Ela Bhatt
Julie Costanzo

True to the spirit of her country and her inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi, Ela Bhatt is a gentle revolutionary. Gentle but tough.

For decades, she has quietly gone about the business of kicking ass on behalf of some of India’s most disenfranchised — women working in the “informal sector.” A former lawyer and social worker from a well-to-do family, she launched the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 1972. As chief of the women’s section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, she had witnessed the crappy conditions confronting women in the garment industry and resolved to organize self-employed women to help them develop a bit of collective clout.

The group started small — a few thousand members — but these days, it’s the largest primary labor union in the country, representing a quarter of a million self-employed workers, from fruit vendors to stitchers to road construction workers. Members have formed trade cooperatives for various groups — like cattle raisers and cigarette rollers — to share resources and tackle common issues.

Along with negotiating power, SEWA (which means “service” in Hindi and Gujarati) offers programs for health and maternity benefits. One of the group’s biggest coups was the 1974 creation of its own bank, where women can start a savings account with just a few rupees, or take out a small loan to grow their enterprise. These microfinancing opportunities are vital resources for women who previously would have had to resort to hawking their bangles or borrowing from gouging moneylenders. It also gives women a place to stash their savings, safe from the hands of husbands, sons and in-laws — in other words, a chance to be self-reliant.

“Gandhi tried to find out that what kind of employment opportunity can be given to even the most illiterate woman in the village,” she says, “so that each family has economic strength.”

She was a Parliament member (on invitation from the President) from ‘86 to ‘89, but lives a simple life today, shunning most things material, including social events with their attendant, costly gift-giving rituals. “Of course live comfortably, but don’t to have too many things, unnecessary things for consumption,” she says. “Eat well, but not too much, you know, or live beyond your means.”

From the interview:

On being a public figure:
“In public life you have to be very, very honest, otherwise you know, things would get ruined. Honest in your dealings, in your public dealings, honest in your writings and speaking.”

On poverty in India:
“Poverty is a matter of power, and as long as the poor remain powerless, poverty will never be removed from our country. The poor are not idle, they are all economically very active, otherwise they won’t survive. We don’t have a welfare system, so they have to work. They will work harder and harder, and they try to make any activity productive and try to make money off it so that they can survive.”

On collective action:
“As I got more and more involved with SEWA activities and then faced several public issues along with other women, I saw that with combined strength, you lose your fear. And then you gain more and more strength from each other.”

Coordinates: India

Ela Bhatt

Economic Revolutionary


Ahmedabad, India

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