Ela Bhatt: The gentle yet courageous Gandhian pragmatist

Ela Bhatt was one of the strong supporters of the microfinance movement which she led in India and she primarily focused on making women financially literate and empowered

Ela Bhatt: The gentle yet courageous Gandhian pragmatist

Rajdeep Pathak

She had many names to her credit. Amma (mother), Ben (sister), Didi (elder sister) and the list continues. But none could miss her affable smile and care coupled with her determination, as clad in Khadi, Ela Bhatt walked into many villages or clusters or slums of Gujarat or elsewhere in India, where she had formed SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) in 1972 after seeing the miserable conditions of the poor self-employed women living in the city and in South and Southeast Asia. 

Ela Bhatt (September 7, 1933 to November 2, 2022) would proudly say that in SEWA, she nurtures and spreads the respect and empowerment which women deserve in the society. SEWA to Ela Bhatt meant giving women their due respect, dignity and welfare. 

Such was the power of this movement launched by Ela Bhatt that within three years, SEWA had 7,000 members and was registered as a trade union with the government. By December 1995, the number of it members rose to almost 220,000, making it the largest single union in India. In 2022, the organisation had two million members across India.

SEWA’s members are vegetable and garment vendors, in-home seamstresses, head-loaders, bidi rollers, paper pickers, construction workers, incense stick makers, and agricultural workers, and so on. They come from India's 'unorganised sector' and have come together for their just dues and rights. This sector includes about 96 per cent of all women workers in India. Among their achievements is the SEWA Bank whose capital is made up entirely of their own contributions.

Ela Ben's determination came from what she thought and believed and implemented practically, not without hurdles, sometimes upon her life too, which providentially she escaped. She would say: “Poverty is powerlessness. Poverty cannot be removed unless the poor have the power to make decisions that affect their lives.”

The well-known Gandhian truly followed the path of Gandhian model of development, living each day by the words of the Talisman that Mahatma Gandhi had given to the world – which has unfortunately remained confined to the pages of NCERT text books – and continued to advocate the economic empowerment of women. 

In her pursuit of women's economic welfare, she founded India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA in 1973. She was also the one who co-founded Women’s World Banking in 1979.

She was one of the strong supporters of the microfinance movement which she led in India and she primarily focused on making women financially literate and empowered. She was the founder and Chair of the Cooperative Bank of SEWA, Sa-Dhan-All India Association of Micro Finance Institutions and the Indian School of Micro-finance for Women. 

Born in September 1933 to a middle-class well-educated family, Ela Bhatt dedicated her life to promote the rights and welfare of India’s ‘invisible’ workers of the unorganised sector. She started as a lawyer with the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a union founded by Mahatma Gandhi. Given the time she was born to a privileged Brahmin family, Ela Bhatt charted an unusual path for a woman of her time and also chose the man she would marry. 

Very early in her fight for the rights of women, Ela Bhatt had won higher rates for women porters, then a landmark legal victory that allowed women to sell fruits and vegetables on the street without harassment from the police. 

She is seen as one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroot development. She dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers, with Gandhian philosophy as her inspiration. The former Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Ela Ben inspired lakhs of women from low-income groups to become self-reliant. She dedicated her entire life towards the empowerment of women that went beyond Gujarat to different parts of the world. 

In a dedicated career spread over five decades Ela Ben Bhatt has built a formidable empire of women-run, Gandhian-style cooperatives – some providing child care for working mothers, others selling sesame seeds to Indian food-processing firms; all modelled after the Gandhian ideal of self-sufficiency but also advancing modern ambitions.

She is also known for her work with The Elders — a global non-governmental organisation of senior statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007. Ela Bhatt was a founding member of The Elders. From 2007 till 2016, this selfless Gandhian worker tirelessly worked with the organisation on issues like gender equality and eradicating social evils, such as child marriage.

She would say, “Non-violence is not a passive idea. It is ethical activism at its political best”.

Ela Bhatt also served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for more than ten years.

For her work, she has been recognised nationally as well as internationally. The Government of India bestowed her with India's fourth-highest civilian honour Padma Shri in 1985 and the third-highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, in 1986. For her efforts in empowering women through entrepreneurship, she received the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2011. She also won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1977.

Following are some of the other significant awards which were conferred to Ela Bhatt : The Right Livelihood Award for Changing the Human Environment; George Meany-Lane Kirkland Labour Rights Award, AFL-CIO, US; Légion d’honneur, France; Madrid Creatividad Award; CGAE Human Rights Award, Spain; Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development; The Freedom from Want Medal by Roosevelt Institute of Netherlands, The Global Fairness Initiative Award by US Secretary of State Hilary Klinton (Nov. 2010) for helping move more than a million poor women in India to a position of dignity and independence; The Radcliffe Medal on 27 May 2011 on Radcliffe day etc. 

In one of her interviews to The New York Times to Ruth Fremson in 2009 the Ela Bhatt had recalled her interaction with the SEWA members whom she asked what ‘freedom’ meant to them. 

While some said it was the ability to step out of the house; others said it was having a door to the bathroom. Some said it meant having their own money, a cellphone, or “fresh clothes every day.” But she was moved when one woman opened up and said, “Freedom meant, looking a policeman in the eye.”

SEWA has offered retirement accounts and health insurance to women who never had a safety net, lent working capital to entrepreneurs to open beauty salons in the slums, helped artisans sell their handiwork to new urban department stores and boldly trained its members to become gas station attendants. 

Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary’; a pioneer in women’s empowerment and founder of the more than one million-strong Self-Employed Women’s Association trade union in India, Ela-ben Bhatt, the Gandhian practitioner of non-violence and self-reliance has left us. But her legacy will continue to inspire coming generations.

The author is Programme Executive, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, Delhi

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