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An interview with Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA cooperative


09 / 2008

This interview, which took place in August, 2006, is with Ela Bhatt, the legendary founder of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), who pioneered the struggle to win recognition and respect for work in the informal economy, a key component of the New Economics agenda.

Bhatt was present at the first two TOES (The Other Economic Summit) gatherings in the UK in the mid 1980s. Over the last two decades, she has played a key role in influencing the Indian government and a host of international agencies to more fully value the wealth and services generated by millions of women who once did not appear on conventional ‘maps’ of the economy.

Ela Bhatt trained as a lawyer and went on to become the chief of the women’s section of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, in 1968. Appalled by the poor conditions of self’employed women in and around Ahmedabad, Bhatt founded SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association, in 1972. SEWA brought together a wide variety of self-employed women including weavers, stitchers, cigarette rollers, vendors of fruit, fish and vegetables, firewood and wastepaper pickers and road construction workers.

Today SEWA has over 800,000 members who benefit from a network of institutions which provide healthcare, microfinance, vocational training, marketing and other facilities. Bhatt has served as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha from 1986 to 1989. At that time she also headed the National Commission of self’employed women. From 1989 to 1991, she was a member of the Planning Commission. She is a founder member of Women’s World Banking, a global network of organizations which enable low income women to build their businesses, increase assets and improve their living conditions.

Q: You were one of the few Indian activists to attend the first two TOES conferences back in the 1980s. What are your most vivid memories of the first TOES?

(Smiling) LETS! My most lasting impression is that of several LETS pioneers from Britain, New Zealand and other places sitting under a tree and talking about the concept of Local Exchange Trading Systems. What struck me is that it’s so human, and everyone is seen to have a productive role in society because the concept of LETS values a much wider variety of work. It allows everyone to be equal, from the lawyer to the brick layer. Exactly this is Gandhiji’s message. Even an old woman has a productive role.

I have not followed the development of LETS in detail over the last 20 years but its wonderful to know that the system has advanced to a point were governments are now demanding taxes on incomes generated through LETS. And I’m told that the LETS communities are saying “sure, we’ll pay taxes in LETS units”.

Q: Did the TOES gatherings in any way signify a maturing of the ideas of Gandhiji?

Yes, at the first TOES it seemed like a maturation of the ideas of Gandhiji and Schumacher. But by the second year I felt, I may be wrong, it got politicized with a whiff of sectarian political competition. I don’t know how that took shape in the following years because I attended only the first two TOES.

Q: Is the definition, and highlighting, of the self-employed worker, SEWA’s great contribution to formulations within the New Economics stream? How did you strike upon this particular way of describing the people you helped to organize back in the 1970s?

Yes, because SEWA’s work gave such workers a name and a status. When the textile mills closed down in Ahmedbad in the 1970s, I noticed how it was mostly women who kept the families going. Yet I found that these women were left out of protections from the law and had little or no rights as workers. The greatest injustice was that they were not recognized as being part of the active work force even in the Indian Census. So this raised the question: what is employment?

In the traditional economy most people earned their livelihood by working the land and small animal husbandry, dairying and through a home-based craft. Now we find most women depending on income from piece-rate work. So, I realized that being self-employed is the key, historically, culturally and traditionally this has been our way of earning a livelihood and income.

Yet such workers are denounced as being unorganized, marginal, peripheral… In the US this sector is even denounced as a ‘black economy’ because they’re accused of evading taxes.

I wanted to give a positive name in a language that the modern world can understand, thus the emphasis on employment and self, namely people who are on their own. SEWA’s focus was on the reality of the existing status of workers and also going beyond the limited focus on industrial workers. I also wanted to make them part of the labor movement. After all, everyone who is contributing to the national income is a worker but this is still not fully recognized.

For example, SEWA now has over eight lakh members spread across 6 states. So we have applied for recognition as a national union. But the Steering Committee which makes this decision is resisting our recognition as a national union. Even our membership to the International Conference of Free Trade Unions came through in spite of opposition by other national trade unions in India.

Q: Over the last two decades, to what extent have the self-employed gotten better recognition from governments in India and from international agencies?

Things have definitely changed, slowly but surely. Earlier, those who worked 10 hours a day for a wage were invisible – they were not even counted as workers in the census. So they were both undocumented and unprotected. This has changed. They are now included in the Indian census and academics have documented this sector in detail.

