bonding between parents and children, and the amount of cognitive stimulation in children’s home environments (Seccombe, 2000). Therefore, poverty or lack of economic support can be detrimental in education and development in urban as well as rural areas.

To support the economic structure in post independent India which was primarily agriculturally based economy; a series of development projects were initiated. These were known as Five Years Plans for public sector growth and requisite states to initiate their development goals. It was to bring all-round development in the country. The First Five Year Plan (1951-56) worked for primary sectors, the Second Year Plan (1956-61) emphasized on  industrialization and public sector, the Third Year Plan (1961-66) targeted agricultural sector, the Fourth Five Year Plan (1969-74) for growth with justice amidst war in the country , the Fifth Plan (1974-79) worked for employment generation and general poverty measure, the Sixth Plan (1980-85) highlighted economic liberalization, the Seventh plan (1985-90) worked on upgrading technological aspect of the country. The Eight Five Year Plan (1992-97) focussed on infrastructure and re-constructing economy through liberalization, privatization and globalisation. Intensive anti – poverty measure was initiated from the Ninth Five Year Plan (1997-2002) of India revamping and strategizing the goals towards equity and stable economic growth. Within the decade of 1999 to 2009, a series of capacity building programme were initiated such as Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana (SGRY) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). These programmes set out for objectives of granting food, employment, credit facilities, building durable infrastructures and housing. The Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-07) focussed on bridging gender gaps and governance as a part of development. Targeting poverty as one of the objectives in the planning process continued till the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012) to make a more stable economy. The Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012-2017) worked for sustainability and inclusive growth (Planning Commission, 2012). A holistic development through equitable resource utilizing capacity and economic growth is general aim of Five-Year Plans. From 2014 onwards, the Planning Commission is replaced by NITI (National Institute of Transforming India) AYOG, an advisory body based on cooperative federalism for a period of three years. Studies (Zwart, 2000) have revealed that the economic and socially backward classes of India look for affirmative action as a remedy. However, it debatable as according to Max Weber it infringes on the principle of equality before law - Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. This Article states the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. The debate is if there is prohibition of discrimination, then why a certain section of people should get the affirmative (reservations-quotas) privilege for land reforms, public education or employment.

The justification is equality exists only among equals (Jennings, 1964). Thereby, Affirmative action redistributes economic means and offices ensuring government power to make collective action for the people who have been compromised historically.

2           Poverty and Affirmative Action

The culture of poor and marginalised group does not exist in vacuum. It is in constant and dynamic interaction with the matrix of political, economic and social factors in which it is embedded. (Steinberg, 1998:10)

In India, the living standard of Scheduled Tribe, Scheduled Caste, Other Backward Classes are much poor than other mainstream population. The state is the most important element for defining the various social categories for material rewards mostly on job and education. The affirmative action policies give an access to education and employment guaranteed by Article 46 that states‘ promotion of educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections. The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitations’.

Similarly, the Indian Constitution in Article 341 specify the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes, races or tribes that shall be Scheduled Castes in relation to that State or Union territory which parliament by law may include in or exclude from the list of Scheduled Castes and Article 342 specify the tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes and Parliament may by law include in or exclude from the list of Scheduled Tribes of the Indian Constitution. The Government decision to grant 10% reservation (One Hundred and Third Amendment), 2019 to economically weaker sections (EWS) of the General category was a welcome move in the beginning of 2019. The criteria are: the total income should not be more than eight lakhs in Indian Rupees (INR) and should not possess the following conditions-landholding above five acres / residential flat of 1000 square feet/residential plot of 100 square yard in notified municipality/ residential plot of 200 square yard and above in areas other than the notified municipality. However, in education sector both in public and private institutions; the EWS category exceeds 10%. This quota system will make a total of more than 50% (7 % for scheduled caste, 15% for scheduled tribes, 27% for OBC and 10% for General category) (Padmanabhan, 2019), (Tripathi, 2019). This Amendment for the first time recognises 10 % for the General category population. However, implementing the certification and documentation process for land holding will be cumbersome as majority of the population are not acquainted with the bureaucratic process in the government offices. Efforts of digitization of documents related to land and revenue is still not streamlined leaving the metropolitan areas. Internet connectivity and accessibility is also not easily reached uniformly in various parts of India.

