An empire for poor working women, guided by a Gandhian approach

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Friday, 6 March, 2009

Somini Sengupta of The New York Times profiles the life and work of Ela Bhatt, a "Gandhian pragmatist for the New India" and founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

Thirty-five years ago in this once thriving textile town, Ela Bhatt fought for higher wages for women who ferried bolts of cloth on their heads. Next, she created India's first women's bank.  Since then, her Self-Employed Women's Association, or 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 - an unusual job for women on the bottom of India's social ladder.

Small, slight and usually dressed in a hand-spun cotton sari, Mrs Bhatt is a Gandhian pragmatist for the New India.

At 76, she is a critic of some of India's embrace of market reforms, but nevertheless keen to see the poorest of Indian workers get a stake in the country's swelling and swiftly globalising economy. She has built a formidable empire of women-run, Gandhian-style cooperatives - 100 at last count - some providing child care for working mothers, others selling sesame seeds to Indian food-processing firms - all modeled after the Gandhian ideal of self-sufficiency but also advancing modern ambitions.

She calls it the quest for economic freedom in a democratic India.

Her own quest offers a glimpse into the changing desires of Indian mothers and daughters, along with their vulnerabilities. Tinsmiths or pickle makers, embroiderers or vendors of onions, SEWA's members are mostly employed in the informal sector. They get no regular paychecks, sick leave or holidays. Calamities are always just around the corner, whether traffic accidents or crippling droughts. Without SEWA, they would be hard pressed to have health benefits or access to credit.

SEWA's innovations bear lessons for the majority of workers in the new Indian economy. Since economic reforms kicked off in 1991, the share of Indians employed in the informal sector - where they are not covered by stringent, socialist-era labor laws from the time of the cold war - has grown steadily to more than 90 percent, according to a recent government-commissioned report.

Among them, the report found, nearly three-fourths lived on less than 20 cents a day and had virtually no safety net. "Why should there be a difference between worker and worker," Mrs Bhatt wondered aloud, "whether they are working in a factory, or at home or on the footpath?"

With 500,000 members in western Gujarat State alone, the SEWA empire also includes two profit-making firms that stitch and embroider women's clothing. More than 100,000 women are enrolled in the organisation's health and life insurance plans. Its bank has 350,000 depositors and, like most microfinance organisations, a repayment rate as high as 97 percent. Loans range from around $100 to $1,100, with a steep interest rate of 15 percent. "We don't have a liquidity problem," its manager, Jayshree Vyas, pointed out merrily. "Women save."

A SEWA loan of roughly $250 allowed Namrata Rajhari to start a beauty salon 15 years ago from her one-room shack in a working-class enclave called Behrampura. At first, the neighbourhood women knew little about beauty treatments. They only wanted their hair trimmed.

Then Mrs Rajhari began threading their eyebrows to resemble perfect half-moons, waxing the hair off their forearms and offering facials. During the wedding season, business blossomed. Mrs Rajhari, who only has a 10th-grade education, expanded to a small room in the next lane.

With money from her business, Mrs Rajhari installed a toilet at home, added a loft and bought a washing machine. "Before, I felt blank. I didn't know anything about the world," she said the other day. "Now, with my earnings, my children are studying."

Mrs Rajhari then motioned to an object of pride in the living room. "The computer is also from my parlor money," she beamed. A daughter, Srishti, is now enrolled in a private English school. She wants to be an astronomer.

Behrampura buzzed with work and hustle on this morning. Men disassembled old television sets and put together new sofas. A woman pushed a cart loaded with used suitcases. Another herded a half-dozen donkeys loaded with construction debris.

Nearby, in another slum, shortly after dawn, Naina Chauhan rode a motorised rickshaw across town to start her shift as a gas station attendant. Her mother, Hira, now 65, had spent a lifetime ferrying coal, cleaning hospitals and going house to house to collect old newspapers. Naina said she resolved never to slog as her mother had.

Today, she contributes about $1 a month to her own SEWA-run pension plan. A SEWA loan has allowed her to clear a debt from relatives. She easily makes three times what her mother made collecting newspapers and as she shyly admitted this afternoon, almost as much as her husband, a hospital cleaner. She just recently married, and plans to move into her husband's family home soon. She said she hoped he would let her manage at least some of her own money.

Mrs Bhatt's Gandhian approach is most evident in the way she lives. Her two-bedroom bungalow is small and spare. The one bit of whimsy is a white swing that hangs from the ceiling in the center of the living room. She uses her bed as a desk chair. Her grandson has painted a child's pastoral mural on the bedroom wall. She is known for having no indulgences.

"Above all you should emphasise her simplicity," said Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management here who has followed SEWA's work for over a decade, sometimes critically. "In her personal life, there is not the slightest tinge of hypocrisy."

Mrs Bhatt is not without detractors. The chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, accused her group of financial irregularities three years ago in the management of a rehabilitation program for earthquake victims. SEWA denied the charges and pulled out of the government-run program. Mrs Bhatt accused Mr Modi of trying to discredit the organisation. Their war of words has since cooled down.

Born to a privileged Brahmin family, Mrs Bhatt charted an unusual path for a woman of her time. She earned a law degree and chose the man she would marry. She began her career as a lawyer for the city's main union for textile workers, the vast majority of them men, and broke away in 1981 to create a new kind of union for women.

Early on, she 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. The fishmongers and quilt-makers who were SEWA Bank's earliest customers sometimes stashed their checkbooks in the bank's steel cabinets, she recalled, lest their husbands discover they had money of their own.

At first, the women's ambitions were limited, she said. They wanted toilets, hair shears or sewing machines for work and money to pay for their children's school fees. Slowly, she noticed, they began to dream big. Mothers now want their daughters to learn to ride a scooter and work on a computer.

"They didn't see the future at that time," she said. "Expectations have gone very high."

Not long ago, Mrs Bhatt recalled, she asked SEWA members what "freedom" meant to them. 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."

Then she told of her favorite. Freedom, one woman said, was "looking a policeman in the eye."

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