AVINASH SHIRKE

India,

Avinash Shirke is leading an assault on urban biases and anachronistic methods in Indian social work education. In order to make development studies relevant to the country's rural and tribal youth, he has founded a model rural college in Maharashtra State where pedagogical methods are attuned to the context, resources, and technologies of rural communities.

This profile below was prepared when Avinash Shirke was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.

INTRODUCTION

Avinash Shirke is leading an assault on urban biases and anachronistic methods in Indian social work education. In order to make development studies relevant to the country's rural and tribal youth, he has founded a model rural college in Maharashtra State where pedagogical methods are attuned to the context, resources, and technologies of rural communities.




THE NEW IDEA

Avinash Shirke has established a college, Savitri Jorirao Samajkarya Mahavidyalaya (SJSM), based in part on the idea that hands-on field experience in rural social work is an effective way both to train students and to provide labor and resources for innovative reformers in the region. The college prepares students to mobilize local resources and build grass-roots participation rather than relying on outside resources. His curriculum prepares young social workers for the difficulties of field work, and revises the antiquated, bureaucratic conceptions of social work that prevail in most colleges throughout the country.

Avinash's college functions as a base from which he can spread his new educational program throughout the state of Maharashtra. Avinash has organized training sessions for instructors at other social work colleges throughout the state, and has successfully recruited the support of other prestigious social work institutes. Ultimately, Avinash aims to train a new generation of reformers, and to stall the migration of trained social workers from villages to city or town-based organizations. These workers often come from remote areas where no developmental infrastructure exists – areas that truly need their skill and experiences – and move to the cities because their education gives them no training in hands-on, rural development.

In a five-year time span, Avinash plans to create a network of state-wide and then national allies who will give input, refine the model, and then disseminate it in their regions. Avinash will involve the entire network in an ongoing, introspective debate on the relevance of social work education and its directions for the future.




THE PROBLEM

Thirty eight of the state of Maharashtra's forty social work institutes are based in rural areas. They suffer from severe constraints in the areas of funding, faculty commitment, and professional administrative management. Most were set up in the early 1990s, when private, local trusts saw social work colleges as sound business propositions. Since then, very high tuition fees coupled with abysmal standards of social work education have done nothing but increase the economic frustrations of rural youth, and accelerate unemployment and migration from the region. At any given point in time, there are over 3,500 students studying in these colleges, of which 1,000 graduate every year.

Historically, Indian social work education has been unresponsive to practical field realities and rural Indian contexts. Since 1963, social work education has completely ignored some of the most affirmative and pattern-setting movements in the history of Indian development, such as the thrift and credit movement, biodiversity management, and rural entrepreneurship. Social work colleges in India have made no headway in designing curricula that draw on local resources and practices. Most universities imitate the syllabi and teaching methodologies of a few renowned city-based universities and, as a result, colleges based in rural areas teach theoretical constructs in terms alien to students. They do not offer conceptual or practical skills of specific use to students's careers, nor do they train students in current grass-roots perspectives to help them get started as independent rural activists. The University Grant Commission has set up three review committees of social work education, and although awareness of the problem is growing, concrete models to direct reform have yet to emerge.

These social work colleges, however, continue to admit students in droves, and continue to channel a significant portion of youthful, reformist energy into irrelevant, anachronistic, and bureaucratic studies. Those colleges that have escaped this pattern tend to focus strictly on urban problems. The whole country – but especially India's rural, underdeveloped regions – suffers from such misuse and discouragement of politically active youth.




THE STRATEGY

Avinash's new pedagogical system, as implemented at his college, revolves around four principal reforms of existing practices. First, the college doubles as an umbrella nonprofit where students serve as resources for the district even as they work towards their degrees. For Avinash, building active linkages between local social movements and students is crucial to students' success as social activists. He is therefore building coalitions with key players in the district – such as social innovators, citizen sector organizations, government officials – to place the college at the center of the region's development map and to allow students to establish connections with real institutions. Second, rural activists train students to design new solutions to community problems. In the absence of a comprehensive course on social innovation, students learn from innovative practitioners during their field work training or summer camps. In return, students provide the energy and skills to carry ahead the new ideas of organizations or individuals who otherwise might not have adequate labor to operate at full potential.Third, Avinash's school trains students to be sensitive to rural patterns of life and local resources so that they can build community-driven, self-sustaining, citizen-based programs that are not dependent on resources organized from outside sources.

