We not only want a piece of the pie, we also want to choose the flavour and know how to make it ourselves.
– Ela Bhatt
Many of us urbanites know SEWA as the organisation that sells exquisite Lucknawi chikan kurtas. We wait for the sale, buy our pieces and go home with hardly a thought about the vision and struggle behind each piece of garment. What is SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) and who is behind all this? The first thing that struck me when I went to talk to Ela Bhatt, Ela ben to all, was her quiet calm. No anxious impatience of the doer, no arrogance of the achiever. This woman seemed to know that time was important, but also that quality time was more important. Ela ben has opened up a new chapter in the history of women’s leadership and entrepreneurship, not by the saccharine mould of charity but by empowerment in very real terms. She is the recipient of the Padma Shri and the Padmabhushan.
Rukmini Sekhar: Ela ben, you have been working towards the empowerment of women for so many years. At this time in history, the feminist movement is also on the upswing. What are your views on ‘feminism’? Do you consider yourself a feminist as the term is used today? And does the feminist movement embrace you?
Ela Bhatt: I think empowerment of women is one thing and feminism is another thing. We have to be cautious about these ‘isms’. I mean like ‘Gandhism’ – there’s nothing called ‘Gandhism’. There is something called Gandhian thinking. So, similarly, feminism becomes a trap because of the ‘ism’. What I understand is that the feminist point of view is a pro-woman thinking that leads to equality, but what I understand by empowerment of women is equality of opportunity according to their own capacities. And women are not a homogenous group – they cut across all kinds of class, caste, religion and region. Unfortunately, not enough work is being done by us women and further we don’t have a common vision. So, I really doubt that in India we have a common vision from the feminist point of view. What we mean by feminist is to be more ‘humanist’. But if you are asking me what my concern is, then it is about the 80% of women of the real India who are rural, poor, illiterate or semi-literate and economically active. So when I talk of the womens’ movement in India then I’m really not talking of the feminist movement.
What are the priorities of our women? They are, work security, income security and self-dignity. They wish to participate in the process of acquiring these and when they have done so, they have done excellently. This whole process is empowerment, quite different from charity. While struggling for it they get organised, get enough courage to articulate their needs, build up alliances with other sympathetic people and even learn to make policy interventions. I wish to emphasise that the process is what counts though results may take time. Building up self-confidence and fearlessness is part of the understanding. And this understanding is called empowerment. I’m not an expert on the subject, but to me ‘feminism’ is more like advocacy. Someone taking up another’s cause, which I don’t say, is unnecessary. But what I mean by the womens’ movement is that they themselves take up the objective of getting empowered enough to keep it an ongoing struggle.
R.S.: SEWA is one of India’s most successful movements or is it an organisation? I am aware that organisation and struggle are the key tenets of your work. Can you elaborate on this please?
E.B.: We need to make a distinction between mobilisation and movement. A movement is a larger thing while mobilisation is for something immediate and somewhat limited purpose. And that is why we find that mobilisation has not been able to turn into a movement. SEWA is a trade union, which is both an organisation and a movement. Unionising is not merely confrontation. It also means responsible and constructive action for nation building. Whenever I have seen the success of a movement it is where their organisations have been built up. Poor peoples’ organisations, womens’ own organisations, economic organisations, social organisations. Initially, when you take up a cause, it may well begin as a project. After three years perhaps it dawns on you that you could actually ‘organise’ for better effectivity. Normally, it takes at least ten years for an organisation to take roots if the objectives are clear. While in the process of organising, you are privy to certain aspects that could turn it into a movement. From the movement are born more organisations and vice versa. So they support and enrich each other. From the Gandhian movement emerged many organisations like khadi and village industries, political swadeshi organisations etc. But those organisations that remain merely organisations and don’t turn into movements become dead after some time.
R.S.: I myself work in a voluntary organisation, SPIC MACAY, and we like to call it a movement. Now, SEWA has many branches and I presume they are flowering and growing on their own. How do you monitor the character and direction of your various branches? How much freedom and independence do you give to these people – in fact, how much do you interfere in their working?
E.B.: Even if our branches do a simple little project it has to have relevance and should be perceived as having one, that’s all we ask for. It may be just distribution of milk, but why are we doing that? Everyone involved in that particular activity must know why we are distributing milk to children. It is a matter of perspective and that must be translated into action and goals, which are clearly understood by everybody. SEWA’s mission may not be lofty, but everybody, – members, staff members, volunteers and office holders – all of them understand the same thing. In concrete terms, we believe SEWA’s goals are:
a) full employment at the family level
b) self-reliance in decision making and
c) financial self-reliance.
This everyone understands. This is further broken down to ten questions. The membership may ask the leadership the same questions and vice versa. These questions are constantly monitored, not to see if they are adhered to but whether they are relevant. When the answer is a unanimous yes, then we know that our direction is right. A continuous, ongoing checking of the relevance of our activities is carried out.
R.S.: Do you do that regularly?
E.B.: Not necessarily, though I’m interested in it since the vision has come from me and I’m the founder. But my colleagues have been with me through thick and thin and I trust them with leadership. And one can be confused at times, you know, I’m not always sure of things as such. So we, who are all in it together, ask the same questions to ourselves. That’s how we assess ourselves.
