Ela Bhatt: A 'Heroine' And 'Gentle Revolutionary' For Millions Of Women

Ela Bhatt's SEWA was worth trillions of dollars in the impact it created in the lives of millions, though it had no market cap.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>SEWA founder Ela Bhatt. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) </p></div>
SEWA founder Ela Bhatt. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Indian military is the world’s largest employer. The U.S. military is a close second. Both employing nearly three million persons. And Walmart Inc. with 2.3 million is the third largest—also the largest private sector employer in the world. Inc., which created the world’s wealthiest man, is a distant fourth with over 1.3 million individuals directly or indirectly employed globally. The list of the world’s top 10 employers is dominated by either the government entities or half a trillion to trillion dollar worth private enterprises. 

All of them belong to the organised sector. Invariably. No exception. In India, this sector generates employment for about 7% of the country’s nearly 1.5 billion population.

The rest of the 93% or 94% of Indians earn their livelihood through what we call the unorganised sector. Mainly comprising the unskilled, followed by the skilled.

Agriculture, farm labour, industrial and construction labour, vendors and small traders, cottage industries and so on. There is no job-giver or assurer for the livelihood of the economically weakest segment of society. There is no one to give them legal, economic and skilling support. Nobody watches their back when they have a scrap with the law or the darker underbelly.

If this is the scene even in the 21st century, one can only imagine how the situation would have been, almost half a century back. In 1972. And more so, for women. Especially for those from the marginalised, poor, uneducated, underprivileged classes. From the footpaths, shanties and  invisible bylanes and ghettos of the cities to the forgotten and deep rural pockets of India, the women had no rights. Constitutional rights they had, but economic rights? Who even thought about it in the society of the ‘70s! 

It’s then that the behemoth of an organisation called SEWA or Self Employed Women’s Association emerged as a champion for such women. Worth trillions of dollars in the impact it created in the lives of millions, though it had no market cap.

A very unique and co-operative modelled SEWA skilled the women, gave them literacy—literal, financial and legal—to fight for their economic rights. Gave them the muscle to vend their wares and make a living for the poorest of the families with dignity. And she ensured this for over 2.1 million women, who became members of SEWA. Actual members who have benefited from SEWA over the decades run into many more millions.

Unfortunately, Elaben’s work and contribution is much less celebrated and recognised by Indians than it should have been.

Though SEWA was not a direct employer for its members in terms of giving them a regular salary, but it it did everything and more than what the regular organised sector employer would do to ensure they earned regularly. Training, banking, law—everything that a self-employed woman ever needed for support was provided by SEWA. And for almost none or a negligible cost.  

It is this contribution of hers, as a catalyst and supporter for employment of over millions of economically underprivileged women world over, a large number of whom would have easily fallen prey to all kinds of exploitation, that makes the loss of Ela R Bhatt worth mourning and her life worth celebrating.

This is one departure where the loss will be felt in millions of households the world over.

SEWA worked not just in India, but also in countries like Taliban-infested Afghanistan for decades, against all kind of threats. Successfully sharing its model of women empowerment.

Elaben, as she is known in Gujarat, was a living legend for the last few decades of her life. For former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Elaben was her "heroine". For Nelson Mandela and other world leaders, she was a "gentle revolutionary". One who revolutionised the lives of millions of women without any violence. 

Of course, there would be critics, detractors, rivals and people who dislike when you have a body of work that spans on such a scale.

She should not be deified and expected to not possess human qualities that make us all human. She was known not just for her success but for her integrity too. And simplicity almost to a fault, for head of such a giant and global organisation of economic significance.

The administration of the organisation might not have gone well with many critics of hers, particularly those whose success or contribution is not even a fraction of what she did. Everyone is unique and so is one’s way of doing things. She could not be blamed for being what she was and not what others could have wanted her to be. 

Unfortunately her last few months were tumultuous. Her health was on a steady decline.

The criticism that she faced for the plight of two major Gandhi-inspired institutions that she headed, came at a time when she was in no shape to respond.

She was chairperson of Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust and chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi-founded Gujarat Vidyapeeth. The allegations are that she could not steer these institutes clear of government and political intervention.

But in her defence, she was asked to head these institutes very late in their life cycle—one of them almost on the verge of collapse and the other ridden with multiple problems.

Her failing health and advancing age did not help her to do what she was known for—giving a structure to a movement and turning it into a lasting institute. 

Save for a well-deserved Nobel and Bharat Ratna, she was showered with many prestigious awards—Ramon Magsaysay, Right Livelihood, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan to name a few.

She was a member of the elite global group of 12 leaders, called ‘The Elders’, founded by South African leader Nelson Mandela. She became a founder of Women’s World Banking and also became a trustee of the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation.

A lawyer by training, Elaben was born in Ahmedabad in 1933 to a lawyer father Sumantrai Vyas and a women’s rights activist mother Vanalila Vyas.

She studied law and spent the rest of her life working for women's empowerment, and did her schooling and spent most of her growing-up years in Surat.

After she completed her studies, she married Professor Ramesh Bhatt, who taught economics at HK Arts College in Ahmedabad and whom she had met in their student days. 

The turning point in her life came in 1951 when she accompanied Ramesh to the slums of Ahmedabad for a survey he was doing, as a part of the Census exercise.

She witnessed the misery of women in slums, with no economic support and no one championing for their rights. This is what transformed her life. She later wrote in her book, “We are poor, but so many.”

In 1968, the Textile Labour Association, a Gandhian influence trade union, asked her to head its women’s wing. This assignment eventually led to the formation of SEWA in 1972—for a much wider audience. 

She was unique in trying to live a life that comes closest to what Gandhiji would have desired Indian leaders to live. She was exemplary for anyone who wants to live true to the Gandhian spirit. 

Shyam Parekh is an Ahmedabad-based senior journalist and former editor of DNA. He heads Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Rajendra Prasad Institute of Communication and Management (RPICM) and is a founder of Gujarat Literature Festival.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.