3           Implication of Affirmative Action in North East States

India hosts the highest tribal population in the world (8.1%) and North East India itself inhabits to more than 220 ethnic groups. It represents 8.55 % total population of the tribal. It comprises of eight states- Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.  Historically, due to its administrative and political divisions in North East India, some of the tribes are yet to fall under the reservation policies. Affirmative Action refers to a set of policy measures to create the conditions for disadvantaged groups to compete equally with others. As North East India has categories of Minorities/ Other Backward Class (OBC) and More Other Backward Class (MOBC); Scheduled Tribe (Plains) and Scheduled Tribe (Hills). These policies help for advantaged position since North East India has faced historical and geographical isolation leading to poverty, lack of communication and insurgency. Assam has the highest population of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes due to its population. Other Backward Classes (OBC)and More Other Backward Class (MOBC) mostly inhabit in Assam and Manipur. The poverty estimate in 2009-2010 holds that all the states in North East are better off compared to all India level of 29.8% except for the states of Manipur and Assam as their poverty level is 47.1% and 37.9% crossing national average (Vision 2020). The impact of poverty is more prevalent in these two states.

4           Methodology

The research is carried out to study the subjective understanding of poverty as a structural problem and its treatment in Assam as it has one of the highest rates of poverty. Since poverty is multi-dimensional, a perspective of students from a classroom setting and urban practioners was needed. The study is based on a qualitative analysis of sixteen samples (age group of 21-30 years) who are students of a University situated in urban Guwahati (a metropolitan city) in North East India and other practioners working as social work educators (teachers) in Assam. According to Haberman (2005) urban teachers tend to be non-judgmental, reacts calmness; attentive to others with less power; and most importantly acknowledge and put high priority for the educational success of those students living in poverty. This helped to investigate on the subjective understanding of poverty from academic perspective. The interested respondents were instructed on the objective of the study to see how anti oppressive measure can be created in teaching poverty through their responses. Unstructured (Open) Questionnaire was used as a tool for the respondents to answer by the sixteen respondents. They also represented their Caste (General), (Other Backward Class), More Other Backward Class), Schedule Tribe (Hills and Plains) and Gender (Male/ Female and Others) in the study to show the type of response that is gathered in micro social conditions. The Questionnaire was formed on the concept of poverty, 10% reservation for generally economically disadvantaged population, affiliation to reserved categories, structural inequalities of caste, class, race, gender and the subjective experiences. An Intersectionality understanding was kept into consideration. Since India is mostly a part of caste identity rather than race, caste is taken as a thematised area for consideration. This helps in understanding poverty and inequality by creating meanings in everyday practice. The intersectional paradigm provides a normative framework that captures the complexity of lived experiences and concomitant, interacting factors of social inequity (Hankivsky and Christoffersen, 2008).

There are six themes which have emerged that are drawn on a. Essence of poverty, b. Affirmative action and protective discrimination, c. Ethnicity, d. Caste, e. Class and f. Gender. and it is reflected through an Intersectionality approach of how it is identifying the form of inequality and privilege positions. The study has aimed to show an anti-oppressive measure of dialogue and practice associated with social work to indicate an explicit evaluative position that constructs social divisions (caste class, gender, disability) as broad social structure. These factors impinge on people’s experience in unique ways have to be understood in their socio-historical complexity (Clifford, 1995). The names of the respondents are not mentioned in the study to maintain confidentiality. No scholar can avoid ‘cultural ideas and his or her placement in the intersecting oppressions of race, gender, class, sexuality and nation’ (Collins, 2000).

