LARGE bundles of papers, files and registers lay scattered on the footpath opposite the three-storeyed premises of a Gandhian organisation, Majdoor Mahajan Sangh aka Textile Labour Association (TLA), in central Ahmedabad one morning in April 1981. The files belonged to the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which was then a TLA unit led by Ela Bhatt.
The next day, my news story quoted Renana Jhabvala, a lieutenant of Bhatt, as saying that SEWA and its staff were removed from the premises of the TLA, and it would now begin an independent existence. This signified a split in a Gandhian institution. It also showed that the widely connected TLA president, Arvind Buch, was unable to tolerate the rise of a woman leader.
“It was a 100 per cent gender issue. 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 called, died at 89.
The incident was a turning point for what became a vast organisation fighting for unorganised women workers in the informal business sector. SEWA now spans across 14 states and represents unorganised women workers in dozens of activities in this sector.
“I became more and more aware, as I worked with the unionised labour, of the much larger labour force that was outside the purview of the protective labour laws, of any form of social security, access to justice, access to financial services, anything. That tugged at my heart. And those people were unorganised and had no strength to act to seek remedies,” Bhatt told Katherine Marshall in a discussion after receiving the Niwano Peace Prize in 2010.
“That was why and how the working poor remained poor, how they had no recognition, no vote, no policies that took any responsibility for them, no budgets to provide support. They were the poorest among the poor,” she said.
Labour laws were made for an organised labour force and were mostly crafted under the pressure of trade unions. Women workers, which include vegetable vendors, garment makers, cart pullers, ragpickers and the like, did not have the protection of the law, although their numbers exceeded those of members of organised trade unions.
This is why SEWA’s separation from an organised trade union of textile workers in one city was a significant development. In 1981, Ahmedabad was reeling under the impact of reservation riots with the Patel community expressing its angst against job reservation for the backward communities.
As a trade union, the TLA was dominated by Patel workers and Buch had his political reasons to go with the wind. Elaben took the opposite stance, telling a television channel that there should be job reservation as long as there was injustice against poor women.
Textiles were the dominant industry in Ahmedabad, and the leader of the biggest trade union commanded a voice of his own. Elaben’s TV statement challenged his dominance and worked as the last straw on the camel’s back. Buch had to exercise his power and show what he could do. The result was the exit of SEWA, TLA’s women’s wing — lock, stock and barrel.
“Even before that event, Buch had resented the fact that Elaben had received several honours and awards. She had already won the Ramon Magsaysay award and was being invited to several international forums. Buch had been heard saying that he deserved to be invited instead of her,” Jhabvala, now chair of SEWA Bharat, said.
By resisting, Buch was unwittingly aiding in the making of a revolutionary in Elaben. She not only resisted internal attempts to control SEWA at the TLA but also saw to it that her organisation flourished after it began life as an independent trade union in 1981.
At every step, there was a struggle. For instance, she tried to change the public image of women vegetable vendors who were widely accused of cheating on weight. SEWA faced terrible resistance from shops and other established businesses when she tried to install public weighing machines at a major market in Ahmedabad. Any shopper could check the weight of the goods at the public machines instead of blaming the women vendors.
It took tact and acumen as much as boldness to deal with a range of social and financial complexities that came with each problem. For the believer in status quo ante, she created the problems by challenging the established systems and manner of thinking.
Take the case of women 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. A lot of the beedis they made were rejected as ‘bad’, leading to loss of wages. The business was controlled by labour contractors who worked through an intricate system of labour supervisors.
“There was a lot of resistance when SEWA took up cudgels for women beedi workers. But they joined the rallies and demonstrations with determination. At one stage, the business owners got enraged and sacked all women workers,” remembers Ratna Desai, a SEWA volunteer at that time. “Business owners resented the loss of face. We resolved to deal with the situation with tact and managed to provide some relief to the women workers,” she said.
Elaben was the chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, a university founded by Mahatma Gandhi, and a chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust. Her crowning achievement, even bigger than receiving the Padma Bhushan and several other awards, was the launch of the SEWA Bank. Such a bank was necessary because established banks were reluctant to finance small traders who could not provide supporting documents. This was a struggle against the Reserve Bank of India, which stuck to old norms of bank licensing and was not ready for the new concept of micro-finance.
Let me conclude by saying that the struggle of the unorganised women’s workforce is far from complete and we need more leaders like Elaben.
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