An anthropologist among front-line workers: Part 2

(This post is a continuation of an argument I had made in the last one. Read it here).

Sanjay, Jagdish, Pankaj* and I were eating lunch at the NGO’s community centre. It was a Sunday, and we had just finished a session on gender and sexuality with young boys from the community.

As we finished lunch – a combination of chicken curry and rice, and some sheera# for desert – Sanjay said, introspectively, “Hum field staff, ground level pe kaam karne wale log, kadi patte jaisa hain.” We field staff, those who work on the ground level, are like curry leaves.

Jagdish, Pankaj and I looked at each other. Sanjay asked us if we understood the metaphor. I shook my head, no.

Pankaj said that perhaps it is because we add “flavour” to the NGO’s work in the basti. Jagdish offered his interpretation next: because they (front-line staff), like the curry leaves in the food, are chewed up and thrown out once the taste or flavour is gone.

Sanjay smiled and nodded. “Yes, what I meant was a combination of the two!”

I was intrigued by the metaphor: field staff are like curry leaves.

Curry leaves. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I asked Sanjay if I could use it in my writings. He seemed a bit concerned, but I assured that I would be changing their names, and that the metaphor could actually capture the everyday working condition of field staff. Perhaps, he realised the potential of the colourful (and flavourful) metaphor – a shorthand, really – that described their position succinctly and poetically.


In my previous post, I spoke of my experiences among the NGO’s researchers and organisational staff, and the kind of the knowledge that is produced in these spaces, and contrasted that with the insights that the front-line workers generate from their everyday interactions with people in the communities.

The former, ostensibly, are more formalised and ‘clean’ of the messiness and contradictions encountered during field interventions and advocacy. The latter, on the other hand, are messy, contingent, and underscore how front-line work (and epistemology) is essentially about negotiating the structures of the NGO (e.g., protocols) and expectations of the communities they work in/with.

These two forms of knowledge – or epistemologies – are, I argued, spatialized and hierarchized, thus representative of the general model of social work and advocacy practiced in NGO spaces. This is not to say that there is a lack of interaction (or respect) between the two; there undoubtedly is.

But the multi-sited epistemology I am referring to is mainly a heuristic device or concept that shows how the ‘field’ and epistemology in front-line ethnography (or any other ethnography, for that matter) is fragmented and spatialized.

This post, then, is concerned with the other dimension of multi-sited epistemology: that of the front-line space as experienced by my front-line colleagues in Dharavi. It is also a critical examination of the functioning of NGOs, which are at once an important part of neoliberal landscape in contemporary India (in how they are aligned with globalisation and markets), but are also important elements in establishing the governmentality of the Indian state and bureaucracies (being service providers of the legal system).


As we talked further, my colleagues were quite critical of the workings of the NGO, and of other social organisations in general.

Sanjay explained how he started working with an NGO that works towards preventing child labour in the late 1990s, where his job involved conducting surveys across the length and breadth of Mumbai. He and his team also organised raids in workshops that employed child labour – where children were often abused physically and sexually.

He recounted one incident in Dharavi itself, at a workshop near Mahim, where he was shot at right before organising a raid. As he speaks he remembers both, the fear and the excitement of that particular day.

“Thank god it was in the afternoon, so no one got hurt,” he said, smiling.

Sanjay’s work was important in shaping his decisions since then. But he also is critical of that choice – if not regretful. If he hadn’t worked with that particular organisation back then, he “wouldn’t be in the social sector now.”

“NGOs work with people who are needy (majboor),” he explains. And he’s not only referring to the ‘clients’ of these NGOs – the consumers of their services. “They can always find (field) staff at cheaper wages…And yet, many seniors say kuch bhi kaam nahin dikhai deta hain (we cannot see any work).”

“Hierarchy is everywhere,” adds Pankaj.

He, too, got involved with the current NGO when they were working on a participatory community planning project. And now, after 7 years, is heading a new team in the slum communities in eastern Mumbai.

In a recent case, he and his team went inside the basti during a dispute. The local police team that they normally liaison with, however, warned them to not go in there (something about a threat to their life). But as a community organisation they couldn’t just sit there, says Pankaj. The intervention was successful, despite the police following them inside.

There are several cases of police inaction or violence that one encounters when working in such front-line spaces. The narratives of corruption and abuse of power are all too common, but that’s not why I highlight them.

The experiences of front-line workers like Sanjay and Pankaj indicates how their everyday work is a negotiation of structures, and that it is through their experiences that they develop an embodied means of such negotiations.

And this is also true of the women front-line workers and volunteers, and perhaps more complex and challenging.

The women in the team also have responsibilities of their households, raising children, and engaging in the emotional labour of front-line work. In many ways, the nature of the work itself is gendered – their male colleagues, too, contribute in the house, help with the children, and so forth (otherwise seen as feminised tasks). While I lack sufficient insight into their reflections of the gendered nature of such work (an item on my agenda for a group discussion with the team), these experiences – contrasted with their criticisms of the NGO and social work – highlights the workings of what Victoria Bernal and Inderpal Grewal describe as the ‘NGO form.’

In Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms and Neoliberalism, Bernal and Grewal argue that although feminist NGOs have been criticised for co-opting the women’s movements and radical feminist agendas in the 1980s, they nonetheless do create new political struggles and gendered subjectivities. And one of the fundamental contradictions that most NGOs engage with is the depoliticising effect of neoliberalism (where they are seen merely as service providers – either instead, or of, the state), on the one hand; and on the other, they are also critical of these very same processes – especially of the state, which are important benefactors of many NGOs and organisations.


