Who needs human rights when you can have maths?

In a country known for its extreme poverty and for the problems that arise from it, it seems logical to assume Indians would be keen to educate themselves to eradicate these problems from their society. Strangely, this does not seem to be the case.

Studies conducted by the Indian Council of Social Science Research and Think Tank Initiative show that India’s share of global social science research is less than 2 per cent. As well, the 2016 All India Survey on Higher Education found that only 2.3 per cent of students are opting for postgraduate degrees in social science.

So why does it matter?

India clearly has a pressing need for more attention in this area of education with their low rank of 130 in the UN’s human development index, more than 8.1 million children living in slums, 29 per cent of girls in urban areas being the victims of child marriages and a long list of other concerns.

The biggest areas within social science education that would be most beneficial to the Indian community include social work across all areas, management and labour studies, health system studies, education studies, law rights and constitutional governance and disaster studies.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences professor Dr Ruchi Sinha defines social science to include “everything that impacts a human being, which the human being is living and which the human being is experiencing.” She says it has no status in India and is seen as the last option to study.

Instead Dr Sinha says engineering and medicine are the first priority when it comes to university level education.

“Social science is for the children who cannot do medicine and engineering,” she says.  “Social science is not an option and children are being forced to take science and commerce.”

Dr Sinha says she and her colleagues grew up being the social rejects of society because they had no aptitude to study science or mathematics.

“The fact that we did brilliantly [and] found options for ourselves in society is still not seen as a good option.” she says. “So colleagues with kids are forcing their kids to get into science and commerce.”

Dr Sinha says even her own children are receiving outside pressure.

“My child is in the tenth grade and everyone is psyching him ‘do well, if you don’t do well in maths this will happen and that will happen’ like his career has ended. I am the only one saying ‘enjoy life, you will do something with your life.’”

She says students who have gone against their family’s wishes and elected to study social science often run into family conflict.

“Parents keep telling them they have left a lucrative job option and they will struggle,” she says.

Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Photo: Rebecca Stacy.

Dr Sinha says people in Indian society do not see the need for social sciences to be studied.

“[People] didn’t understand what I was studying when I was a student and what I’m teaching while I’m teaching,” she says. “Every time I try and tell them that, you know, I teach social work so that you can get some good results out of your work… they just don’t understand.”

As a result of this Dr Sinha says the pay gap between careers in social science and the engineering and commerce sector is huge. She describes feeling “heartbroken” at the contrast.

“When I see my students getting jobs, if it’s a multidisciplinary team, an engineer, a doctor or a management person will always have a higher salary or package than the social science or social worker,” she says.

Dr Sinha says workers in the social science field do not get enough recognition.

“If you go for a higher [government] committee meeting everybody is talking nonsense because they don’t really know what the problem is,” she says. “And then when you speak they look at you as if ‘my god you’re the most intelligent person’ because you’ve given them the most feasible option. Most of the options that the government is funding right now have been [recommended] by a social worker in the field, but there is no recognition of social work.”

Dr Sinha says social sciences need to be given a higher importance in tertiary education.

“In government exams that we give to become a bureaucrat, social work is not even a subject,” she says. “So that’s the fight we’re fighting now.”

An Indian student studying for his social sciences degree at TATA. Photo: Rebecca Stacy.

Anti-sex trafficking NGO, Prerana is one of the organisations highlighting the importance of social science education in Indian society. Founded in 1986 the organisation works to end second generation prostitution and protect women and children in Mumbai from threats of human trafficking.

Flarantxa Pereira is a project manager for Prerana’s Anti Trafficking Centre. The centre’s focus is on research, policy making, documentation and advocacy surrounding sex trafficking in India. Ms Pereira says there needs to be more awareness and education on issues in the social science sector.

“I think the more privileged part of society needs to see that it exists and not ignore what is basically under their noses.”

She says she came to work at Prerana because she had grown up very privileged and wanted to give back to those who did not have the same opportunities that she had.

“I feel like this field requires individuals who are passionate about what they do and want to make a difference…not just for the recognition. It’s a place where I feel like I’ve grown immensely as an individual in both my knowledge of the sector and the way I approach things now,” she says.

Ms Pereira says choosing to study social sciences in India means choosing a lower standard of living.

“Doing social sciences, in a sense, you go in knowing that you’re probably never going to earn as much as a corporate person,“ she says. “A lot of the times that’s not ok because within Indian context your worth is derived from the amount of money you make.”

Ms Pereira says she has a hard time being taken seriously for the job she does.

“There’s this assumption that working at an NGO means you’re volunteering, so you probably aren’t getting paid,” she says. “So people come up to you and be like ‘oh you work at an NGO…ok…do you do it for free?’”

Ms Pereira says it can be frustrating at times.

“People don’t understand that, you know, you can get paid while working for an NGO and that it is not a menial job. It’s not something you do for goodwill or to get recognition, in that sense, it is very much a job,” she says.

Handprints of child sex trafficking survivors at Prerana. Photo: Rebecca Stacy.

Madhuri Shimde is a social worker for Prerana’s Naunihal Girls’ Shelter. Established in 2010 the shelter provides twenty-four hour care for child victims of sex trafficking and abuse. It also runs educational programs, medical checkups, recreational activities and meetings with the children’s mothers or guardians. Ms Shimde says people do not value the type of value education that social science offers.

“There is higher importance on maths, science and engineering, as when you gain admission you will gain a five or six digit salary and that has become more important,” she says. “But no one bothers about values … we are creating machines to earn money, nothing else.”

Ms Shimde says this is causing people to become dehumanized.

“We are not creating human beings … we are just creating a competitive world. On the ground level we are contributing nothing, zero. We are just teaching our generation about materialistic life.”

Ms Shimde says people are forgetting their social responsibility.

“Socially you are responsible for something. Society has contributed for you and people do not understand this. If I have ten pairs of shoes, do I really need them when there are people who do not have a single pair?” she asks. “If these feelings are not there then what is the use of their education and salary?”

Naunihal Girls’ Shelter courtyard decorated by the residents. Photo: Rebecca Stacy.

Ms Shimde originally worked in the stock market division before becoming a social worker.

“I changed my field because I was not getting the job satisfaction that I wanted,” she says. “Then I did my masters in social work and I moved here.”

She says maths and science degrees may help people gain good employment, but they do not enrich their lives.

“What kind of education is this? That’s not making you empowered?” she asks. “Not to say no to anyone, not to stand up to anyone? I am an Arts graduate, but when it comes to my rights or any difficulty I do not keep myself behind.”

Dilip Samad is a second year TISS University student studying his masters in social entrepreneurship. Last year he made the decision to change from a chemistry degree to a social science degree. He says he changed degrees after seeing first hand how much people need his help.

“I was part of a National Service Scheme in which we had to go to rural areas and do social work like helping people and connecting them with government schemes,” he says.

“I saw how they are struggling, how they are uneducated and how they are not able to write their name properly.”

Mr Samad says he was saddened by what he saw.

“These are the things which motivated me to change because in chemistry I can help the society in a different way, but not directly,” he says. “So in social science I can go directly to them and help them in my way.”

Dilip Samad at TISS University. Photo: Rebecca Stacy.

Mr Samad said he faced a heavy backlash from his family after deciding to swap to social entrepreneurship.

“So in Indian society it’s like a [saying] that if you are scoring good you will go to science … but if you are scoring below fifty percent then you have to go for social sciences,” he says. “I have fought with my family [over my decision] and with my elder sister also, they tried to get me to take science rather than social science.”

Mr Samad says it was especially hard for him to break the news to his family after he was accepted into the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati.

“I was qualified for IIT and TISS also, both simultaneously,” he says. “I told them that I’m more interested in TISS and that I’m going for social sciences rather than chemistry.”

Mr Samad says his family did not take the news well.

“Their reaction was like ‘what happened to you?’” he says. “They asked me ‘are you stupid?’”

Mr Samad says despite the family conflict it has caused he knows he made the right decision.

“Many people who are in poverty can’t even get jobs and many are travelling to the cities to get employment. I’m very happy because I think from TISS and social sciences I can engage more with society and I can work with the people that are suffering,” he says.

The 2019 India study tour was funded by the Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan.