On 7th September 1933, Ela Bhatt, lawyer, activist and founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) was born in Ahmedabad. Bhatt’s father was a successful lawyer and her mother was a women’s rights activist.
In 1954 Bhatt obtained a degree in law, she also got a gold medal for her work on Hindu Law. Following this, she taught English for a short while at the SNDT Women’s College in Mumbai and in 1955 she joined the textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad.
In 1968, Ela Bhatt was asked by the TLA to head its women’s wing. For this purpose Bhatt travelled to Israel to study at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labour and Cooperation in Tel Aviv, from where she received an International Diploma of Labour and Cooperatives in 1971. Bhatt was highly influenced by the fact that there were thousands of women textile workers who even worked for other jobs to add to their family income, but the state laws only protected women who were entirely industrial workers and not the other self-employed women. Along with Arvind Buch, the then President of the TLA, Bhatt organized these self-employed women into a group under the Women’s Wing of the TLA. The Self Employed Women’s Association of India was established in 1972, with Arvind Buch as its President and Ela Bhatt as General Secretary.
SEWA essentially grew out of the TLA, which was the largest union of textile workers founded by Anasuya Sarabhai in 1920. The TLA was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that workers should be aware of their rights and unite against the dictatorship of their employers. Based on this principle of Gandhi and the feminist outlook of Anusuya Sarabhai, the TLA began their women’s wing in 1954. Originally the wing focused on assisting women who were household members of mill workers, but later in 1968 sewing, knitting, embroidery and even typing and stenography classes were started for the wives and daughters of mill workers.
In the early 1970’s, a survey was carried out to study the complaints of women tailors who were being exploited by contractors. The survey further discovered that there was large scale exploitation of female workers and a large number of these cases were not taken up by the government legislation.
In 1971 a small group of women migrant workers in Ahmedabad cloth market came to TLA, represented by their labour contractor. He wanted to know if the TLA could help these women find accommodation since they were then living on the streets. They met Ela Bhatt the head of the Women’s Wing, who went with these women to see where they lived and worked. Following this, Bhatt met with other women who worked as labour and who received low and erratic wages. After meeting with these women, Bhatt wrote a newspaper article highlighting the problems faced by these women. The contractors of these female employees countered these claims by a newspaper article of their own.
The Women’s Wing used this contradictory news article to their advantage by printing them out and distributing them among workers and asking them to enjoy the benefits of the claims the contractors had made by approaching them. Word of this clever ploy spread and more used garments dealers approached the TLA with their concerns. A large meeting of used garments dealers was arranged and over a hundred women attended this. During this meeting a woman suggested that they form an organization of their own and hence SEWA was founded in December 1971 with Ela Bhatt and Arvind Buch, the President of the TLA.
Eventually, the women of SEWA thought that SEWA should be established as a Trade Union. This was a unique idea at that time because of the lack of history behind self-employment. The first challenge for SEWA was getting recognition as a Trade Union. The Labour Department was not keen on registering them as one since it felt that there were no recognized employers in which case, there was no one for workers to struggle against. Finally in 1972, SEWA was registered as a Trade Union and continued growing and adding more members into its folds. By 1975, which was also the beginning of the Women’s Decade, SEWA received an enormous boost and became a part of the women’s movement.
By 1981 relations between TLA and SEWA had begun to grow weak as the TLA did not look favourably at a strong willed women’s group in their midst. Relationships got worse after anti-reservation riots broke out and members of a higher caste attacked members belonging to a lower caste. The TLA remained silent in this regard, whereas, SEWA spoke out against this injustice. Because of this outspokenness, TLA asked SEWA to leave their folds.
After branching out of the TLA, SEWA grew faster and began new initiatives. Over the years SEWA has supported the growth of new co-operatives and other support services which have boosted the image of SEWA considerably. Apart from this, SEWA has many other sister organizations such as SEWA Bank, SEWA Academy, SEWA Research, SEWA Housing and Vimo SEWA, among others.
Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA has received many prestigious awards and honours such as the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1977), Right Livelihood Award (1984), the Padma Shri (1985), Padma Bhushan (1986), Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters from Harvard University (2001) and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development in 2013 by President Pranab Mukherjee for her lifetime commitment to women’s empowerment through her grassroots level work.