As Sanjay and Pankaj’s experiences show, negotiating such tensions and being critical of the structures and systems, is a part of the everyday struggles of front-line work, and also one that shapes their subjective positions.

In fact, many of my colleagues see the NGO as an important mediator or influence in their own lives, and that they would even continue their work – which they clearly identify as ‘social work’ – when there aren’t any NGOs or sansthas in their communities (which is also one of the NGOs goals of ‘empowering’ communities – recall my experience of the Federation).

Whether or not that is a feasible or possible outcome, is a thought for a later time. At this moment, however, NGOs, front-line workers and the community in Dharavi represent a complex political and social terrain, with overlapping and fragmented sovereignties (as Liza Weinstein explains, albeit in a slightly different context). And the hierarchies and disjunctures between them do exist.

So far, most of my blog posts somehow tend to expand the concept of ‘front-line’: from describing the blurred boundaries between public and private violence, and the embodied dimension of emotional work, to how ethnography itself mediates the fragmented and spatialized nature of the field.

In that vein, it would make sense to also imagine the front-line as a space where the neoliberalism and state structures also come to be negotiated (more than just transnational ideas of gender and violence, as I thought initially).

These negotiations are embodied in the subjective experiences and identities of my front-line worker colleagues.

For many people in the communities, the sanstha (organisation) is not a building; it is the people/front-line workers who work there. It is them who develop, maintain and negotiate relationships with the people after all.

As Pankaj explained, “The sanstha building doesn’t walk and come here!” But he and his colleagues do.


Before I continue, it may perhaps appear that I am unduly critical of one side (NGOs, organisations) and sympathetic to the other (front-line workers). I admit, I am working with certain biases, and that these need to be reflected on as well.

For one, several of my colleagues in the NGOs research and organisational spaces are also critical of their workings: my project coordinator from last year’s study mentioned quite clearly that NGOs are unabashedly ‘privatized’ domains; and in a conversation with this programme’s director, she described how one can be “disillusioned” by NGO work.

The criticisms exist on both sides, and any singular focus on either of these sides – as my previous posts may have led one to assume – can obscure the complexities.

But the previous post was more concerned with the discourse of social work and (qualitative) research, where political/power concerns are often considered “corridor talk” rather than as objects of theorization (which is nevertheless important, as any good ethnography would argue). It was concerned more with how the knowledge produced in these spaces tends to simplify the complexities and contradictions of the ‘field.’ (A separate focus on the actors in this space and their politics might yield a different conclusion about their negotiations; we are all engaged in ‘impression management of sorts, after all. Even the fetishism of protocols could be a construed as a result of neoliberalism’s increased pressures).

In front-line work, however, engaging and negotiating with these messy politics is an inescapable part of the everyday work. They have to engage with both, work in the depoliticised framework of NGOs (i.e., negotiating/constructing a non-partisan stance), and also deal with the politics spewed by neoliberalism and states (i.e., political parties, politics of ‘re/development’).

In a previous post, where I described a case-sharing meeting between the women front-line volunteers and the NGO’s coordinator, I also missed out one crucial detail. Some of the women present in the meeting wanted help in negotiating with political parties in the area, and one of them, with unions in her workspace. Another coordinator who was present said he sympathised with their concerns, but reminded that this sanstha works only (or mainly) on the issue of violence (atyachaar); just the same way others work on workspace politics and civic issues.

I found this curious for two reasons: first, the front-line team of the NGO has, and does, give assistance to people on civic and political issues – albeit not under the aegis of the NGO.

Second, this coordinator’s response illustrates how neoliberalism tends to produce fragmented sovereignties, where sansthas are seen as service providers rather than a front for any political struggle (again, his own personal take may well be different. I am considering his response, which is in line with how the NGO negotiates its non-partisan stance in the community, as being symptomatic of a particular outlook of NGOs under neoliberalism).

This subtle but crucial difference between the NGO’s approach of being non-partisan, and the front-line workers’ messy and contingent struggles with politics, constitutes the ‘field’ in my fieldwork in a significant way.


The first part of this post argued, and perhaps a bit too emphatically, how anthropologists study in petri dishes, rather than studying them (to rephrase Clifford Geertz).

What I think I should add is, this can be a tad challenging – and this is putting it mildly – but is immensely productive and insightful (at least for those of us interested in immersing ourselves in petri dishes).

So in a sense, the ethnographic perspective is taking a side – not in an empathetic or ideological way (but what’s wrong with that?); rather, in a way that is pragmatic, to grasp the nuances and contradictions of front-line intervention and advocacy work.

After all, the office spaces are a site of ethnographic research as much as the bastis and communities are. The perspective of multi-sited epistemology is one way of building a more coherent theoretical model to explain the disjunctures and spatialized hierarchies between the knowledge produced in the respective spaces.

Needless to say, I have taken a far too theoretical detour than I had expected (again, what’s the problem with theoretical prose anyway?), digressing from the more nuanced narratives I hoped to write.

But that does lead one to wonder whether nuances are the curry leaves that theories spit out.

(Note: perhaps this concluding sentence anticipates a response to Kieran Healy’s provocative paper ‘Fuck Nuance.’ But that response has to wait a bit, I reckon).


*I have changed the names of my colleagues to protect their anonymity.

#Shira is a type of dry porridge made with semolina, milk and sugar. It was my breakfast-turned-desert that day.


Works Cited

Victoria Bernal & Inderpal Grewal, (Eds.). 2014. Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms and Neoliberalism.

Liza Weinstein. 2014. The Durable Slum: Dharavi and the Right to Stay Put in Globalizing Mumbai.


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