Many an epithet has been used to celebrate her—the gentle revolutionary, the Mahatma of “shramjeevi” (working) women, and more. For us, her SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) sisters, and thousands across India and the globe, Ela Bhatt was simply “ben” (sister).
Born in a family of freedom fighters, the spirit of sacrifice and service was imbued early in her. While in college in Surat, she met the student leader and her future husband, Ramesh Bhatt, and together they forged a unique partnership—of service to the poorest and most vulnerable, in the spirit and tradition of Gandhiji.
She was a firm believer in organising—the act of uniting women, building the sisterhood and solidarity. It is the basic building block, she often told us, and with her infectious smile, would add, “No short cuts, we must do the hard work of organising and building up membership-based organisations such as unions and cooperatives, and then our SEWA movement—a ‘sangam’ (confluence) of labour, cooperative and women’s movement and something more than all these put together, the informal women workers’ movement.”
A visionary, she worked round-the-clock to realise her dream of a movement of self-employed women. There are so many firsts to her name, yet she wore her achievements and the many awards and recognition she obtained, lightly. She truly believed these were collective, small victories in the long road to economic empowerment and self-reliance or “swaraj”, as she explained to us. One of her seminal contributions was to the microfinance movement and setting up SEWA Bank, the first of its kind anywhere. An early friendship with Michaela Walsh at the United Nations women’s conference in Mexico resulted in financial services for women, such as the Women’s World Banking, Friends of Women’s World Banking, VimoSEWA, SEWA’s insurance cooperative, and more.
Often described as a Gandhian, Elaben defied labels and categories. She was an extraordinary leader with a unique leadership style—“Jay beeja nay aagad karay te aagewan” (those who put others forward are leaders). And so she did. She inspired innumerable women, and many others across sectors, unions, civil society, government, business, and academics, in India and elsewhere. Wherever there are informal women workers, she was their guiding light—motivating, inspiring, encouraging, giving space for women of all castes, creeds, religions and geographies to bloom and find their own potential. She did not care for the word “mentor” much, but was that and more to so many of us. She firmly believed in the values of Gandhiji and favoured both decentralised, democratic organisations and also “anubandh” or the interconnectedness of human beings with the planet. She lived simply and without clutter, either of possessions or other baggage.
An institution builder par excellence, she started organising workers as a young lawyer at the Majoor Mahajan Sabha, the textile workers union founded by Anasuyaben Sarabhai and Gandhiji. And, it was there that the world of informal women workers unfolded before her. She often said there was no looking back from that point on and she understood that this was to be her life’s work, organising a movement of self-employed women for their rightful place in the Indian economy and society.
Under the same neem tree in then Victoria Garden, now Lokmanya Tilak Bagh, she planted a banyan tree a few months ago to mark SEWA’s 50 years. The banyan tree was how she liked to see our movement. From a handful of women such as old cloth vendor Chandaben, garment worker Karimaben and others, she led SEWA to become the movement of 2.1 million workers in 18 states that it is today. SEWA grew under her able leadership to be the largest movement of informal women workers in the world. There is SEWA, the national union, and thousands of other small, medium and large organisations such as cooperatives and collectives in India and across several continents. One of those that she founded is Wiego (Women in Informal Employment Globalising and Organising), a network of grassroots organisers, researchers and policymakers. She often said the biggest injustice of all was that despite all the work women do, there is no recognition or visibility for them. She helped to set up Streetnet — an international organisation of street vendors who were always special to her. She began her work with street vendors more than 50 years ago, and the struggle for their rights was a cause dear to her heart. She spoke of the injustices they faced in Parliament when she was in the Rajya Sabha, and often chuckled at the memory of rather bewildered members.
Elaben had a knack of explaining and writing in simple, evocative language, preferably in her mother tongue, Gujarati. Charismatic and modest, she would say her life’s work could be summarised as women, work and peace. She brought her years of wisdom and experience into The Elders, where again she stood apart due to her solid organising experience and her keen strategic sense. She was embraced by one and all, but most of all she was loved by the hundreds of thousands of SEWA “bens”, or sisters, everywhere. She was mobbed at every SEWA event and her list of admirers was long and varied, from Laxmiben Tetabhai with whom she fought a struggle for street vendors’ rights in Manek Chowk to Nelson Mandela, with whom she enjoyed a warm friendship.
She was also an expert homemaker, cook and impeccable hostess and had a beautiful singing voice which was an instant draw. She was a prodigious writer who penned in Anasuya, our Gujarati newsletter, a play on street vendors, apart from numerous papers and several books in English and Gujarati. One of these was her book We are Poor But We are Many ,which described as her life’s work. Another illuminating report she steered and edited was Shramshakti, the report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal sector. Crisscrossing the length and breadth of India, she listened to women, recorded their grind of work, their songs and their hopes for a future of equality and justice.
Elaben leaves us a rich legacy of the many organisations she founded and ably led, of reminding us of the unfinished business of our freedom movement and to take the fight against poverty and for swaraj forward, ensure work and income security, food and social security for all, especially the hard-working women of our country. As we celebrate her life, we SEWA sisters resolve to take forward her unfinished work and organise in every corner of our land, build women’s leadership and their own democratic, inclusive, decentralised, membership-based organisations, to build a firm future for them and their families, for India and for our shared global family.
Mirai Chatterjee is former SEWA general secretary and current director of the social security team at the organisation. The views expressed are personal.