Ela Bhatt is an extra-ordinary personality. Her life long dedication towards upliftment of self-employed women has been appreciated and honoured all around the world. Hence, when I received a copy of her memoir (We are Poor but so Many/OUP/INR 345), I enthusiastically started to read it. And read one must, if one has to appreciate the determination, innovativeness and doggedness of self employed women in today's economy. One also appreciates how much is to be done for ensuring that a large section of society, no less productive and no less hardworking than the 'organised sector' does not get a raw deal in our quest for achieving high economic growth.
The book starts with Elaben (in Gujarat, women are addressed as ben meaning sister) recounting how, a lawyer brought up in a rich family, was attracted towards working for the self employed women due to her huband's own work towards the poorer sections of society.
As a lawyer, Elaben started her career in the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in 1955. During the strikes, she realised what an important role women played in ensuring that households get by with minimum income. When the men of the house were out attending rallies, the women carried out odd jobs to make ends meet. Yet, no one recognised this vital role! This led her to form SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association) in 1972.
The book goes on to recount struggles against the bureaucracy (the registrar not ready to form the co-operative since the women were illiterate), the Government (SEWA has been known to take a different stand than the one taken by Modi during and after the riots), market actors (medical shop owners issuing physical threats to women manning the SEWA medical shops), etc.
The book is divided into various chapters on the basis of the occupation of its members and on the interventions. It is amazing to see how women engaged in occupations like rag picking, garment stitching, hawking groceries, mid wives, etc have come together to uplift themselves.
One can feel that Elaben has understated her own efforts.Nowhere one can find Elaben glorifying her own work. In fact, her co-workers who came from backgrounds similar to the members of the union provided her the strength to carry on the good work.
In fact the idea of owning one's bank came from a member who when told by Elaben that a bank requires a considerable amount of money retorted "We are Poor, But so Many"! The work done
by her co workers is immense. That many of them were illiterate and poor accentuates their contribution in building such a large organisation.
SEWA has also benefited from professionals who usually came down as interns from top Universities but stayed back and have made a meaningful contribution to SEWA. So you have Renana Jabvala who came with degress from Yale and Harvard to conduct a study but never left. Jayshree Vyas, a CA who is the MD of the Bank. Mirai Chatterjee, that wonderful personality who won many an admirer when she came for a pre placement talk at IRMA, with a Harvard and John Hopkins degree who looks at the health co-operative, etc.
What comes through in the book is this-inspite of SEWA being such an established name, it still has to struggle to get the administration and the bureaucracy's support for its programmes. One can only wonder the difficulties that smaller NGOs/producer companies, etc have to go through for undertaking their activities.
Also, all our social security measures for labour are directed at the organised sector. This sector does not constitute more than 10% of our workforce. The remaining part constitutes the "unorganised" sector. This sector is responsible for the "low cost" economy. They are all around us. And yet there is no adequate social security measures for this vast section of our population.
Hence, Elaben philosophically asks in the end " In India where a majority of workers fall outside of this current definition of work, perhaps it is time we asked, what is Karma?"
( Prof. Sriram has written a beautiful and personal review of the same book which can be accessed here)