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Pioneer in amplifying voices of women in self-employed and unorganised sector

By IMPRI Team 
“Let diversity be maintained, grown, and flourish” -- Ela Bhatt
The Gentle Revolutionary, a pioneer of the women working class, “Ela Ben” as she is dearly called, was an institution in herself, a changemaker who has transformed feminist discourse in India through her actions. Born in 1933, Ela Ramesh Bhatt founded Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) in 1972, the only national union of women workers of the unorganised sector in India, and served as its General Secretary from 1972 to 1996.
Bhatt started her career teaching English for a short time at SNDT Women’s University, better known as SNDT, in Mumbai. In 1955 she joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), India’s oldest union for textile workers. She headed the TLA’s women’s wing in 1968. She was the chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth from 2015 to 2022.
As part of its series The State of Gender Equality : #GenderGaps, #InMemorium, IMPRI Gender Impact Studies Centre (GISC) and IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute New Delhi organised the IMPRI #webpolicy talk in a tribute for the visionary Ela Bhatt titled “Ela Bhatt (1933-2022): A Pioneer in Amplifying the Voices of Women engaged in Self Employment and the Unorganised Sector”.
The event was chaired by Prof Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Professor at IMPRI, with panellists Dr Sanjay Kumar President (Corporate Affairs & Public Policy, upGrad), Ms Amarjeet Kaur, (General Secretary, All India Trade Union Congress), Ms Nisreen Ebrahim (CEO, Rangoonwala Foundation), Mr Martin Macwan (Founding Member, Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad), Prof Ghanshyam Shah (Renowned Political Scientist), Ms Parul Sheth (Co-founder and Executive Director, Shaishav), Dr Roshan Ara (University of Kashmir), and Mr Sandeep Chachra (Executive Director, Action Aid Association).
The event commenced with an introductory speech by the chair, Professor Vibhuti Patel, who introduced the panellists and then highlighted some of the ideals of Ela Bhatt. She started by sharing a small anecdote, as quoted by Neeta Hardikar, who beautifully described the funeral procession of Ela Bhatt, when people sang “Ami Paar Kareshu” (We will overcome) in unison. Professor Patel mentioned that her loss has created an immeasurable void in the socio-economic sphere and for the empowerment of the marginalised and the weaker sections of women in the democratic spaces.
The Indian women’s movement has lost a powerful and a revolutionary figure whose voice for the poor and the marginalised women workers have inspired millions around the country, especially women facing intersectional problems in the labour, factor and the product markets in the informal sector. She joined Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu among others as the founding members of the Elders organisation.
Professor Vibhuti Patel highlighted her inspiring work in supporting the victims of the 1969 Gujarat riots and the anti- reservation riots of 1980, while also highlighting her contributions in labour reforms and social protection of the marginalised women workers. Be it the Unorganised Sector Social Security Act 2008, the National Rural livelihood Mission 2011, and the Street Vendors Act 2014, among others, she mentions how integral a role Bhatt played in all of these legislations.
Professor Patel points to the 2nd Labour Commission Report in which, barring two chapters, all the others professed on neo liberal mechanisms. In this report, there were two standout chapters: one on the informal sector and the other on child labour, both of which were the brainchild of the SEWA movement under Ela Bhatt.
Panellist Dr. Sanjay Kumar, President, Corporate Affairs & Public Policy, upGrad, mentioned that it was solely Ela Bhatt, her charm, her aura and clarity of thoughts, that has inspired him to continue working for SEWA for a span of 17 years. He states, “Ela Bhatt was less about herself and more about women”, referring to her absence from the world of media and glamour while actively working in public spaces. It was Ela Bhatt that has shown him the invisibility of women in the informal sector, which eventually inspired him to take up the subject for his Masters Dissertation.
The next panellist, Ms Amarjeet Kaur, first outlined how Ela Ben’s early life during the independence struggle was a significant moment of her life. She first met Ela Ben when she was a student in Delhi University, where the Women’s committee on the Status of Women was formed all over India. Ms Kaur was already a student activist in University, which made her aware of the works and engagements of Ela Bhatt. She stated that during the setting up of Women’s Commissions all over the country, Ela Bhatt was active in almost all of those processes and stages.
While Ms Kaur was the National Secretary of AITUC, Ela Bhatt was actively engaging with SEWA to pressurise the Indian government to take a stand in favour of the home based women workers. She emphasises the need for the Home Work Convention of ILO 1996 to be ratified and implemented in India, which she believes, would be the real tribute to the works of Ela Bhatt. It was under her guidance and mentorship, Ms Kaur states, that some of her colleagues have set up Women’s studies centres, for instance Veena Majumdar, who took up the initiative to set up the CWDS, among others.
