SEWA: Last of the Gandhian Economics?

Providing self-employment and self-reliance to poor and marginalised women, developing local economies into self-sufficient sections and doing away with middlemen is what SEWA, the largest women’s movement has been striving to achieve. Team Inclusion recently visited several villages in Gujarat to bring you the first hand experience of how Gandhian ideals of self-reliant village economy or Swaraj, are as relevant as ever and also practiced in letter and spirit.

SEWA: Last of the Gandhian Economics?
01 October, 2011 Social Sector, Women & Child
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When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi walked 241 miles from Ahmedabad to Dandi village to break British law on making salt and give impetus to the fight for independence, Devuben Jayantibhai Rathore was not even born. India gained independence 17 years later and Devuben (around 40), a resident of Kuda Gaon in Surendranagar district in Gujarat, was born about three decades afterwards.

But for her as well as thousands of other salt pan workers or agarias in local parlance in Surendranagar who contribute 70 per cent to the total salt production in the country, freedom was not to come for several more decades. Though members of Gujarat Government’s Meetha Sehkari Namak Mandali (MSNM), they were still enslaved to moneylenders. Not only would the moneylenders charge exorbitant rates of interest on the working capital loaned to them but also would bind them into selling their produce to them at extremely low prices – often at one third of the market price.

“Gandhiji had shown the way. There were basic do’s and don’ts. SEWA is like a banyan tree –the main trunk. The rest (branches) rose at their own pace. Being Gandhian is so Indian.”

Elaben Bhatt, Co-Founder, SEWA

Devuben would work in extreme circumstances between every October to May in the salt pans and yet live in penury. “We would stay in the salt pans in darkness with scorpions and other insects and yet make a profit of only Rs 50 per ton at the end of the season,” she recollects her voice betraying a sense of regret. For eight months, her family would be without proper shelter and access to food and water. They would be exposed to blazing sun, salty waters and hazards like sunburns and ulcers associated with the sun and the salt. What was worse they knew to produce only edible salt, which would fetch them much less price than the industrial salt.

To fulfill needs of salt workers for working capital, SEWA provides loans to 500 new members every year. The idea is once these members become self-sufficient, they may not need loans again. On an average, a salt pan worker needs Rs 75,000 as working capital for one season.

“We would stay in the salt pans in darkness with scorpions and other insects and yet make a profit of only Rs 50 per ton at the end of the season” – Devuben Jayantibhai Rathore, a Salt pan worker

Dandi II

Devuben joined Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)’s Childcare Co-operative in 2001 and has since not looked back. Thanks to the market linkages and training for production of industrial salt, she gains almost double the price what she would get earlier. “I get to make Rs 50 more on each ton now,” she beams, standing on a high pedestal as if to exhibit her exalted status. The profit has brought about several changes in her household. For one, her daughter Kavita has topped the village school because the mother could pay for her tuitions. Devuben is already planning to get her enrolled for BBA. Now she has even started sending her other daughter and son for tuitions.

A good part of the story is that Devuben is not the only one who has benefitted from SEWA. According to Heena Dave, Senior Coordinator SEWA, over 2,500 women salt workers have switched over to industrial salt which fetches four to five times more per ton than the price of the edible salt. “We train about 500 to 550 women every year in making industrial salt,” she says. Considering that the number of salt workers who are members of SEWA is 14,000, the organisation expects to take another two years to train all of them.

To fulfill needs of salt workers for working capital, SEWA provides loans to 500 new members every year. The idea is once these members become selfsufficient, they may not need loans next time. On an average, a salt pan worker needs Rs 75,000 as working capital for one season. Besides, providing them capital and taking care of their children, the Association has come forward to assemble two types of solar lanterns to make up for the unavailability of electricity in the salt pans.

The work for salt pan farming, small and marginal women farmers, vegetable and fish vendors, banking, insurance, computer education, ecotourism and sale of Rudy brand of spices and lentils etc. is what has helped SEWA rustle up over 1.30 million members, spread over in 10 states including Gujarat, West Bengal, Delhi, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. In Gujarat alone, it has amassed .78 million members. Moreover, it has taken SEWA members all around the globe to share their experiences with their foreign counterparts. SEWA members have been to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Israel and Netherlands among other countries.

“I went to Israel to tell them about water harvesting and growing cumin, castor, wheat, millet and chilly,” reminisces Jignasaben, a member of Kudrati Mitra Pravasan Kendra (KMPK), one of the around 100 Co-operatives which owe allegiance to SEWA tree. The latter itself was born out of Textile Labour Union (TLU), one of the first labour unions in the country, which was founded among others by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation.