5           Findings

Poverty has been found to have lasting effects on peoples' social, economic, and psychological well-being (Pritchard, 1993). Poverty can be defined as the governments formula of the poverty line based on free and reduced lunch formulas that vary from state to state, or on particular characteristics and situations people find themselves in because of the amount of monetary and related material capital that they have or do not have( Milner, 2013) It is observed mostly  among the student communities that  children from poverty are being identified and labelled with grossly over-generalized, deficit-laden characteristics that put them at risk of being viewed as less capable, less cultured, and less worthy as learners. While we do not want to underplay the stresses on some children who live in poverty, we do want to advocate for a perspective that sees these children and their families as histories and cultural beings. Each student or practioners has their own individuality in terms of poverty and that background needs to be respected and "Students from different backgrounds interpret information differently. It will be important to incorporate cultural lessons that have students take on different perspectives of other culture (Sato and Lensmire, 2009).

Inclusion of students in all realms of class room setting can help in achievement and performance of the students. Research suggests that inexperienced teachers and racial isolation are important factors to explain the achievement gap (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2006) Students knowledge can facilitate learning as they come from various backgrounds. Various method and tools like surveys, classroom observations, and follow-up conversations with participant are proposed by Ladson-Billings and Darling-Hammond to facilitate learning. (2000). Another factors like on relationships and shared authority, linking classroom content with student experience, incorporation of familiar and culturally compatible communication patterns, and development of counter narratives that challenge typical conceptions of at-risk students and families can help in building coherence.

Similarly, urban teachers who put high priority in the educational success of children in poverty are typically involved in the development of counter narratives that challenge stereotypical ideas about the so-called at risk students, whether the students live in poverty and/or come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (Abbate-Vaughn, Frechon and Wright, 2000).

Every individual can experience a situation in question in very different ways. Nor does it reify the structural aspects that shape such situations, assisting in holding individuals responsible for their actions in a situation (Hancock, 2016). Haberman (2005) noted that educators engage in the production of counternarratives: responses that seem to go ever so-slightly or sometimes markedly, against the grain of stereotypical notions about low-income students of color thought of at-risk. This study also has produced counter narratives from the perspective of living in a urban culture, exercising their rights and affirmative actions.

According to Guru & Sarukkai (2012), the claims of identity are often grounded in specific experience’. Some of the complex and often taboo aspects of urban teaching in city of Guwahati is the notion of colour, creed and religion. The findings and discussions are highlighted below.

5.1  Essence of Poverty

The level of poverty is increasing day by day affecting mostly wage earners, female headed households. awareness that one's own world view is not universal but instead profoundly influenced by life experiences as mediated by a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, gender, and social class. Poverty is attributed to internal deficits or deficiencies of these students and their communities (Valencia 2010).

A person who cannot fulfil basic needs include food, clothing, education, health care facilities. Out of the sixteen respondents, seven have not faced any kind of structural inequality. The definitions of poverty in their opinion are discussed below:

Poverty is a barrier that restricts people doing activities of their own need as well as choice. It’s a mental threat to a person that always warn him/her that he/ she is not meant for living a life of his own choice as human. Hence poverty is a form of human rights violation-AB (G).

Poverty refers to that condition when a section of society finds itself unable to fulfil basic necessity of life-MS (G). It is not having material position or income for person’s needs.

Poverty means poor when a person cannot meet a minimum standard of living (food, clothing, shelter). They get entitled to government scheme like Indira Awas Yojana (Housing), National Rural Livelihood Mission (Capacity Building) -TD(OBC).

The respondents acknowledge that that lack of access can be a human rights violation. Poverty restricts the choices of people forcing the people to work for bare minimum. However, they are entitled to various governmental schemes in India, which is again based on the burden to prove as below poverty line.

5.2  Affirmative Action Protective Discrimination

The Government initiative for Economical Weaker Sections (EWS) under the General category marks a change to help the majority in education and employment.

I am in favour of 10 % bill because I have seen that there are people living below poverty line in general category. I have two friends, one from the reserved category and the other from the open category. While sitting for the entrance for PhD examination, both scored the same marks but only the reserved category got the seat. In this kind of situation, the 10% quota bill can be helpful in jobs educational institutions for economically disadvantaged persons. I support 10% reservation as means also see a poor person in general section where they do not get admission in general section. Students require more percentage than other categories, they have no money to take admission in private college and sometimes they cannot afford money to apply jobs so I support 10 % reservation for general section-TS, ST (P).