Subsequently, new courses, new cells in institutions were introduced including Gender Studies and others. As the head of National Federation of Indian Women in Delhi and as a trade union leader, she had the privilege and honour of meeting and knowing Ela Ben very closely. She mentioned that Ela was always a calm and cool person, almost always having a lucid smile, and a simple personality, with a firm opinion on women, without any political motivation.
Renowned political scientist Professor Ghanshyam Shah mentioned that women empowerment was not just a word for Ela Bhatt. She believed in full time social security,employment and autonomy of a woman from all social constraints. She was aware of the social constraints on women, especially the working class who have faced the brunt of the market. Despite the challenges, agony and helplessness, she always worked relentlessly while constantly working on how to empower women in the informal sector, especially considering the constraints imposed by the neo-liberal economy on working-class women.
He mentioned how she talked about the concept of the “Space for two baskets”, which referred to the need for space for vendors to give them the right to sell their produce. After more than two decades of struggle, the Street Vendors Act was passed in 2014. But she was not satisfied with it due to its non-implementation. Professor Ghanshyam Shah suggested that there is a need to rethink these discourses about how these schemes and acts still remain on paper and lack implementation.
He mentions how civil society and policy research organisations such as IMPRI, among others, can take up the cause to ensure that at least this very act gets implemented in towns and cities. The conditions of the informal workers are evidently getting worse, and the best tribute to Ela Ben, according to him, would be to ensure a robust implementation of such acts that actively empower women vendors and marginalised workers.
Then Nisreem Ebrahim took over the podium to talk about her life-enriching engagements with Ela Bhatt. She mentioned how the start of her professional journey commenced with SEWA and as such her overwhelming emotions attached to Ela Ben. Ms Ebrahim rejoined SEWA after completing her management studies, and was tasked with making several cooperatives viable, ranging from fish vendors, vegetable vendors, block printers, etc. Currently serving as the CEO of the Rangoonwala Foundation (India) trust, she mentions how Ella has herself been an institution that has inspired her professional life.
She states that working in this sector requires unparalleled hand holding strategies and research; to organise, mobilise and create regulatory frameworks. It is equally hard to imagine that a person like Ela Ben did all of this back in the 1970s, by registering SEWA as a trade union, and taking up the mammoth task of organising the unorganised, and eventually giving an institutional framework for the informal sector.
Ms Nisreem recalls the mantra of SEWA, which is ‘struggle and Development’, which covered the two mst important aspects of SEWA, Unionisation: which depicted the struggle, and Cooperativization : which was the tool used to focus on economic empowerment and development of the working class women. Models such as these, she reiterates, serve as the modus operandi for organisations in the social sector today, all of which started with the vision and inspiration of a single woman.
Introduction of SEWA Bank:
When finance was inaccessible for the working class and the marginalised women, Ela Bhatt realised how there needs to be an institution that safeguards their interest and gives them the opportunity to access easy credit, the result of which was the SEWA Bank. Ms Nisreem shares an anecdote of how the small women vendors went to the banks to deposit their hard earned money, that too in small denominations, only to be rejected by these institutions. These rejections only acted as opportunities for the likes of Ela Bhatt who then took up the ambitious cause of having their own banks for the marginalised women workers.

The power of Collective Action:

Ela Bhatt has shown us all the power of cooperatives through collective action. She has driven social and economic transformation with a bottom-up approach and that too by effectively creating policy at enormous scales. For instance, in Gujarat, she was able to receive General Relief from the Gujarat Government, and has also aided in enabling the process of receiving contracts by women cooperatives without tendering. She stated that Bhatt has managed to create social impact at the international level, by scaling up capacity.
She has always nurtured the growth of new leaders within SEWA, even after her retirement from the top position. This nurturing was never in any way an intervention, but a guidance system for the young leaders. Ms. Nisreem puts a lot of hope on the current set of leaders of SEWA primarily because they are simply the products of Ela Bhatt’s guidance and teachings. Under Ela Bhatt, she mentioned how SEWA has worked like a non-hierarchical system, where she made herself always available to other SEWA sisters.
Unlike contemporary communication methods which include WhatsApp and emails, SEWA at that time had the “chitthi system”, where anybody, anyone without any hierarchical complexity, were able to reach out to anyone. There was a clear process of communication between Ela and the other SEWA sisters, and astonishingly, this chitthi system still exists within the administrative structure today.
Dr Sandeep Charcha, member /decision maker of Action Aid was then given the time to talk about his professional engagements with Ella Bhatt. He specifically mentioned a few inspirations that he and his organisation have taken from Ela Bhatt and the work of SEWA.