Gandhi Connection: Self-Sufficiency

SEWA bank came into being in 1974, two years after the movement freed vegetable vendors from the tyranny of policemen and middlemen and 19 years after Elaben Bhatt, Co-Founder of SEWA, joined the Textile Labour Union (TLU) in 1955 and started representing the Union in the courts. Initially, SEWA, in fact was a branch of the TLU and leadership of the Union naturally assumed its command over time.

“We train about 500 to 550 women every year in making industrial salt.” – Heena Dave, Senior SEWA Coordinator

Today the offshoot has well and truly overgrown the mother tree (TLU) with over half a million of its members in Gujarat hailing from rural areas of the state. It has spread its tentacles in over eight districts of the state. But more than that Gandhian philosophy is what has sustained the association and helped it eliminate the middlemen from as many trades as possible. The Gandhian principle of self-sufficiency of local economy – whatever is made or produced or earned in a village must be used first and foremost by the members of the same village – is at the core of its movement against the middlemen. “Don’t buy anything from outside is what Gandhi believed in,” says Heena Dave.

SEWA sells the packaged products to the same clientele from which it buys the raw material from. In fact the model of creating local ecosystems applies to almost every other of its over 100 ventures the Association has promoted. Be it project for salt pan workers, vanlakshmis (women who work to promote forests), beedi workers, Rudy products, ecotourism, sale of medicines or SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre it has set up for women embroiders, the idea is to add value to the existing structures, hone skills, make women aware about their rights and talent, build capability and train a selected few to market the produce in the same ecosystem. Gandhi’s entire concept of self-rule and village economies is being replicated in the cooperatives promoted by SEWA.

The biggest example of this is Rudi Multi Trading Company Limited, which was started from Sabarkantha district on a pilot basis and has since been expanded to 14 districts and into several processing centres. The company procures directly from the farmers, processes, packages and markets products through a network of rural Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of women called Rudiben in Gujarati parlance. The unique rural distribution network of Rudibens reduces incidental expenses, makes available good quality products to rural consumers, and eliminates middlemen and thus brings about socio-economic development of under privileged rural people.

Standing for small, beautiful and nice in the local dialect, Rudi bazaar is built on the smallest consumer with a purchasing power of only Rs 50 to Rs 100 a month but multiplies into 5,30,000 members of SEWA resulting into an annual turnover of over Rs 160 million. Hindustan Lever Limited and the Grassroots Trading Network have provided the technical and capacity building inputs in setting up the Rudi bazaar. Incidentally Rudi was also the name of the first rural member of SEWA.

Not only does Rudi provide employment to rural women but also gives them an opportunity to add to their wealth. Suryaba Vikram Singh Jadeja, who Team Inclusion met in Surendranagar’s packaging centre, for instance earns Rs 3 for packaging one packet of turmeric, chilly or lentils. She does packaging work on two days out of eight days. On the rest of the days, she goes to neighbouring villages to sell the packets. She is paid Rs 5,000 per month for selling in 20 villages.

Suryaba (38) has trained 20 Rudi sisters and come to earn great respect in her family and outside. Besides, the extra income has helped her buy a plot of land and enroll her sons in better educational institutions. “I’ve three sons. My first son is studying agriculture in boarding and I pay hefty fee for him every month. The younger one wants to join police and is doing well in class 10,” she declares with a glint in her eyes. She wants to stick to Rudi for good. “My parents say I did the right thing by joining SEWA. They tell me never to leave it,” she adds.

There is not a single SEWA Cooperative where you do not find the portrait of Gandhi adorning the front wall. Apparently he is the inspiration. “Gandhiji had shown the way. There were basic do’s and don’ts. SEWA association is the trunk. The rest (branches) rose at their own pace. Being Gandhian is so Indian”, says Elaben Bhatt, arguably the last of the Gandhians who has contributed majorly to the success of SEWA referring to how the 103 Cooperatives have gone about in eliminating the middlemen while making women self-reliant and restoring self-respect for them.

Move Over Middlemen

Be it Shri Matsyagandha Women’s Sewa Cooperative Limited (SMWSCL), salt pans, small and marginal farmers, beedi rollers, milk producers, a vegetable cooperative in Ahmedabad subzi mandi, medical store, insurance, banking or weaving, the target has been the middlemen who fleece both the suppliers and the retailers and contribute to increase in price of essential commodities for the common man. Team Inclusion visited many of these places to get firsthand experience of how it has been achieved.

We set out from a fish market, located under Chamunda Bridge in Chamanpura. The fish cooperative has grown from 96 to 300 members. Out of these 225 are active members. The market earlier operated from some unauthorised pavements in Chamanpura and few other places and was fully dependent on middlemen or what you call commission agents. These middlemen would fetch fish from Saurashtra and Andhra Pradesh and charge steep prices from the women vendors. After nine years of struggle, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation allotted 56 cubicles to the fish sellers six months back.