Also on This Day:
1947: Mahatma Gandhi leaves Calcutta for Delhi; commences daily visits to riot-affected areas.
1968: Benipuri Sharma, famous Hindi novelist, died.
Elaben started her life as a young lawyer working for a trade union – Textile Labour Association. Throughout her life, her husband Ramesh Bhatt, who was an academic in his own right provided her the support and guidance, and possibly acted as an alterego, as a friend with whom she could check out her ideas and as a pillar of support. This comes out very evident in the book which is dedicated to Rameshbhai. You can see the genuineness, the nervousness and the steely resolve of Elaben when she narrates her early experiences with TLA and the legal profession “My early days in the labor court was tense. The slightest comment about my clothes or my short height would upset me, and I would begin to stammer. There were hardly any women in court…” and as she proceeded, in several of the forums she would be the lone lady, possibly supported invisibly by thousands and lakhs of women but indeed it would have been a difficult fight.
This is something I can identify myself with from a totally different perspective. While I was working on my book on microfinance, I had the occasion to visit Sewa Bank several times and during one of the visits I kept talking to Jayashree Vyas, the Managing Director of the bank on the importance of the flow of information that should be available on a periodic basis, in an understandable manner. Jayashree thought it was a good idea for me to talk to her staff and there I was in a “board room” of Sewa Bank trying to address several women who could understand only Gujarati and could manage with Hindi. I was trying to infuse the concept of management to them. The most destabilizing part of this all was, that this was the first time I was addressing an all women audience, the board room was nothing but a series of mattresses, pillows and floor cushions laid out and I was supposed to speak at least in Hindi, if not in Gujarati. I came out and told Jayashree that I now fully empathise when some woman says that it is difficult to be in an all men gathering. I just could not pull myself up and the attempt to handle that session was indeed a disaster. [The only other time I felt destabilized while teaching was a class room of CBSE School Principals, predominantly women, very articulate, having ticked many a parent off in their long careers. These women gave me feedback not only about the session, but about my diction, body language and the use of examples!!]
To put Elaben’s work in perspective it is important to recognize the constraints under which SEWA operated and continues to operate. She says: “..we had trouble registering labour cooperatives. Our rag pickers’ cooperative was suspect because they did not manufacture any products; the midwives’ cooperative was asked why delivering babies should be considered an economic activity; the video producers’ cooperative was denied registration because the directors, the producers and the sound and camera technicians were illiterate…”[p.17]. Her art is in organizing women workers of diverse vocations, bringing them under a single banner, fighting for their rights and also providing common services to them, while they continued to work in their respective unorganized sector. A trade union where the woman was “self-employed” was possibly an oxymoron, but the need for them to get together was recognized early and working in this uncharted territory was what set Ela Bhatt apart from all her contemporaries.
Elaben has been a recipient of many awards and honours, the Magasasay Award for community service, the Padmashri and Padmabhushan award, a stint as a member of the Rajya Sabha, a doctorate from Harvard and Yale, and surprisingly the businesswoman of the year award from Economic Times and Business Standard. However, every time there has been an award, Elaben has never gone to the venue alone. She always has had one or two or more women from the community that she has been working with tagging along. This is the usual strategy that the SEWA family adopts. Infact not only have the women attended such functions, many a time they have even walked the ramp. Their embroiders from Kutch and Banaskantha have worked closely with designers from National Institute of Fashion Technology and some of them had no hesitation in walking the ramp with their ethnic clothes. What better way to bridge the gap while making a style statement!!
On the board of Sewa Trade Facilitation Centre which markets the ethnic embroidery based work of women, are a crowd of a Professor, a couple of people from SEWA family of executives, but more importantly a few women, who possibly cannot read the board papers, but ask probing and basic questions. Is this a way of empowering women, or is this the way to educate the executives about ground reality? I have never been sure, but I guess it works both ways.
It is this liberation which the SEWA family provides, shows that life out there is no different than elsewhere and bridges the gaps seamlessly. The only other experiment where I see women liberated is the Velugu programme of AP Government, headed by a committed civil servant Vijayakumar. In village after village, the women who are a part of the Velugu Self-Help groups greet you with a hand shake. This hand shake is symbolic, but a stroke of genius. By one hand shake, you have first removed untouchability, made the poor women reach out to men and bridge the “us and them” “rural and urban” gap easily. In contrast, for instance, I have never seen Kurien even acknowledge the support he has got from the community and his team. [This should not be misread as belittling Kurien’s contribution, but more as a contrast in styles].