R.S.: Suppose your centre in Haryana, UP or Kerala is started and someone takes the initiative. Or suppose someone starts a project. A fair amount of autonomy is needed for a person to develop her vision. But do you give that kind of autonomy?
E.B.: Actually, these SEWAs are totally autonomous. They are like our sisters. So they are independent and have their own executive committees. They have their own budgets and own programmes. They are not branches that we sit in Ahmedabad and control and direct them. No, no, no. We have ten SEWAs in six states and all of them are independent. Some are trade unions and some are not. They want an accountability and organisation that is suitable not only to their state but also their temperament. Some are trusts, some societies and yet others, co-operatives. There are, however, few things that have to be common. One is that each centre should concern itself with the working class and necessarily with women from the unorganised sector. The economic development of the community should be at the core. The basic philosophy is that of sangharsh and sangathan – struggle and organisation. It’s not enough to just keep running training classes, one must go out and demand one’s rights. To look into all these things we meet every year. We exchange ideas but each centre is independent. Sometimes we take up common issues, like home-based workers and their right to be treated equally like any other worker in the formal sector. We managed to bring the issue to the level of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and nationally too to get a bill passed on home-based workers employment, contribution and regulation bill. On such issues we come together, but at the day-to-day level they are all on their own.
We also come together in the operation of markets. SEWA is in the business of hand-made products and we build up a common market and mutual access to raw materials as well as design. SEWA Lucknow is also dealing with textiles and Ahmedabad is also a textile place. We also help each other in the matter of credit, because SEWA has a SEWA bank. Over twenty four years the bank has been able to develop a certain expertise through experience.
R.S.: Now to another issue altogether. The development pattern in India today follows an established paradigm of globalisation and the market. While the debate on this is endless, I think one cannot deny its exploitative quality especially on poor people. And that is exactly what you are fighting. You may in your life time proceed against it but the process of development itself may not mitigate these miseries of the lower income groups for much time to come. Do you see your own struggle placed in the context only of your lifetime? Is it all worth it?
E.B.: It’s a very serious problem and is only going to get worse. I mean globalisation is one thing but let’s talk of other economic reforms, which are privatisation and liberalisation. I’m not against privatisation per se because we, that is the poor of the informal sector and the rural sector also want to get out of the welfare or license and permit raj. There are so many rules and regulations that curb you all the time and stunt small businesses. We also want bureaucratisation to step down from our shoulders. So, in a way, I’m not against privatisation and liberalisation. But it’s a matter of perception. These reforms are not meant only for big businesses and industries. What is true for them is also true for the tiniest businesses. Why have the vendors been cleared off the streets? Look at Calcutta, it’s no longer the same! The same cleared up portion is going to be given for car parking! It’s a matter of priority. Vendors provide a very useful service to middle class consumers who are an integral component of the ‘market’. So, we also need to be private and liberalised. If we get liberalised we will be able to produce more income for our families and the nation. This lack of perception in favour of the 90% of the informal sector have made them victims of the new economic reforms.
In the informal sector, very few are educated if at all. So, whenever they tried to organise themselves, they have got into the clutches of political parties – electoral politics which is very, very selfish. On the other hand, when they are not organised they cannot demonstrate their political strength with a common voice and change the balance of power. When I say ‘political’ I don’t mean electoral politics, but ‘political action’. Anybody today can treat vendors any way they like and the same with home-based workers. Just look at the situation with Harijans, tribals or minorities, can you make one loose remark about them? This is because they have got political visibility. The same should be the case with the informal sector. Only when such marginalised groups become strong can they make full use of the informal sector.
I must say that SEWA has benefitted from these reforms to some extent. Initially SEWA Bank was not given permission to operate in rural areas because we were registered under the Urban Co-operative Bank Act. We had to fight a lot with the Reserve Bank of India for permission. With the new economic reforms it became more easy for us. Now we can even charge our own rates of interest with permission from the RBI.
But we continue to have problems with the ‘market’. It does not, in its current avatar allow for fair competition. Our women who pick gum from the forest do not get the ‘market rate’ they deserve, since they get short changed by the forest officials who then sell it at five times the price in the open market. If the big vyaparis and industrialists can use the market to their advantage, why can’t the informal sector?
R.S: But this idiom of the open market, it fosters competition. How does your view on this fit in with your Gandhian ideology that spoke of co-operation, trusteeship and common resources?
E.B.: It is not contradictory. Again it’s a matter of perception. You have raw material. Today, the raw material that is used by the poor is also used by big industries, like bamboo, scrap iron, tendu leaves, yarn and forest produce. Now it is another matter whether the government is concerned about employment or full employment. If employment is part of growth, then they should have policies which create and generate more employment and which also improves the quality of employment. Therefore, the first claim to the raw material is of those who are the actual producers. But sadly, the objective of growth is only economic growth and earning more foreign exchange. And employment growth is not integral to economic growth. Naturally, the big industries’ get top priority. Take the example of bamboo. We have a forest called Dang in Gujarat. 80 percent of the bamboo has been given away under a contract to some big players. So, those who survived on this raw material called bamboo have only 20 percent to meet all their needs. It is an open market alright, but in a democracy where 60 percent are below the land. Who gets the priority? Vehicular traffic or those thousands of poor people who make their livelihood on that do foot ki jagah? Finally it’s perception and priority in a democracy such as ours.