SEWA: God is in the Banyan Tree…

A septuagenarian Gandhian, both in terms of simplicity as well as self-discipline, Elaben Bhatt, Co-founder of nation’s largest women trade union movement, SEWA, is committed and energised when it comes to restoring dignity of labour, self-respect and self-reliance to under-privileged women. She explains how she left a successful career of a lawyer and got attracted to Gandhian ideals in an exclusive conversation with Gursharan Dhanjal, Editor of Inclusion

01 October, 2011 Interview
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Gursharan Dhanjal: How did SEWA start?

Elaben Bhatt: I was born on 7th September 1933. I was born in Ahmedabad but brought up in Surat and studied law. My grandfather joined Gandhiji as Satyagrahi and he went to jail several times. This is where I got introduced to Gandhiji’s ideals and philosophy. And later on when the Textile Labour Union (TLU) was started by Gandhiji and Anasuya Ben, it further inspired me. It is here that I got into the TLU.
As a lawyer I was fighting the cases of the formal sector workers who were all protected by laws and who had been living on wages, insurance and other social securities. But at the same time when in the 80s the textile mills started closing down, then I was asked by our leader ‘go and find out how our workers are surviving’. Then I saw that it was the women whose income that was supporting the family in absence of the workers who lost their jobs after closure of mills. That opened my eyes. I thought of organising and unionising these women. This is how we started SEWA in 1972.

Even though they were self-employed they were short of capital and therefore exploited by private moneylenders, touts, contractors, middlemen etc. Furthermore, their means of production were higher; they had to pay rent out of the little income. At that time our banks were newly nationalised and Indira Gandhi’s slogan was go to small people, Garibi Hatao, she told the bankers to go to the small borrowers. The bank did not know who the small borrowers were. Here we had recently organised small borrowers. That is how we joined the formal banking system for taking loans and for putting our deposits and started a cooperative bank registered under the Cooperative Bank Act.

GSD: How do you define SEWA? What is SEWA to you?

EB: Our strategy is joint action of union and cooperatives. So, through union you demand your rights, you make demands and deal with various levels of exploiters or policy makers. In the cooperatives you slowly become stronger, get full capacities to be able to enter the mainstream of the market. The final thing is self-reliance, both individually and collectively. Organised strength gives you the visibility but if there is only a crowd without any direction, it becomes directionless. The direction comes from the values. Basically the values for economics and our Union called SEWA are simplicity, sanctity of labour, non-violence and human dignity.

Today, this is like a banyan tree. So, like that SEWA is a labour union, which is the main umbrella organisation. The Bank, academy, social security activities, federation of cooperative units – they have all grown into independent branches. The charm is that you cannot cut it.

GSD: You have enabled these women with livelihood linkages giving them access to credit financial services. Could you explain the empowerment?

EB: Money is power. These women have for the first time seen that. You can open account in SEWA Bank with the smallest amount – whatever you have – and then you can buy share in the bank at ` 10+1. The bank fortunately has been running profitably so far. After the first year and all the years along until now it has distributed dividend. So, there is full profit sharing. The bank is also managed 80% by their daughters who are educated and trained. I see SEWA as an instrument of economic freedom. Gandhiji talked about political freedom and in the same breath he also talked about economic freedom and that is why he talked about charkha (spinning wheel) and the gram udyog (village industry). When there are both the kinds of freedom, political and economic, only then a person is able to enjoy Swaraj in the full sense. We have been using the word power but when you talk with the women they see it in the sense of strength, shakti. They don’t see it in the sense of power, satta.

Our total membership as on December 2010 was 1.3 million. SEWA Bank’s working capital is more than about 2 billion and has over 400,000 accounts. After Gujarat SEWA’s largest membership is in Madhya Pradesh.

GSD: How did you cut the middlemen out of several activities?

EB: The idea was to link the vendor and the producer directly. For instance, in the rural areas we already had women marginal farmers, the women who were growing vegetables on the river bank and in their small plots of land. So, how do we buy from them? The bank gave them loan to buy a tempo and every morning they go to the district and procure vegetables from village to village and bring to the wholesale market for further sale to vendors. This cut middlemen out and women could fetch better price for their produce.

GSD: What kind of capacity building and training does SEWA provide to them?

EB: We have a strong composite agricultural training programme wherein they are taught to grow a mix of food grains (primarily their staple food) and cash crops. That is how they at least become self-sufficient, and also make some money through cash crops. This gives them food security. Further, we have set up a rural marketing network. The brand name is RUDI that holds food grains, whichever season. It cuts several layers of costs. Slowly we included handlooms and textiles under RUDI. Sarees, bedsheets, towels, etc come directly from the producer. This is how we are building traditional livelihoods by providing them forward linkages.

GSD: What are you doing in other parts of the country?

EB: There were some very common issues, which had to be dealt not locally but at the national level. There were similar activities undertaken but at very small level all across the country. So our objectives matched well and this is how SEWA has grown from Gujarat centric movement to an all-India movement. We have also formed SEWA Bharat that facilitates exchange of market linkages for artisans and handicrafts, finished products, raw material, and knowhow. It also acts as a link among SEWA’s different groups and activities.

GSD: How many women members are there today?

EB: These members benefit their own-self by coming together. Our total membership as on December 2010 was 1.3 million. SEWA Bank’s working capital is more than 2 billion and has over 400,000 accounts. After Gujarat SEWA’s largest membership is in Madhya Pradesh.

GSD: Looking back do you think that you have achieved what you wanted? Is this what you were looking at or is there a longer way to go?

EB: I don’t think in terms of achievements, even failure. I never think that I have failed because by experience I have seen that every failure has another true potential for further achievement and every achievement also has potential failures or losses. What I am very particular about, is the way we do it. My experience is that when you do it the right way then you do get strengthened internally and outwardly. When you do it yourself and in the right way based on certain values, this is what I call empowerment. Personally I am keen on that and I see that feminine way is the right way. Feminine way in a sense is more inclusive and is more peaceful. Women always want stability. They always want to stabilise the roots for the next generation. Women are better in forging relationships within the community, with neighbours. In times of crisis they are the best managers. When a woman talks straight to the policeman I am happy. She is a confident person today.

GSD: Are there any regrets. It has been over 30 years and still a very few States. The number both of states and members could have been higher!

EB: It is true that we are slow. The women with whom we are working are slow. We have to move at their pace. Otherwise, big numbers may bring more profit, perhaps, but that is not what we wanted. But still what I want to do is to grow horizontally and not vertically. With the changing profile of SEWA and the leadership perhaps we will. It is also true that not many people know of us as a result there are not very many replications of our experiences across India. But I think the biggest challenge for us is that how to remain small and still be a big force. It is always difficult. When you have to come together and take decisions as joint leadership and joint action, it needs more discipline, both organisational as well as of the self. This is something that energises me personally.

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