Ela Bhatt, or Elaben as she was known to all, will be remembered not only for establishing a “union”, a literal coming together of millions of poor women, or for the dozens of awards she received, or for the policy changes she helped initiate nationally and internationally, but also for the quality of leadership she exemplified.
On November 2, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) passed away in Ahmedabad after a brief illness at the age of 89.
It is for a reason that Elaben has been called “the gentle revolutionary”. For even as she fought fiercely for the recognition of millions of self-employed women as workers and contributors to the economy, in her personal dealings with people she remained gentle, open to new ideas and untouched by the personal recognition she had received in over five decades of her work.
Few will dispute that what Elaben began, by setting up a union of home-based and self-employed women in Ahmedabad in 1972, was revolutionary. Born in Surat, and trained as a lawyer, in 1955 she joined the Majdoor Mahajan Sangh (the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association) established by Anasuya Sarabhai and Mahatma Gandhi in 1920. She headed its women’s wing but soon realised that the women street vendors, home-based garment workers, and cart-pullers she met wanted recognition and their own organisation. There was no place for them in established trade unions.
In response to their needs, Elaben established SEWA in 1972. Soon the women spoke of their need to control what they earned, to find avenues to borrow, so that they could grow their businesses and meet emergency needs. Banks would not give such women the time of day. Thus, the idea of a bank was born, and in 1974, SEWA established a bank that allowed women to save even small amounts, often on a daily basis, and to borrow. It is on the basis of this simple concept that the world of microfinance emerged. But the beginning was rooted in a woman like Ela Bhatt listening to these unrecognised women workers and finding a way to change their lives.
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SEWA’s work of organising women in the informal economy has also brought visibility to women workers, who were otherwise literally invisible to economists and data collectors. The report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal Sector, or “Shramshakti”, released in 1989, was an important landmark in this effort and Elaben was central to it.
Apart from organising the women and establishing a bank to help them save and borrow, Elaben and her colleagues in SEWA also saw the importance of changing laws so that these women workers would be able to conduct their trade without being harassed. As a Rajya Sabha member from 1986-89, followed by a stint in the Planning Commission from 1989-91, Elaben pushed for a law to protect the rights of street vendors. Finally in 2013, the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill was passed by Parliament. The law sets down norms for street vending and protects vendors from arbitrary eviction or fines. For the millions of urban poor across India, whose only source of livelihood is street vending, this recognition has been a lifesaver. Unfortunately, many local governments continue to violate the law.
For their work, SEWA and Elaben have received national and international recognition. In 1984, they were awarded the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the alternative Nobel Prize. Elaben has also been the recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize, the Magsaysay Award, the Padma Bhushan, and the Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace. In 2007, she was invited to join The Elders Foundation for peace and human rights set up by Nelson Mandela.
50 years of SEWA
My own appreciation of the importance of the work done by Elaben and SEWA grew during a reporting trip to Ahmedabad in 1985. We were a group of women journalists from different news organisations who decided to visit the city together in the wake of the anti-reservation protests that morphed into communal violence. To understand the problems that women, especially poor women, faced during these riots, we sought out women living in the crowded inner city. These were mostly home-based workers or street vendors. Many were members of SEWA. Yet, no one from the local media had spoken to them. They told us how the rioting followed by long spells of curfew had crippled their work. The tools of their trade, such as sewing machines, were destroyed when their homes were attacked. Curfew prevented them from taking their finished goods out of the inner city or collecting the raw materials. When the rioting ended, SEWA had to step in to ensure that these women got compensation for loss of income and damage as the officials failed to recognise them as workers.
SEWA celebrated its 50 years of existence last year and fortunately its founder was around for the celebrations. However, it is not just the longevity of the organisation that is notable but also the way it is managed and how it has grown.
In India, when a charismatic individual sets up an organisation, their presence often dwarfs others. Elaben’s was a giant presence in SEWA. But, as those who have been running the organisation for several decades will confirm, not only did she step back officially in 1996 as SEWA’s secretary general, but she nurtured and trusted the collective leadership that ran SEWA.
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As a result, the organisation has grown and expanded in ways that she perhaps would not have envisaged when she established it in 1972. From starting as an urban-based organisation, SEWA also works in rural areas. Apart from savings and credit, it has extended its services to cover health care, child care, insurance, legal services, and housing.
In a country where everything from politics to business revolves around big personalities, Elaben’s leadership style went against this norm. Although her name will always remain inextricably linked with the organisation she founded, we should salute her for providing this rare quality of leadership that is so desperately needed.
Kalpana Sharma is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and columnist.
- On November 2, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association passed away in Ahmedabad at the age of 89.
- Born in Surat, and trained as a lawyer, in 1955 she joined the Majdoor Mahajan Sangh (the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association).
- In 1974, SEWA established a bank that allowed women to save even small amounts, often on a daily basis, and to borrow.
- SEWA’s work of organising women in the informal economy has also brought visibility to women workers.
- As a Rajya Sabha member from 1986-89, followed by a stint in the Planning Commission from 1989-91, Elaben pushed for a law to protect the rights of street vendors.
- Elaben has also been the recipient of the Niwano Peace Prize, the Magsaysay Award, the Padma Bhushan, and the Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace.