Social Map of the Study Village. Drawing: Shilpa Bhakare

Friendships in the Field

Understory · Shilpa Bhakare - Friendships in the Field

All researchers know that their work depends on being accepted by the community. Was I to be a ‘recorder of data’ or should I prioritize a larger cause?

My first contact in the field was an old anganwadi[1] worker, a frail woman, who knew all the people in the village. It was a small village in one of the most remote but industrially developed districts of Gujarat in western India. Her job was to attend to the needs of pre-primary school children and ensure that they ate hot, nutritious meals.

The small anganwadi centre accommodated 30 children, between 3 and 6 years old. She focussed on teaching and her assistant cooked and served meals. However, I noticed that there was no strict division of labour and both would manage the work somehow.

The village’s migrant population exceeded the local population manyfold, yet only a few children from migrant families attended the centre. In contrast, all local Darbar[2] families sent their children to the anganwadi regularly. She seemed to have a great rapport with all of them and helped me interview the elected village chairperson (Sarpanch) and deputy chairperson, who belonged to this dominant Darbar community. She also introduced me to many key informants and was generous with her time during these meetings. Had she not taken an interest in my research it would have been impossible to meet some of my interviewees.

On some days after our meetings, we would go on long walks in the village. Then we would break for a snack and chai. Over time, we became friends. One lazy afternoon at her house, we began to talk about our personal lives. I was aware that her husband was a construction contractor and assumed that the family income must be good as their house was one of the largest in the area and equipped with modern facilities. There was constant construction work going on in the village as renting out rooms to workers was a lucrative business. She confided that he had no business sense and was always in debt. He always had work but rarely made any money. She insisted that she had built the house and had gotten her children married.

She was dusting a table in her drawing room and I was arranging my field notes. As I listened, I imagined her life with a struggling husband and two children who needed attention. She told me in a simple, matter-of-fact tone that she siphoned food rations from the anganwadi to sell in the market or for use at home. This had been her practice from the beginning and it was a major source of income to the family.

While listening to her, I began to feel strange. I remember telling myself not to react. Now I noticed gunny bags in the corner and wondered if that too was ICDS supply. Should I report this corrupt activity? I knew her well and continued to trust my friend with my research. This ‘Dharmasankat’[3] weighed heavily on me. I did not want to justify her actions but I thought fleetingly of how hard it must have been when salaries of anganwadi workers were very low. I wondered if it might have become the habit later since the family lived comfortably now. In any case, the offence was indefensible as the ration was meant for poor children and pregnant mothers.

I told myself that I was privy to this information because I had gained her trust. All researchers know that their work depends on being accepted by the community. Was I to be a ‘recorder of data’ or should I prioritize a larger cause? As if this dilemma of reporting a punishable offense was not enough, I came across a second such incident regarding another anganwadi worker in the same village.

As a professional in the public health sector, I have enormous respect for frontline workers who slog in difficult conditions at low salaries. There is little investment in capacity building and their work is often taken for granted. They seem to be at the receiving end for some issue or the other while following instructions from ‘above’. Having met exceptional and dedicated frontline workers, I was shaken at this second instance of discrimination against Dalit children by another anganwadi worker in the same village. I saw how ‘power’ is exercised by individuals at the lowest rank of government hierarchical system.

Speaking with Dalit women in Harijanvas[4], I was told that the anganwadi worker avoided enrolling Dalit children citing their food habits and ‘unclean’ clothes. Most Dalit women avoided sending their children to that centre. Enrolled Dalit children were blatantly discriminated against like being made to sit apart from other children. The women were demanding a new centre closer to their locality. From experience I knew it was unlikely that their demand would be fulfilled.

We have read that caste discrimination in anganwadis leads to higher dropout rates among children, but it hurts to witness kids being thrown out of the system first hand. I suggested that they complain about the worker but they did not seem interested.

For my part, I decided not to meet the anganwadi worker of that centre. After I wrapped up fieldwork, I called the supervisor to ask if she was aware of discriminatory practices at that particular centre. The supervisor promised me in non-committal tone that she would look into the matter. After the call, I was not sure if I had done the right thing. I was, after all, privy to this information because of my field relationships. Yet, it would have been grossly unethical to ignore such incidents. Then I wondered, what was the likelihood that a mere call would lead to any change?

However, I never complained about my informant friend about her corrupt practices.”

March 23rd, 2021

[1]Anganwadi is a type of rural child-care centre in India. They were started by the Indian government in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).

[2] A Rajput sub-caste.

[3]A moral predicament

[4]A separate residential colony for Dalit castes

Shilpa has been working with the government for the past 10 years in different positions to implement health programmes of the National Health Mission. She also teaches courses related to social and behavioural sciences in health,  qualitative research methods to postgraduate students at the Indian Institute of Public Health-Gandhinagar, India.

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