The Jewel in the Town

This article on SEWA's founder, Ela Bhatt and her work is abstracted from a longer piece written by Elisabeth Bumiller and appeared in the WASHINGTON POST, 26 March 1995, p. C3

Bhatt is the founder and driving force of a now-famous women's organization in India, called SEWA, that holds to the simple yet radical belief that poor women need organizing, not welfare. (SEWA is the acronym for the Self-Employed Women's Association and corresponds to the Indian word sewa, for service.) Based in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, a dusty old textile town on the edge of the Gujarati desert, SEWA is at its core a trade union for the self-employed. In other words, it offers union membership to the illiterate women who sell vegetables for 50 cents a day in the city markets, or who pick up paper scraps for recycling from the streets - jobs that most Indian men don't consider real work.

When a woman joins SEWA, several things usually happen. For starters, her income increases; the power of the union allows her better prices from the middlemen who supply her vegetables, or who purchase her paper scraps. Then she plows the extra income into her family, for education, health care, birth control. Studies have shown that Indian men often use extra income for alcohol, cigarettes and other personal treats.

Most important, a typically oppressed Indian woman begins to change the way she thinks of herself. "For the first time she realizes she is not just someone's wife or daughter-in-law," says Bhatt. "She's a worker, an active producer." And when that happens, she meets women from other communities, and the horrific barriers of Indian caste begin to break down. To date, SEWA has a membership of 150,000 women, the vast majority of them poor and illiterate. From the dust bowls of Gujarat ... a simple truth emerges: Give people some control over their own destinies - empower them, in the current buzzword - then watch as a spirit of enterprise emerges.

I first met Ela Bhatt in the 1980s, when I was living in New Delhi and working on a book about the women of India. One of my most vivid memories is sitting near her at a dinner in Delhi, at a table with a dozen of the city's most impossible intellectuals, all of them arguing in the usual extravagant fashion about the failings of Rajiv Gandhi's government. Ela remained silent, but as I looked around the table I realized that of all the guests, she was the only one whose work had caused any measure of change in India. In a nation infamous for bride burnings and female infanticide, Ela was a heroine.

Up until then, I'll confess, the phrase "a trade union for the self-employed" made my eyes glaze over. But when I traveled to Ahmedabad in the fall of 1987, what I saw opened up my world.

Consider the SEWA bank. When I first walked through the doors one stifling hot October day, I was greeted by a festive cacophony of illiterate but purposeful women, some eating lunch on the floor, others nursing babies along the sides of the room. The bank was where they socialized, or, in our dialect, networked.

The SEWA bank now has 61,000 members, assets of $4 million and customers who walk in each day to deposit a dollar or take out 60 cents. On that day I had gone in to see the bank's managing director, Jayashree Vyas, who had stacks of loan applications covering her desk. When I asked her about them, she selected one from the pile. The form said that Maniben Parmar, a seamstress, had just been approved for a $400 loan. Maniben Parmar bought her cloth from a middleman, made 30 cents a day and had $8 saved in the SEWA bank. She had four children and a husband who worked at the telephone office; he made a relatively good salary of $120 a month.

Maniben Parmar wanted to borrow money to make house repairs. A friend, Ashaben, had recommended her. "It's not for a productive purpose," Vyas admitted to me. "But it's for improving their living standards." Although her husband's income had helped her secure the money, the loan would be in Maniben Parmar's name alone. Her husband could not make withdrawals from her savings account, nor could he apply for a loan of his own.

To Ela, this was the centerpiece of the SEWA bank. For years, she often said, women had been treated "like dirt" by traditional Indian bankers. Worse, women had no place to hide their savings from husbands and sons. With the SEWA bank, Ela explained - in the gentle tone that softened the daring of her thinking - "we will be able to nonviolently, in the most Gandhian way, eliminate the husbands' [total control]."

ELA'S VISION has in large part been shaped by Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, who believed in the principles of nonviolence and the need to uplift the poorest members of society first. India's economy, he always said, should be based on agriculture and small-scale cottage industry - a conviction that India's leaders immediately discarded after independence in 1947 but that Ela has now reinterpreted through SEWA.

Gandhi's first fast, after all, was in Ahmedabad in 1918, on behalf of the striking workers who labored in the city's textile mills. Out of that fast grew the Textile Labor Association, or TLA, the oldest and largest trade union of textile workers in India. A generation later, a young Brahmin woman from a well-to-do Gujarati family could find no better place to nurture her Gandhian ideals than in a job with the TLA, which did extensive welfare work among its membership. By 1968, Ela had taken over the women's division of the union, a job that historically entailed social work among the member's wives.

Ela would soon demolish the assumption that what these women needed was charity from well-meaning people like herself. In 1971, she met with a group of "head loaders" - women who carry cloth on their heads between Ahmedabad's wholesale and retail markets - who complained that the cloth merchants routinely cheated them. Ela helped them form a group to collectively demand better pay, then wrote an article about their plight for one of the local newspapers. When the merchants countered with an article of their own, insisting they were paying the women fairly, Ela printed the merchants' claims on cards and distributed them to the women.

Out of that effort grew SEWA, which today has organized women into 70 different trade cooperatives, from fish vending to cattle raising to weaving to hand-rolling the small Indian cigarettes called bidis. There is now health care and insurance available to the membership. SEWA also continues its expansion, with mixed success, into the rural areas of Gujarat.

So the shy Ela Bhatt, who speaks in a little girl voice, is perhaps not so shy after all. After a brief period in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, she is now the chair of Women's World Banking, the global financial services network. She is also on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation - part of a change to move the foundation's leadership beyond the usual corporate titans. "She sees things through a different lens," says Peter Goldmark, the foundation's president. "Who else on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation will have spent an emotional lifetime with the bidi rollers!"

The reputation of SEWA itself is growing well beyond the borders of India. Nelson Mandela visited SEWA headquarters in Ahmedabad this winter, and in past years visitors have included Lech Walesa and Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland.

*Elisabeth Bumiller, a Washington Post writer, is the author of "May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India "
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