Finally, while students at other social work colleges train at urban nonprofits, SJSM students and staff initiate programs in remote areas where effective citizen sector organizations and the ethos of development do not already exist. Students harness local resources and design development strategies for isolated regions.

For example, in 1993-94, the college's first group of students spearheaded a community watershed program designed by a local retired technocrat. Water scarcity is one of the area's most pressing problems. During summer camps, students successfully launched the model in villages of the district, mastered engineering designs, raised resources and tools locally, and trained existing nonprofits and resident villagers. The model has been replicated in 25 villages and over 1,500 hectares of land have been mapped into watershed structures. The results have been astonishing: the average cultivable yield of cotton has increased dramatically, and income levels of villages have tripled.

The faculty of SJSM consists of 6 full-time and around 30 visiting staff, most of whom are nonprofit leaders, independent reformers, and government officials who have mapped new trends in the development of local areas, especially in the field of bio-diversity management. It is important to Avinash that staff, especially full-time faculty members, are from rural areas and have been associated with rural movements, so that they bring rural experiences and approaches to the curriculum.

Every partnership that the college forges in the district draws financial or in-kind returns against the services that staff and students provide to the developmental agenda of the region. At its inception, Avinash's college received a grant of Rs. 80,000 (US $2,000) from a foundation that supports the establishment of colleges in rural areas. Since then, it has raised Rs. 5,000,000 (US $125,000) independently through the consultancies and research that students and staff provide to local governments and nonprofits. Thus, as students engage in meaningful field activity, they also draw in financial resources for the colleges. In the long run, Avinash hopes to raise at least 50 percent of his total budget through local support bases.Avinash's efforts to expand his influence beyond SJSM form the second dimension of his project. In 1997, he organized a three-day workshop for ten social work colleges from Maharashtra. Over 40 senior faculty members and 100 students gathered to discuss their needs and practical strategies for making social work education rural-specific in the 21st century. At the workshop, a subcommittee began work toward curricular changes in the ten participating schools by advocating the following reforms: the introduction of a skill lab component in the syllabus to develop students's social communication skills; the modernization of the compulsory English curriculum and reading materials (students from rural backgrounds have to wrestle with Victorian literature and often fail exams or drop out); and the requirement that students take at least two short-term courses on local customs and technology.

Avinash is aware that the successful dissemination of his model relies heavily on its impact on students. Students and staff have already embarked on a four-year exhaustive analysis of the impact of the college's approach to social work education. Simultaneously, Avinash is gathering a network of senior faculty members, social work college principals, and members of the Board of Studies of Universities in the district to refine the SJSM model at the level of individual institutions and implement SJSM strategies in their classrooms. Avinash hopes that this network will evolve the first network of rural social work colleges in the country. Ten educators from Pune University, Nagar University, Nagpur University, and Amravati University are already active members. Avinash hopes to increase the membership of this forum to 60 over the next 5 years.

Avinash has set a ten-year time frame to achieve his goals for the model. Ultimately, he aims to hand the model over to national university policy-making bodies such as the University Grants Commission.




THE PERSON

Avinash Shirke was born in 1966 in the Nagpur district of Maharashtra state. Always an exceptional student, he pursued a post-graduate course in social work at the prestigious Karve Institute in Pune. Avinash's village childhood made him acutely aware that coursework and teaching methodology at his institute were unresponsive to the rural context. He disliked the fact that his training were preparing him only for work in the structured environments of citizen sector organizations and development institutes.

Soon after graduation, Avinash joined Dr. Sudha Kothari's network of thrift societies for rural women in Pune. In 1991, the Gandhi Peace Centre awarded him the senior volunteer fellowship for working directly with tribal and farming communities in villages in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra. His combined interest in teaching and activist interventions led him to analyze why the two processes operated at cross-purposes, neither acknowledging the other. He believes that social work education should combine technical training with social skills. SJSM evolved from his analysis and from conversations with academics and activists alike.