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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 47 November 12, 2022

Best Tribute to Ela Bhatt is to Increase Justice-Based Opportunities for Women Workers and Small Entrepreneurs | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 12 November 2022, by Bharat Dogra


Ela Bhatt breathed her last on November 2 at the age of 89. With important contributions extending over 67 years, her name has become synonymous with struggles and efforts to improve the employment and income prospects of self-employed women workers, artisans and small entrepreneurs. She was founder of SEWA, India’s most well-known organization of women self-employed workers and its general secretary for 24 years ( 1972-1996). She played a leading role in starting the SEWA Bank so that women could expand and improve their work. Helping to organize garment workers (several of whom create beautiful garments even from left-over rags), street vendors, cart-pullers and other sections of women workers), Ela Bhatt and her colleagues in SEWA went from strength to strength. Leaving the parent union when it was not helpful enough to the cause of women workers in 1972, SEWA could progress even more and in more enthusiastic and creative ways when it decided to march ahead on its own.

Although significant national and international recognition soon followed, the achievements of Ela Bhatt and SEWA were never easy as the women they sought to mobilize often worked in very difficult conditions and had to overcome a lot of social prejudice as well. Protective and welfare labor laws have generally bypassed them, and in any case were not enacted keeping in view their special needs.

Several of these problems still continue and new ones are being added. While the work of Ela and SEWA has touched millions of women, the compelling need for mobilizing and helping women workers has not decreased. In fact in some contexts their problems have been increasing in recent times. Due to a complex of factors, ranging from demonetization to GST to prolonged lockdowns, unorganized sector workers including self-employed ones have suffered a lot in recent years, and within these workers invariably the women workers have suffered even more, losing jobs and income in a big way. Hence there is a new sense of urgency relating to the protection and promotion of the work of self-employed women workers and other women workers.

On the plus side the organization of so many self-help groups of women in recent years has led to increasing mobilization of women, particularly in rural areas, their increasing ability to work together and jointly contribute savings to initiate this. Some very creative work has been taken up, helped by imaginative officials as well as social activists.

Despite there being some promising initiatives here and there, however, we cannot see any truly significant breakthrough at the national level in the form of large-scale increase of sustainable livelihoods for women because of the limited nature of the market that they can tap. As even goods that can be produced easily locally, and for which there are economic and ecological advantages with production being close to consumption, are being manufactured mostly by big industries using more capital intensive methods , brand names and other advantages, there is less scope for self-employment and small or cottage scale work. This is why women self-help groups can get only very limited openings. In fact many openings which existed till recently, in areas like food processing, are getting reduced. The work available for women farm workers in harvesting as well as weeding has declined drastically.

In areas closer to the interventions of SEWA, although protective legislation for street vendors has been enacted, an important achievement to which Ela also contributed, there are still frequent violations of this and it is often not implemented in the right spirit.

Hence there is much that needs to be done to carry forward the work which was pioneered by Ela Bhatt. The horizons of this work should be widened so that, apart from protecting rights of women workers, more opportunities are also opened up in the economy for the cooperatives and groups of women workers and small entrepreneurs. As has been seen time and again, women self-employed workers, their self-help groups and cooperatives have shown very high levels of commitment and creativity. A more enabling environment is needed for the full potential of this to be realized, and reputed organizations like SEWA are now better placed to achieve this by mobilizing for national and state level policy changes as well. If the opportunities for the progress of self-employed women workers and small entrepreneurs, their groups and cooperatives, can increase significantly in the near future, this will surely be the best homage the nation can offer to Ela Bhatt. At the same time it should be emphasized that outside India also, and more particularly in the global south, there is much to learn from the work and experiences of Ela Bhatt.

(Author: Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His books include Man over Machine, A Day in 2071 and Another Path Exists)

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