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Boss lady #9: Ela(ben) Bhatt

Updated: Feb 26, 2022

The “gentle revolutionary”

“Poverty is violence, and with the consent of the society” — Ela Bhatt (endearingly known as Elaben).

Elaben has easily done the most for the ~200 million women who constitute India’s informal or invisible labor force, which in turn represents the nature of 92% of India’s entire labor force. She is a formidable entrepreneur, organizer, lawyer, and leader. In Elaben, the energy of the first decade of independent India endures— she is not just a Gandhian thinker, but very much a doer.

When you pause and think about the insane impact Nehru’s lifetime had on independent India as we know it, it’s overwhelming. Ela Bhatt’s life and work has been something similar for the 96% of the Indian female labor force engaged in informal or invisible labor. Much like the millions of women she has lifted, her leadership is not loud, but is dexterous, stubborn, and magnanimous.

Today I take a few minutes of your time to celebrate (and if you’re not familiar, introduce) Ela Bhatt — founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972, co-founder of the Women’s World Bank (1979), member of the Planning Commission of India (1989–91), board member of the RBI (2011), and architect and relentless champion of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill (2013). She was awarded both the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the government of India.

How could she not appear on a blog series celebrating extraordinary women of Indian economics and policy? I want you to walk away with two things once you’re done reading: the scale of what Elaben has achieved; her baffling humility. Onward.

Elaben (EB) graduated high school the same year that Gandhiji died. In one of her interviews, she talks about how for the generation of young adults whose graduation coincided with independence, there was no paralysis of choice in terms of what to do with their degrees and careers. Their teachers gave them a simple instruction — go to the villages and use your degrees to help people you encounter. (Reminds me of the Sanskrit motto of the school I went to: Aarta Shanti Phala Vidya)

EB studied law at the Sir L.A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad. She was a gold medalist in law college. In an interview, she says that her father probably did not have grand plans for her education. He was a High Court judge himself — most of his brothers and nephews were lawyers too. She says it was probably her mother who decided that her daughter could pursue law as well. Her mother was a secretary of the All India Women’s Conference and active in the feminist movement. When EB was in law school, the Constitution of India was finalized. In college, at her partner’s (Ramesh Bhatt) insistence, EB was also involved with the first general census in independent India. Seriously, what a time to be in law school! She attributes her later life choices to her childhood and the times she grew up in.

After law school, EB decided to join the Textile Labor Association (TLA) to represent the interests of the workers. It was one of India’s oldest labor unions too, founded by another women (Anasuya Sarabhai) inspired by Gandhi. But the share of female workers in the textile industry was quickly dwindling. She tells the story of how the introduction of the “Barber-Colman” machine in the spinning department required training, and only men were recruited. Partly because women were wary of using the machine, and men insisted that women don’t need to labor at a factory or mill when they could be spending time serving the home better.

In 80s, when mills were closing down, EB got curious about how the families of men who remained in the union were coping financially. With TLA’s permission, she decided to survey their households and found that the women were working to deal with the loss of livelihood. And these were informal jobs, home production, small businesses — most importantly with no social security or protection under law because they were informal. EB realized that her work at the legal department in the textile workers union was of no use to these women.

EB says, “After seeing how women’s economic participation was so crucial to the family, I said, “I will work for those who are unprotected and unorganized.” That is how SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) was born, as an organization that recognized women as being self-employed, rather than informal or unorganized. I didn’t accept those terms.”

So EB founded SEWA in 1972. The TLA continued to be a parent organization for SEWA for a while. But when violence erupted in Gujarat over reservation of seats for Dalits in medical college, EB spoke up in favor of Dalits in public. Since she was Brahmin herself, the upper caste Hindus were upset with her and a mob stoned her house. At the same time, SEWA was ousted from the TLA — partly because they didn’t stand by her public statement, and partly because of simmering tensions between organized labor and unorganized labor since SEWA was gaining attention.

Another struggle was getting banks and institutions to care about the women who were part of SEWA. EB says “they never saw the women’s work as work: they were women, so they were supporting the family. Their work was invisible, even to the census of India (until 1970)”. National and international trade unions did not accept SEWA. It took 16 years of struggling to get the International Labor Organization (ILO) to recognize the legitimate need to organize and represent informal workers.

On the other hand, banks would typically not lend money to the women of SEWA. So they decided to start their own bank in 1974. EB says the idea evolved in a massive meeting of SEWA members, where a garment dealer, Chanda Ben said “Why can’t we have our own bank?”. EB responded that they would need a lot of capital. But Chanda Ben poignantly pointed out — “Yes, we are poor, but we are so many. So we can collect the necessary share capital.” The rest is history. EB faced a lot of criticism for the decision to start a women’s bank. She was told by family members and others that she would have to commit suicide in the future when faced by a deluge of default. Obviously, it never came to that, because EB built every component of SEWA as a co-operative, where members have ownership.

The SEWA bank became a women-run army. Women were trained about baking systems. Hires from traditional banking institutions were also women. Women continue to run this co-operative bank today. EB also realized that to be financially literate, it was also important for the women to be literate. So, there was a literacy effort to make sure women did not have to get pictures taken with a slate bearing their names for their passbooks — they should be able to write their names themselves instead of a mugshot situation.

For Elaben, integrating SEWA in the mainstream was important. She wanted SEWA to be a trade union, not an NGO. She pushed for the SEWA bank to be an RBI recognized cooperative bank, not a microfinance institution. I get where she is coming from. These women are an integral part of the domestic product — from the didi who cooks at your house, babysits your children, weaves baskets and sells them in your neighborhood, the akka who sells fruits and vegetables on the local train. They are producers. We consume their goods and services. Accounting for them is not charity. How can they be fringe if they appear in our economic lives every single day? Banks that provide them capital so that they can earn a livelihood to support their families are not charity either — they are financial institutions.

Today, SEWA has been around for five decades. It recorded a membership base of over 1.5 million women in 2018. SEWA has offered health insurance, pension accounts, capital for entrepreneurs (beauty salons in slum areas, etc.), and has even trained members for the job of gas attendants! EB had used her legal prowess to achieve higher rates for female coolies (porters), and the right to sell fruits and vegetables on the street without police harassment.

The thing that struck me most about EB is how whenever she is asked about the person Ela in interviews (what’s your story, did you know SEWA would become this week, what inspired you, how do you feel looking back etc.), her responses are rarely about her. In one place, she admitted that she didn’t think about the future too much. In most cases, the conversation almost always becomes about SEWA, and the women of SEWA. I think the reason there is a greater chance people know SEWA than Ela Bhatt is because of her humility, and because she truly set the institution up as a cooperative. The person never trumped the cause (which I think is rare when you consider great public figures). EB hasn’t written a memoir yet (which is not surprising), but she has written a book — “We Are Poor But So Many”, that I have bookmarked to read and will follow up if I am serious at all about my passion to understand the application of economics to the lives of women in India.

I’m going to end the blog on anecdote.

EB had once asked SEWA members what “freedom” represented to them. A few members said it was the ability to step outside the house. A few said it was having a door to the bathroom. Some said money of their own, a mobile phone, fresh clothes every day, and someone said — “looking a policeman in the eye”.

This last bit reminded me of the following quote: ““A woman can walk miles without taking one single step forward (…) to live is to open closed doors. To live is to look outside. To live is to step out. Life is trespassing.” (Fatema Mernissi)


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