The offices of SEWA are simple, somewhat like Elaben, her white Khadi saree and the private autorickshaw in which she used to move around in Ahmedabad. I am not sure if this was symbolic, or just the way Elaben is made. She has never made a virtue of austerity. Infact even as Elaben was moving about in the autorickshaw several of her executives would move around in Jeeps, possibly all these dictated by necessity rather than as a style statement. It is likely that Jayashree, Merai or Reema would have much more of field travel to do, at more frequent intervals than possibly Elaben. However, it was striking to see her come in a grey coloured autorickshaw to attend the board meeting of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad [IIMA], where she has been a soft spoken but firm member reminding the board and others of the fact that it was not just a “Business School” but a “Management Institute” – a distinction made by the founding fathers of the Institute starting with Vikram Sarabhai and Ravi Matthai. The Institute possibly benefitted from a constant reminder from Elaben to not lose focus on the social sectors which needed management support as much as the business houses. It is hard not to bring Kurien into the discussion while the issue of board membership of IIMA is being discussed. Kurien was on the board of IIMA and like Elaben kept reminding the Institute about its need to be committed to the rural and undermanaged sectors. However, when he found that the graduates of IIM were not joining the sectors that needed them most, he did what Kurien would do best – went ahead and set up a Institute of Rural Management. This possibly was the felt need of the co-operatives, but never articulated. Kurien was able to think and respond to unarticulated needs. This would possibly never happen with Elaben. Even if she got the idea, she would possibly throw it around and wait for the community to really feel that this need was indeed there and they were willing to put their resources into it. In that sense, we need both styles of management to bridge the gaps that are ever widening between the haves and the have nots.
Very much the way SEWA’s offices are Spartan, its staff were also largely drawn from the community. The language of communication was always Gujarati. I remember once that one of the newly appointed marketing experts of the Trade Facilitation Centre, a well qualified urban educated girl with good insights was making a presentation to the board on the plans for the ensuing year. She was very gently reminded by Reema the Chair of the organization that she needs to speak in Gujarati so that the board members like Puriben and Mahtabben from Banaskantha and Kutch had to understand. When the girl told that it was difficult to speak in Gujarati, and even Hindi was rusty, she was clearly told that the next presentation had to be in Gujarati. It possibly was a message to the other independent members of the board as well, but it was not lost on the girl. She did indeed make the next presentation in Gujarati. In case of the other pompous board members, whatever they say is parallely translated into Gujarati, never leaving even the women out of the process. They needed to know what we were doing with their lives. All these were values imbibed into the SEWA family by Elaben. Every person was important, and every decision was to be taken by taking the community into confidence. For instance why has SEWA been restricted as a Women’s organization? One has never seen Elaben in the gender brigade shouting for the rights of women. Rather she is seen working for the cause of the poor first, and within the poor, the women. She says “Initially, I was open to the idea of men joining our union struggles, because I felt that they would lend more strength to SEWA’ however, the women emphatically refused. They said they would feel inhibited with men around, and they believed men would dominate and create tensions.” So the consultative process that Elaben has adopted has helped her to build stronger all women trade union movement.
Unlike Kurien’s institutions which are marked by great buildings, fine ambiance and slick management, the institutions set up by SEWA look like neighbourhood buildings, provide the beneficiaries the confidence to move in and transact. For instance, on building a great sixty acre campus with individual rooms for the students with manicured lawns all for rural management education Kurien once retorted “Kings do not grow up in pigstys and you – the students of Rural Management – are my Princes”. On the other hand SEWA bought up office space for its bank SEWA Bank in a posh Sakar building on Ellisbridge in Ahmedabad. The bank’s offices are rubbing shoulders with upmarket Bank National des Paribas and Kotak Mahindra Bank. The story goes that the others business houses occupying the building complained to the builder that the “dirty and noisy” women customers of SEWA Bank spoil the ambience of the building. SEWA Bank had no qualms in opening up a side entrance to their women and insulate their own premises from the rest – thereby making their own women more comfortable.
A typical day in SEWA starts with a multi religious prayer and then it shows that the women are extremely comfortable socializing, shouting and exchanging notes while transacting their business. It is afterall how they are when they are at their trade, be it selling vegetables, picking rags or stiching clothes. Naturally this work ambience had people from the community working, at salaries that the community could afford to pay.
For a long time, it appeared that SEWA had an allergy to hire professionals [as it is understood in the modern day]. There were hardly any MBAs or the English speaking, powerpoint savvy youngsters in ties and jackets. The culture was that of trust, community involvement and lifetime engagement. If one looks at the second generation chief executives of all the organizations that Elaben has been instrumental in establishing, they have all been with her for a long time. Each one is a great manager herself, but have all been a part of the team – Reema who gave up her civil service to join SEWA family, Renana Jhabvala of Sewa Bharat who apart from her own merit, by just being in the family she belonged to could have chosen any alternative career, Merai who can have a meal with Bill Clinton at the same ease as spending a lifetime working on health related issues, Jayashree a Chartered Accountant who decided to shed the image of an Accountant to become a community banker, Vijayalakshmi who heads the Friends of Women’s World Banking, reveling in the fact that she was able to get ten urchin like kids from the slums to eat in the upmarket Green Park Hotel in Hyderabad as a part of a review meeting, and Jyoti who herself started as a Beedi worker and eventually became a English speaking general secretary of SEWA. The list goes on.
Nobody noticed that when Kurien was having his battles with Amrita Patel - the person he had groomed to take over, Elaben had quietly slipped out of the operational management of the SEWA group of institutions. There was never a succession problem in SEWA, never did people realize that Elaben was not there and never did people feel her absence. However, when you look at the SEWA family today, Elaben is hardly there except as a motherly figure giving guidance when sought and lending a shoulder in the unlikely event of somebody wanting to cry on it. She is there when she is wanted, but the transition has been more professional than any other organization that could be run by the “certified” professionals. So indeed their allergy for the “professionals” has not affected their functioning in any manner.
While Elaben has never been at the centre of any controversy, it is not that she had not had her unpleasant moments with the powers that be. In the post earthquake disaster mitigation programme, SEWA had a big run-in with the government. A reason attributed to the difference with the government was that SEWA was supporting a large number of women who belonged to the minority community. It similarly had an issue in 1981 when there were riots protesting reservations. Then, Elaben writes: “Communal harmonywas a union issue and a feminist issue. It was fundamental to our existence” [p.15].This stand took the women away from the Textile Labour Association – forcing them to chart out their own path. As usual Elaben’s friend and counsel Rameshbhai suggests that she look at it as an opportunity rather than as a set back. Writes Elaben “At the time of the break from TLA, SEWA had 4,900 members a small co-operative bank, an office building, a rural centre, one vehicle, and a few typewriters. But we also had a ten year history of organizing” [p15-16].
The growth of SEWA and its activities have been in response to the needs of the members. Today SEWA Bank is recognized as one of the pioneering institutions of microfinance in urban India. What we need to realize is that this institution was set up by the community, far before the word microfinance was coined, and at least three years before Yunus went to Jorba to discover the Grameen model. Elaben writes on how the bank came about being: “At a SEWA members’ meeting at Naranghat in December 1973, Chandaben, a used garment dealer from Poori Bazar, asked me, “Ben, why can’t we have our own bank?” “Because we have no money,” I replied patiently. “You need a large amount of capital to start a bank!” “Well we may be poor, but we are so many,” Chandaben replied..” and so they went ahead and started a bank.
It has never been difficult to get through to Elaben. I do not know who her secretary is and when wanted her appointment, she herself would immediately respond on phone as to whether she was available at a particular day and time or not. I had invited Elaben for a dinner meeting with our students as a part of one of the courses. During the interaction, one student asked in typical management style: “Madam, what were the goals you set out for yourself, how much have you achieved and what do you consider your failures”. Elaben looked back and said “I never had goals. I do not think there are achievements against objectives. That is not how I looked at work. I just see this as a process. This is the process of living, and there are always interesting pieces of work to do. Therefore there is neither a sense of fulfillment not desperation. We just keep working to make lives better.” There have been several occasions Elaben has invited me for a lunch or dinner at her place. I have never gathered the courage to accept the invitation, hopefully I will do it soon. It has been an honour to have known Elaben, interacted with her in person and seen and heard the unseen and unheard.