The journey of Ela Bhatt, a gentle revolutionary : The Tribune India

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Saibal Dasgupta


Senior Journalist

LARGE sheaves of papers, folders and ledgers were strewn on the sidewalk in front of the three-story premises of a Gandhian organization, Majdoor Mahajan Sangh aka Textile Labor Association (TLA), in central Ahmedabad on an April morning 1981. The records belonged to the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), then a TLA unit headed by Ela Bhatt.

The following day, my report quoted Renana Jhabvala, a Bhatt lieutenant, as saying that SEWA and its staff had been evicted from the TLA premises, and would now begin an independent existence. It meant a split in a Gandhian institution. It also showed that the highly connected TLA president, Arvind Buch, was unable to tolerate the rise of a female leader.

“It was 100% gender. Buch led a patriarchal system at the TLA. On the other hand, Elaben could speak her mind and implement her thoughts,” Jhabvala told me on Wednesday, a day after Elaben, as Ela Bhatt was popularly known, died at 89. .

The incident marked a turning point for what has become a large organization fighting for unorganized women workers in the informal sector. SEWA now spans 14 states and represents unorganized women workers in dozens of industries.

“I became more and more aware, as I worked with unionized workers, of the much larger workforce that fell outside the scope of protective labor laws, of any form of social security, access to justice, access to financial services, etc. It hurt my heart and these people were not organized and did not have the strength to act to seek remedies Bhatt told Katherine Marshall in a discussion after receiving the Niwano Peace Prize in 2010.

“That’s why and how the working poor stayed poor, how they had no recognition, no vote, no politics that assumed them, no budget to support them. They were the poorest of the poor,” she said.

Labor laws were designed for an organized workforce and were developed mainly under pressure from unions. Women workers, including vegetable vendors, garment makers, cart pullers, rag pickers, etc., were not protected by law, although their numbers exceeded those of the members of organized trade unions.

This is why the separation of SEWA from an organized union of textile workers in a city was a significant development. In 1981, Ahmedabad was reeling from reservation riots, with the Patel community expressing their anguish against the reservation of jobs for backward communities.

As a union, the TLA was dominated by Patel workers, and Buch had his political reasons to go with the wind. Elaben took the opposite position, telling a TV station that there should be job reservation as long as there is injustice against poor women.

Textiles was the dominant industry in Ahmedabad, and the leader of the largest trade union had his own voice. Elaben’s TV statement challenged his dominance and worked like the last straw on the camel’s back. Buch had to exercise his power and show what he could do. The result was the release of SEWA, the women’s wing of TLA – lock, stock and barrel.

“Even before this event, Buch had been unhappy that Elaben had received several accolades and awards. She had already won the Ramon Magsaysay prize and was invited to several international forums. We heard Buch say he deserved to be invited in his place,” said Jhabvala, now chairman of SEWA Bharat.

By resisting, Buch unwittingly contributed to the formation of a revolutionary in Elaben. She not only resisted SEWA’s internal attempts at control at the TLA, but also ensured that her organization thrived after beginning life as an independent union in 1981.

At every step there was a struggle. For example, she tried to change the public image of female vegetable vendors who were widely accused of cheating on weight. SEWA faced terrible resistance from shops and other established businesses when it attempted to install public scales in a large market in Ahmedabad. Any buyer could check the weight of the goods at the public vending machines instead of blaming the sellers.

It took tact and insight as much as boldness to deal with a range of social and financial complexities that accompanied each issue. For the proponent of the status quo ante, it created the problems by challenging established systems and way of thinking.

Take the case of beedi workers, many of whom had migrated to Ahmedabad from Andhra Pradesh. They suffered gender injustice in different ways, including low wages compared to male beedi makers. Many of the beedis they made were rejected as “bad”, resulting in lost wages. The company was controlled by labor contractors who worked through a complex system of labor supervisors.

“There was a lot of resistance when SEWA took sticks for beedi workers. But they joined the rallies and protests with determination. At one point the company owners got angry and fired all the female workers,” recalls Ratna Desai, a SEWA volunteer at the time. “Business owners were upset to lose face. We decided to handle the situation tactfully and managed to relieve the workers,” she said.

Elaben was the chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, a university founded by Mahatma Gandhi, and a president of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust. His crowning achievement, even more important than receiving the Padma Bhushan and several other awards, was the launch of SEWA Bank. Such a bank was needed because established banks were reluctant to finance small traders who could not provide supporting documents. It was a fight against the Reserve Bank of India, which stuck to the old banking licensing standards and was not ready for the new concept of microfinance.

Let me conclude by saying that the struggle of unorganized female labor is far from over and we need more leaders like Elaben.

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