March 13, 2018

The social sector in India has a diversity problem

The social sector needs to have more representation from the communities it seeks to serve.

5 min read

A common thread across the spectrum of India’s social sector organisations and the development professionals I have interacted with is a passion for social equality, a sense of purpose, and academic and professional skills required to advocate, innovate and contribute to improving lives of the marginalised in our society.

Also common is the glaring absence of voices from those very marginalised communities and historically underprivileged groups at funders summits, civil society forums, CSR conclaves, foundation boardrooms, and strategy sessions.

Not enough representation, not enough conversation

Rarely have I come across individuals who might not only have the passion, purpose and preparation but also the lived experiences to meaningfully contribute towards decisions intended to improve health/nutrition/education/livelihood outcomes in their own communities; individuals for whom improving quality of life of the vulnerable is not only a passion but also personal.


Though the PowerPoint presentations, annual reports, and conference talking points repeatedly use the terms –‘marginalised’, ‘underprivileged’, ‘backward’ – most within the social sector and anyone who looks into the numbers will immediately identify who make up the majority of the population groups that India’s social sector interacts with.

So, it is particularly disappointing that though the sector is interacting with Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi (DBA) communities all the time, yet professionals from those communities don’t find adequate representation in the sector and its decision making.

Not only is there a lack of representation but also a lack of conversation about it. And any attempts to fix it will have to start by examining how the pipeline for candidates entering the sector inadvertently excludes individuals from social groups who form the majority of its constituents.

In this context, one cannot ignore the student protests at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) campuses. TISS is the oldest institute in India for interdisciplinary post graduate studies in development sciences. It is a well recognised name in the development sector with a rich history of producing domain experts, thought leaders, and policy wonks for the social sector.

TISS diversity

Credit: Facebook/TISS for everyone

The money matters

The ongoing students’ protests come in the wake of a fee hike at TISS along with withdrawal of a fee waiver for Government of India–Post Matric Scholarship (GoI-PMS) awardees. This is a scholarship offered to SC, ST, and Non-Creamy layer-OBC (NC–OBC) students from families with an annual household income of under INR 2.5 lakhs.

It is undeniable that scholarships like GoI-PMS create opportunities for DBA students to enter a world class institute like TISS. The average first year tuition fees and deposits for an MA programme at TISS is approximately INR 35,000. Hostel and dining fees at TISS are an additional INR 30,000.

Withdrawing the scholarship for SC, ST, NC-OBC students would mean that qualified individuals from these communities, after all their struggles to get an admission into TISS, will now need to cough up ~25% (even more in many cases) of their family’s income (INR 2.5 lakhs or less) for a whole year, to secure their admission.

While such systemic exclusionary policies abound at various stages of academic and professional training, it’s no surprise that India’s social sector has a severe under representation of the communities it intends to serve.

When we talk about the exclusionary policies being forced on some communities, in good conscience we cannot overlook the deep-rooted structures that have carefully defined ‘merit’ and acted as gatekeepers to coveted positions and cutting edge research in India’s social sector.

crayons diversity

CC by 2.0

The system is skewed towards privilege

It doesn’t take too long to realise that India’s social sector is relatively small and seemingly closed off. The young professionals you meet in the social sector, more often than not, happen to be either the alma mater of postgraduate development studies/sciences programmes at the same one dozen foreign universities, or have gone through one of the half dozen India focused development sector fellowships, and/or have overlapped in the Bihar/Jharkhand/Chhattisgarh ‘dev scene’.

In contrast to the tuition fees at Indian institutes like TISS, one year tuition fees to pursue postgraduate (MA/MSc/MPhil/Phd) interdisciplinary development studies programmes at coveted universities in UK will set back students by around GBP 20,000., while in the US, programmes like MEd., MSWMPP, MPA, MPH from top universities cost around USD 40,000 per annum.

So, on one end of the aspirant pool, we have students who are reconsidering their admission to a development studies programme because of the fee increases and withdrawal of scholarships, and on the other end we have students entering social sector from top-notch programmes, which are out of reach for most Indians.

According to an RTI, the enrolment of OBC students at TISS has fallen from 27% in 2013 to 18% in 2016, after financial aid designated for OBC students was withdrawn in 2015. A similar fall in enrolment numbers is expected from social groups who will be affected by the current round of fee hikes and scholarship funding cuts.

When I asked a friend why we rarely met other DBA professionals from the social sector, their response was that I needed to look at the right places. I looked hard only to keep running into a Sen-Subramanian-Singh and their peers. For that matter, I ran into more white people doing research in places where they could barely speak the local language, than DBA social sector professionals.

The development sector is not a monolith. Apart from international and Indian nonprofits, funding agencies, think-tanks, development consulting firms at the top of the pecking order, there are grassroots organisations doing much needed work in nondescript places. And then there are a range of organisations in between doing impactful work.

So, saying that only privileged graduates from foreign universities are being hired by the entire social sector will be an overt generalisation; at the same time however, ignoring the lack of representation at every level of the social sector is willful blindness.

Having interacted with many wonderful individuals with exemplar academic qualifications, who are making tangible contributions to the sector, I will not for a second doubt those individuals’ passion for the work they are carrying out. However, I am cognisant that their passion is actualised from a place of privilege.

Related article: 10 ways to address lack of caste diversity in your organisation

Our sector needs to step up

Coming back to the current issue at TISS, there are various reasons for it; irrespective of these reasons however, the social sector should be worried about the long term effects that withdrawing scholarships to SC, ST, OBC students will have on the composition of the sector’s future professionals.

This is a moment for social sector leaders and public intellectuals to stand in solidarity with the students fighting the #inJusTISS being faced by SC, ST, OBC students at TISS and other academic spaces.

This is also a moment for the social sector to rethink diversity and representation in hiring, decision making, and thought leadership.

Though lack of representation is not unique to the social sector, when upliftment of marginalised communities is your stated motto then your inaction to achieve representation in your offices is not acceptable. India’s development sector should start practicing what it preaches.


A version of this article was originally published on The Wire

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Benson Neethipudi-Image
Benson Neethipudi

Benson is a project manager with experiences in management consulting, product development and India’s development sector. In his most recent role, he was leading Central Square Foundation's engagement with Delhi goverment to introduce General Employability Skills curriculum in government schools. His formal introduction to the development sector was through the AIF William J. Clinton Fellowship for service in India. He is a Dalit, and a keen observer of the intersection of caste, privilege and their interplay in everyday experiences.