But they still don’t have much political visibility because they lack the organized strength. They have a voice, but its limited. And they have yet to attain representative in their own right in national policy making. So there is still a long way to go. At the international level, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) has played a big role in this process.

Q: Is it fair to call this a ‘new economics’?

I think it’s more just a recognition of what really is, what is real. As Gandhi said, this is nothing ‘new’ but as old as the hills. What it means is that the gap between economic ‘theory’ and what actually happens is being narrowed.

The biggest obstacle have been the conceptual blocks in the minds of policy makers. For example, when we set up SEWA we were constantly asked, “If these are ‘workers’ where are the employers?” “ Rolling beedis at home is not work”, we were told. “Against whom will you agitate?” But a union is not just for agitating or being against. A union is also for – for solidarity.

Similarly, the SEWA bank was first blocked because our clients were illiterate and had no regular income, no work place (because they worked from home). Our question was, are they not contributing to the GDP? Even today, 63% of the GDP is from the informal sector (which includes agricultural exports) and 55% of the savings come from this sector. As much as 47% of the foreign exchange is earned by the informal sector.

Q: How would you define economic democracy?

Economic democracy means economic freedom, the freedom to earn one’s livelihood, to have the opportunity to grow, to develop and join the mainstream. It won’t be a true azadi (freedom) unless everyone can experience it. This means that all work must be given due recognition. There must be opportunities for everyone to develop his/her skill. This requires investments in the multiplication of opportunities that enable the inclusion of more and more people. The Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technology have all fed big industry with skilled workers. There have been no matching institutions for the informal sector – for the product design and marketing and accountancy and management and other needs of this sector. We still don’t have enough institutions to serve the needs of the poor. IRMA was meant to do this for the rural poor but even that has mostly provided skilled members to the formal sector. Thus we have failed to build on the human resource base we have in our society. So economic democracy will mean providing the financial services, health services and better tools which will enable people to find their own way to produce or find work.

Q: How do you view the exponential growth in the field of micro finance?

Savings are a very important way of building assets and building assets is important to fighting poverty. It is important that people are able to turn savings into capital. The poor self-employed have proved that they are bankable, particularly women. They are more futuristic; they have a larger sense of responsibility to their family than their men. My dream is that women’s federations could come up across India to set up a network of decentralized banking. This is the promise of the self-help groups.

Micro-Finance Institutions (MFI) are mainly the outcome of NGOs. Then banks like ICICI began to see this as a good market segment to lend to. They lent large amounts of money to MFIs who have a big reach and went into aggressive expansion. This meant short-cuts and lowering of quality. The MFIs have high delivery cost because it involves lot of field work and face-to-face dealings. The Micro-Finance sector also has high over-heads since it is run by professionals with a different work ethos.

At present many of these issues are being taken up in Sa-dhan, a network of micro-finance institutions. The members of Sa-dhan have recently come out with a code of conduct for self regulation.

I believe in sustainability, but not subsidy. Sustainability means that you have to have a margin. But delivery costs also cannot be allowed to go very high - though it is true that the cost of fund-raising, the cost of risk-management and cost of delivery are much higher when lending to the poor.

However, most of the structures are still organized in favor of the formal sector. Take the example of the insurance sector even after liberalisation. At present, regulations require a minimum authorized capital of Rs.100 crore to start an insurance company or cooperative. SEWA can raise Rs. 50 crore but we need a partner to share the risk. The government could put in a Rs. 50 crores revolving fund but it won’t. And we don’t want foreign money.

Working with and for the poor has become more difficult. Working beyond party politics has become very difficult, now the spaces for public life and public culture have changed and shrunk.

Key words

cooperative, alternative development, economic solidarity, economic development

, India


An Economics for well-being


For further details see:

  • SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association

  • WIEGO, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing

  • Sa-Dhan, the Association of Community Development Finance Institutions

  • WWB, Women’s World Banking

This sheet is also available in French: Entretien avec Ela Bhatt, fondatrice des coopératives SEWA



Rajni BAKSHI, An Economics For Well-Being, Centre for Education and Documentation, Mumbai & Bangalore, 2007

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - India - -,

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