This example was from a personal experience whereas the next opinion is right based approach that shows the responded is well aware of the Indian constitutional provisions.

I feel now Article 15 and 16 has become successful. This reservation might help to reduce the gap between rich and poor. This reservation might help the general economically poor people to get job and education- KC (MOBC)

According to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition. Article 16 states making provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of backward class citizens who are not adequately represented in the services under the State, provision for reservation in favour of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes who are not adequately represented in the services under the unfulfilled vacancies. These anti-discriminatory practices and equal opportunities for all provide a common platform for active participatory efforts. Even for General category population of North East India, the 10 % reservation can help in finding quality higher education. This makes it more inclusive as a part of positive discriminatory promoting equity of resources.

5.3  Ethnicity

The North Eastern State of India comprising eight states is home to 220 ethnic communities. Historically due to geographic isolation, communication and lack of opportunities, exploration to ethnic communities were limited. Hence most of these communities are only represented as states of North East region rather than exploring the diverse ethnic origin of the communities. The identities and customs may be similar yet they are not identical. There is a problem of putting all the people of North East as one category (e.g. remote).

I was regarded as poor and weak. The shopkeeper was not willing to give reply because of my looks. As a student I feel everything should be equal irrespective of the economic status of the family-BS (ST)P

The responded belongs to a major ethnic community in Assam who has come to the city to get best education. Still he faced discrimination due to the appearance (e.g. exotic) of not looking pan Indian. This instance is a vivid example of small ways in which one faces discrimination and that is due to faulty policy of less inclusion of the people of north east.

5.4  Caste

In India, structural inequality due to caste and its relation to lower caste is seen through the idea of purity and pollution. There is always the notion that lower caste has to vertically achieve an upper caste status. The specialization (ascribed status) and interdependence (jajmani system, patron-client relationship) creates a hierarchy that is intertwined in the system (Dumont, 1998). Therefore, getting reservation for employment or education is a prestige issue in India. The violence that is seen in educational institutions are mostly caste dominated. The following narrative accounts for it.

I have faced caste inequality. One day I met a senior who belongs to a upper caste and I interacted with him. He told me that if I am a Master Degree Holder. Then I am the same level of Upper caste‘- TD (OBC).The person noticed that his category of being Upper caste (General category) made him remark of showing inferiority to the lower caste through education mechanism.

Hence a superiority approach towards education and caste is found. Till now, being from a higher caste represents privilege position as it is still practiced in day to day practice. Poverty is much related to the ascribed caste position in India.

5.5  Class

There is a gradient of inequality that stretches across class structure (Connell, 1990). The basic definition of poverty is measured in terms of goods and services that is available. The provision of basic means to an end is driving factor for poverty alleviation.

Poverty is regarded as the state of being poor and not being able to afford the basic amenities of life. If reservation is applied in true economic backward class, they can be benefitted from it. Proper implementation will require proper evaluation and verification-MH (OBC).

Poverty is complete lack of basic needs. Higher class neglecting lower class-NR (G)

The upper class always dominate the lower class. If the lower class boy tops the examination. It is gossiped that it due to their quota of reservation. Class also plays dominance for marriage-TS (ST P)

The respondents felt that even if a lower class student is talented and yet do not claim the affirmation status yet he is looked down due to the quota system. Having categorised for affirmative action can also make a discriminatory notion of not acknowledging talents.

5.6  Gender

A gender dimension was brought during the discussion. It is noticed that most transgender community faces poverty due to a dominant binary gender category. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) for social, educational and economic empowerment was passed in 25 November, 2019 (Lalwani, 2019).

Poverty is the lack of being able to avail enough basic necessities and sources like food, clothing, and shelter due to poor financial condition. Transgender community people face the problem of discrimination and having needs such as housing and employment. They are separated from normal community people-MD.ST (P)

Disability has not emerged as a thematic area as respondents were not found in the study. This points out that persons with disability are not represented properly in higher education although there is a separate category of 3% quota to Persons with Disability (PWD). It is not inclusive.