First, is the idea of putting working women at the centre stage of the development paradigm, at a time when the problems of falling work participation rates, growing informalisation of the workforce becomes extremely important. According to him, Ela Bhatt was not just a resolutionary, but a quiet revolutionary as well: she was able to transform resolutions undertaken into constructive revolutions at ground zero. Second, she has challenged patriarchy in action, and not just in the sphere of home or on paper, but in every sphere of life.
The SEWA sisters have revolutionised the concept of challenging patriarchy in the sphere of economics, representative democracy, decision making, and also in the world of politics. He talked about the power of solidarity economics, and mentioned that at a time when capital is commodified, when it is pushing labour down, not just in share of capital and profits but also in value chains, the discourse that Ela Bhatt has inspired is historically a game changer. Through Cooperativization, Ela Bhatt has revolutionised “feminist solidarity in action”, as stated by Dr. Charcha.
Many of the state missions which we celebrate today, be it the social security act 2008, the prevalence of the Social Security Code, especially the original informal workers social security act, was a contribution of Ela Bhatt. Even the current PM Vikas Nidhi for Street Vendors essentially derives from the work of SEWA, if not formally. This includes the Street Vendors Act 2004 as well.
She leaves behind a huge legacy of revolutionary work on the ground, and we have more progress to make as part of a tribute to the dynamic leadership of Ela Bhatt. He concluded by mentioning that the next generation of problems, be it the problem of wealth concentration, climate change, the industrial exploitation et al, should all be tackled with the same conviction and ideals that Ela Bhatt stood for.
Mr. Martin Macwan began by mentioning how Ela Bhatt was a Gandhian but not a Gandhi Bhakt. He recalls her piece in Ghanshyam Shah’s book, Re-reading Hindswaraj, where she mentioned that Gandhi has forgotten women in his writings. She was able to provide with a smile her biggest constructive criticism. He stated that she has talked about the three most under-reported sections of women workers: the tobacco workers, the vendors and the scavengers.
To organise women back in the 70s and the 80s was a huge task, especially considering that all of the work was spearheaded by a woman herself. Mr Macwan then mentioned that very few have taken a position on the riots of 1980-81. When Mr. Macwan’s house was set on fire during the anti Christian riots, Ela Bhatt was the first person to write a self scribed letter to him.
While the Gujarat model is often glorified in today’s world, it was Ela Ben Bhatt who showed the other side of the Gujarat Model, where the marginalised were exploited and subordinated. Without political interests, she has organised women across the country.
Next, it was Ms Parul Sheth, Co-founder and Executive Director, Shaishav, who talked about how Ela Bhatt inspired not just her professional life but also her personal life. She mentioned how Ela Bhatt’s work has led to the recognition of women’s work as a homemaker, and for the first time, how women’s work was recognised in the census studies as well.
She has considered Ela Bhatt as her personal mentor, having known her personally for decades. Ms Sheth has pioneered the cause of organising against child labour, and is currently serving in the Executive Committee of Campaign Against Child Labour. She mentioned how she had been overwhelmingly inspired by the works of Ela Ben, who made her firmly believe that it is not impossible for her to work for the cause of empowerment of children and child rights.
The last panellist of the session, Dr. Roshan Ara compared Ela Bhatt to Professor Muhammad Yunus, eminent economist of Bangladesh who adopted the model of microfinance for the marginalised. She mentions how there needs to be a model similar to the one founded by Ela Bhatt, to be established in a place like kashmir. This is in context to the marginalised women workers of Kashmir who comprise a large section of Kashmiri society.
She notices how there is a lack of women cooperatives in Kashmir through which the woman vendors and producers can sell their produce. There isn’t much diversification in terms of where women work in Kashmir, and are often confined to livelihood areas such as handicraft, spices among others. She concluded by speaking about the lack of gender responsiveness of the mainstream unions, and the need to create strong women unions.
The event was summed up by the chair Professor Vibhuti Patel, who concluded by remembering the secular humanist ideals that Ella Bhatt embodies. Everytime she faced difficulties, she remembered Ekla Cholo Re by Tagore. She was always unhinged even when she faced verbal or physical attacks of any sort throughout her professional career.
She was a true Gandhian who stood by her simplicity, her work ethics, her ideals of peaceful revolutions, and actions, which inexplicably transformed the lives of millions of working class women in the nooks and corners of the country. The event concluded with a vote of thanks by Aanchal Karmani, Researcher at IMPRI, who thanked all the speakers and the chair for making the session an enriching experience for all the viewers and participants.
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Acknowledgement: Aaswash Mahanta, research intern at IMPRI

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