From then onwards SEWA took the responsibility of fetching fish from Saurashtra. “Our Tata 407 bring 400 to 500 kilogram of fish during off-season. During the peak season, the load doubles. It delivers the fish at the doorstep of Chamunda market saving commuting time of sellers and charges much less than what the middlemen would charge,” says Suruchi Mehta, a SEWA member. SEWA has facilitated formation of vendors and producers cooperatives besides the fish sellers group.

“Earlier I would buy fish from three places. Now it is delivered at my doorstep. Earlier I would earn Rs 50 a day. Now after the elimination of middlemen, I get to make upto Rs 250 a day,” says Shanti Ben, a fisherwoman. What is more after payment of  Rs 500 per month for 18 months to the municipality, the women will become owners of their cubicles. What comes as topping on the cake is that fish-sellers now have option of getting their families insured against illness and accidents. After paying only Rs 50 a month, their family members’ hospitalisation fees up to Rs 2,000 are borne by SEWA.

The story gets replicated in Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC). The commission agent shop number 40 owned by Gujarat Rajya Mahila Sewa Sehkari Sangh (GRMSSS) Limited in APMC is doing brisk business even as the agents placed next to it have less work. Bina and Usha of the GRMSSS are busy selling bundles of gourd, ridge gourd, bitter gourd, cumin etc. after weighing them on an electronic platform scale. Anuben from Raikhad who has come to buy gourd says she has been a member of the cooperative for four years. “The GRMSSS charges Rs 10 less on every 20 kilogram of vegetables. That is why I prefer it,” Anuben, who hawks vegetables on roadside, claims. She feels she gets to earn Rs 100 to Rs 200 more every day because she buys from the GRMSSS.

Less Commission More Profit

Like the fish market where SEWA takes minimum margin from the fish sellers, the GRMSSS charges less commission from vegetable suppliers. While the other shops charge 10 per cent (2 per cent higher than the government rate) from them, the GRMSSS charges 6 per cent. Besides, SEWA agricultural consultant K G Mehta gives free advice to farmers on what to grow and when to grow. He also advises them to use natural manure instead of urea and pesticides. “We do sale of Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 in a day. Sometimes it crosses even 100,000. In lean season the figure comes down to anything between Rs 15,000 to Rs 5,000,” says Laboben Thakkar, in charge of the GRMSSS.

“My parents say I did the right thing by joining SEWA.
They tell me never to leave it.” – Suryaba Vikram Singh Jadeja who packages spices and staples and sells them in neighbouring villages

Gandhi’s principle of self-sufficient local village economy finds an echo in Radhanpur and Santalpur taluka in Patan district of Gujarat as well. People at the two places would frequently migrate to other places, as their cattle would need grazing pastures. Women would stitch beautiful embroidery but would either keep it for girls’ marriages or sell them for pittance to the middlemen. It was a coincident that SEWA discovered the extraordinary skills of the women in the desert region. It so happened that Reema Nanavaty, Director of Economic and Rural Development in SEWA visited the place to study water harvesting in late 1980s. During her study, the former IAS officer realised that unemployment was a problem and majorly responsible for migration. She also got to see the intricate and striking designs the women would draw on their clothes.

Rudi Multi Trading Company Limited procures directly from the farmers, processes, packages and markets products through a network of rural Self-Help Groups (SHGs) of women called Rudiben in Gujarati parlance.

Nanavaty decided to hold an exhibition of their exquisite embroidery in Delhi and somehow prepared five women in Vava village (Santalpur taluk) for stitching. “They would barely earn Rs 500 annually for their skill. For exhibition work, they managed to earn Rs 300 for 10 days,” Nanavaty remembers. But the event also brought its share of problems. Since the five women had traveled first time out of the village to Delhi with Nanavaty, the local Panchayat imposed a penalty of Rs 10,000 on each of them. It was a practice for village women not to leave village. Nanavaty thought of an innovative solution. She first enrolled wives of male leaders of the society. Once they were convinced, the rest came around on their own.

Like the GRMSSS and SMWSCL, SEWA also runs a medical store in Ahmedabad on the pattern of ‘no profit, no loss’ basis. The 24×7 store, located in front of a government hospital provides 10 to 17 per cent discount on medicines to all its customers. Run by 15-members, headed by Manager, Harshida, the medical store not only sells branded medicines but also vends 15 products of SEWA. On injections etc. the store at times offers even 50 percent discount. “We only earn enough to pay salaries to our 15 employees,” Harshida asserts.