Only seven respondents out of sixteen respondents have not faced any kind of structural inequality. The other nine have observed and responded about their own lives and experience.

6        Discussion

Teaching Poverty in classroom setting is possible when an inclusive technique is utilised to observe the structural understanding of oppression through dialogue and discussions. The dominant knowledge and privilege propagate cultural hegemony for a certain group of people where there is no scope for intellectual capacity to reflect, imagine and represent themselves (Guru & Sarukkai, 2012). The personal realties are different and unique for various students. Through anti-oppressive practice, social workers can understand and respond to the intricacy of oppression.

It is the experience that provides epistemological role in production of thoughts. It is the lack of egalitarian practice in caste/ class leads to the issue of poverty. Reflective practices have to do with freedom of opportunities’ not being tagged along the categories due to ceaseless struggle for survival (Guru and Sarukkai, 2012).

Social Workers as educators in teaching poverty should be able to analyse the power dynamics and hierarchy with newly identified social categories of third gender and disability through participatory involvement and case studies with students. The views to include oppressed groups are difficult due to lack of representation. Assam has also drafted policy for Transgender in early 2019 looking into access to educational institutions, sanitation, shelters or homeless. This initiative has been taken by the Department of Social Welfare, Government of Assam. It has not yet led into any concrete practice.

7        Summary and Conclusion

The structural inequality of poverty is deeply engrained in all people. In India, it is difficult to objectify and portray poverty out of other element of caste, class and gender. The meaning of poverty is no longer associated with the general notion of food, clothing and shelter. It has expanded to more human rights issues like access to water supply, sanitation and gainful employment through social welfare measures. The 10% reservation for the EWS is a welcome change but most of the students are not aware of its measures. The unique structural experience of the respondents creates new culture being sensitive to the needs of others. The society can be poverty free when all human beings can enjoy fulfilling lives where economic, social and technological development is in harmony.

Global events and immigration patterns have dramatically changed the cultural and political landscape of classroom in developed countries like India.  It is important to understand and challenge the larger education system in order to help sustain a habitable and supportive ecosystem for diverse students. Critical thinking in education can help overcome structural problem (Gallagher, 2016). The students coming from various background develop and utilize spaces of marginality within educational institutions and produce their rich experience to conscientize on the issue of poverty. Since classroom setting and field outside have diverse population, reflective practice can be initiated through the concept of home educators and a positive attitude in looking to their needs. The process in which the students seek admission in India is categorised by ST (P) and ST(H), SC, OBC, General. The need in the classroom will be different for each of the category. A new category of Others (transgender) have emerged who also face poverty and other sort of discriminatory practice. If the teachers are not empathetic to the situation or background of the students; then it will be a biased outlook for the teachers as they come with their own socio-cultural baggage and background. Practice of Group discussion, case work on the intersectional elements can remove the narrow- mindedness in the classroom. The Social Work Educators need to imagine and examine as educators and citizens; as complex, cultural, and historical beings; as human actors born into a web of meanings and values creating values (Sato & Lensmire, 2009). The students and practioners need to learn how to respond in circumstances outside the classroom setting by developing awareness to observe socioeconomic differences among the students; developing empathetic rapport and sensitive attitudes and commitment to culturally responsive teachings (multi-cultural) in our country. Screening of Indian films like Stanley Ka Dabba (2011), Manjhi (2015), Nil Battey Sannata (2015), Traffic Signal (2007) and furthering it to discussion can reveal individual viewpoints to poverty in the classroom. Developing a psycho-social consciousness and life experiences teaching of subjective account can help in the classroom setting. A culturally relevant pedagogy can also benefit the educational system. Working on the capacities of the students and practioners through home-school partnership and building strength can help them to overcome structural inequalities and oppressive practices and make teaching poverty through the lens of anti- oppression possible.


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Author´s Address:
Deepshikha Carpenter,
Department of Social Work, Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva Viswavidyalaya
House No 23, Kundil Nagar, Basistha
Guwahati-781029, Assam, India
+ 7637887130