Ela Bhatt sparked a fire that ignited a global movement - Hindustan Times
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Ela Bhatt sparked a fire that ignited a global movement

Nov 03, 2022 08:02 PM IST

My dearest friend, closest sister and comrade in the struggles for recognition and justice, Ela Bhatt, added one more truth – that collective power, even of an ostensibly powerless group, can rebuild not only their lives but also the entire economy.

A fistful of salt overturned the British Empire. When Mahatma Gandhi undertook the Dandi Salt March in 1930 and picked up a fistful of salt as an act of civil disobedience, the world learnt a truth – that collective power, backed by a moral idea, can overturn an empire.

In her work, Ela quickly realised how women were treated as second-class workers and compelled to be limited to the so-called informal sector. (PTI)
In her work, Ela quickly realised how women were treated as second-class workers and compelled to be limited to the so-called informal sector. (PTI)

My dearest friend, closest sister and comrade in the struggles for recognition and justice, Ela Bhatt, added one more truth – that collective power, even of an ostensibly powerless group, can rebuild not only their lives but also the entire economy. Out of nowhere, cart pullers, vegetable vendors and petty workers became an economic brigade with Ela’s leadership. It was not only collective power and resistance but also a new voice that said “we are here”. Women in what is often inappropriately called the informal sector rose under her leadership. She gave a new identity to labour and trade unions. The Self Employed Women’s Association or Sewa, which she founded in 1972, was a tower; it lit up banks and production processes and dispelled the dark divisions of caste and religion.

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For each of these steps, my dearest Ela was the fount. Ideas and terminologies flowed out of her and led women where they deserved to be, allowed workers a right to legal protection and created the trust to receive bank loans. To be present at a Sewa union meeting was to witness a revolution. With her soft voice but indomitable spirit, Ela built an economic force that both revealed the gaps in the economy and created remedies for the underprivileged.

I first met her in the 1970s. In 1973-74, there was growing interest in India in writing about women. The United Nations was gearing up to hold the first international conference on women and women’s issues. The government had also set up a committee to study women. There was a new energy in this field. I had just left my teaching job and written a book, and remember having a conversation with the then member-secretary of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, who told me of a new movement in Ahmedabad that was uniting women vendors. I travelled to Gujarat to talk to Ela. It felt like we were two sparks destined to meet.

She was a member of the textile labour association, one of the country’s oldest labour unions that was founded by Gandhi. But at the time, most of its leaders were men who unfortunately were steeped in patriarchy and couldn’t believe the presence of a strong woman among them.

In her work, Ela quickly realised how women were treated as second-class workers and compelled to be limited to the so-called informal sector. She wanted to shift that perception and focused on women who were sewing, doing needlework, and cooking.

By leading women to work as cart pullers on the busy roads of Ahmedabad, she breached the domain of so-called hard labour, hitherto reserved for men. When she found that her programme of empowering women was becoming difficult within the union, she moved away. It created a storm but she overcame it, helped by her gentle, thoughtful husband, Ramesh Bhatt.

In most developing countries, the relationship between women and work is warped. Many women don’t have conventional work or ties with their employers. Their work is home-based, in sectors deemed ancillary. This often created hurdles in getting recognition as workers, receiving benefits or even accessing memberships of trade unions. Ela changed this. She gave women workers an identity, founding Sewa as an independent trade union. It took courage.

Nothing cowed down the mild-mannered lady dressed in a modest khadi saree. Inside her was a fire that ignited a worldwide movement. She recognised that women couldn’t fit in the normative worker-employer relationship, so her Sewa bank opened up credit to women and her organisation certified women workers. She was committed to the core philosophy of Gandhian thought – start with the poorest and least privileged. She dreamt of a new production and trade system, and a just economy that was fair to all. It is a pity that her economic arguments didn’t get their due; they weren’t considered serious by more established economists. I regret this. But what she built cannot be brought down, it will only strengthen and spread. Rest well, dear sister.

Devaki Jain is an economist and writer who was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her contribution to feminist economics and social justice

The views expressed are personal

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