Trade Facilitation for Artisans

In 2003, SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre (STFC) came into being to organise women artisans in textiles and handicrafts sector. Today over 60,000 women are members of the Centre. Over 3,000 thousand artisans are stakeholders with the STFC. The Centre has created its own brand called Hansiba (in the name of Hansibaben – the first rural artisan of SEWA who inspired thousands of rural women to pull themselves out of poverty). Jamuben is the largest shareholder in the enterprise. The STFC’s sustained, profitable and efficient coordination of the design, production and marketing of Hansiba products in the country and outside, now earns a woman artisan anything between Rs 100 to Rs 10,000 on a single product. The Hansiba brand has put a complete stop to migration of the population. “Before 1987, 95 per cent people would migrate. Now nobody migrates,” Nanavaty claims.

The STFC has introduced better sanitation, drinking water, education and prosperity in Radhanpur as well as Santalpur blocks. Almost all people now have water tanks and proper toilets in their houses. They make use of water harvesting. Now 70 percent girls are enrolled in schools. “Before 1987, I would earn Rs 15 a month. Now it has gone up to Rs 5,000,” says Jamuben, the daughter of Hansibaben.

Last but not the least is SEWA bank, which is the pivot around which the largest women’s movement in the world orbits. The bank again is not just the finest example of how financial inclusion should be pursued but also tells how women should be helped to gain employment and self-sufficiency. The bank with seven branches in Gujarat not only holds deposits worth Rs 2 billion but also disburses pensions, insurance and micro credits for productive services. Jayshree A Vyas, Managing Director, says SEWA bank has disbursed 50,000 micro-pensions to women workers in collaboration with UTI. It also offers vimoSEWA, a bouquet of micro-insurance products (while the annual premium for an insurance of Rs 10,000 for a family is Rs 400, the individual accidental insurance of Rs 75,000 requires payment of Rs 150 a year) to SEWA members. SEWA puts the number of insured women at 200,000.

The bank adds its bit to financial literacy as well as bank employees do financial counseling. “Ben arrives in a rickshaw and explains the benefits of banking to us,” confirms Taraben Kapadia from Lambha a village near Narol on National Highway 8, who holds an account for last 10 years. The biggest advantage the bank offers is that one can open an account even with Rs 50 here. Kapadia claims to have taken loan several times for her son who is studying Engineering in Akola (Maharashtra).

SEWA Bank is one institution that has, ever since it was set up in 1974, been relentlessly working for pushing for livelihood linkages or financial inclusion in today’s parlance, and providing its workers banking facilities and related savings and loan products. Interestingly all its accounts are operational accounts and the concept of no-frill accounts was not known to the bank until very recently. The current RBI regulation stipulates that each bank has the target to open no-frill accounts, which is what SEWA finds hard to “comply” with. Innovative as SEWA is, it opens a zero-balance account to start with and within minutes the beneficiary deposits whatever sum to make it operational.

“These artisans never had seen life outside their village. The middlemen exploited them wherein they were paid meager 500 rupees annually for their skills. But now, they participate in exhibitions and make adequate money by selling their products.” – Reema Nanavaty, Director of Economic and Rural Development in SEWA, on how SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre (STFC) changed the lives of women artisans

Despite getting into varied fields, the hardnosed SEWA mandarins have not overlooked their basic function – that of a trade union. The 15,000 beedi rollers who are their members in Ahmedabad would vouch for this as not only have they got them identity cards and opened a medical clinic for them but also made sure that their children get scholarship till college. They have also been responsible for launch of a housing scheme for them and a multi-fold increase in their daily wages. They have also insured them against natural (Rs 2,000) as well as accidental (Rs 25,000) deaths.

ICT for Employment

What comes as a kind of topping on a cake is that SEWA has not only helped salt pan women farmers raise their profits by turning to production of industrial salt, taken care of their wards in Child Care Centres but is also teaching the latter computers so that they are able to get employment in their respective Gram Panchayats. It has trained many girls on MS Office, Excel and using internet and few of them like Bina Prakash have got jobs as Data Entry Operators (DEOs) in their respective Gram Panchayats or opened their computer training centres. A small office of SEWA in a hamlet in Surendranagar, where the women members congregate once in a week to take stock of their accounts and work, toil daily to package Rudy products, also houses a computer institute where eight girls are trained any time. The institute runs different courses including a basic course in computers and a course on using the Internet.

“SEWA believes in opening accounts that are linked with livelihood. This has resulted in all of its accounts being operational. None of these have been opened as no-frill accounts.” – Jayshree A Vyas, Managing Director, SEWA bank

Yet one of the largest drawbacks of SEWA, the banyan tree, is that despite being such an inclusive organisation for poor and maginalised women, it has only reached limited parts of the country and there is less awareness about it outside Gujarat. “We should expand in hilly areas specially the North East,” rues Vyas. “Our work should be recognised. We need to have visibility. There is very little policy support. Things (on government level) are becoming difficult,” Elaben signs off with lines of concern puckering up on her forehead.

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