Aug15 Special: For my daughter, Sreya

I am forced to write this post in English. My daughter, Sreya, doesn’t read Tamil well, and this post is meant especially for her.

Sreya is passionate about social issues, especially women’s issues and is currently volunteering at Prajnya in Chennai. I saw an article on Ela Bhatt in Jeyamohan’s site a few weeks back and wanted her to read it. I am sure that Gandhi would have been proud of Ela Bhatt. But you never know with that cantankerous old man, he may have found faults with her as well!

My only option is to translate the article myself. I don’t have a great opinion about my translation skills. As we say in Tamil, ‘Iluppai flower is the sugar in towns that don’t have a mill’. (இலுப்பைப்பூவுக்கு ஆங்கிலத்தில் என்ன பேர்?)

The organization ‘SEWA’, (Self Employed Women’s Association) is one of the world’s largest trade unions for the women working in the informal sector. 92% of India’s workers work in the informal sector. Their voice is barely heard compared to the trade unions in the formal sector. SEWA, headquartered in Ahmedabad, represent 1.5 million women in this sector and is completely managed by women.

SEWA fights for a stable income for them; it works for fundamental needs like a place to live, medical benefits and welfars of the children of the members. When workers are employed by a company, the trade union can fight and bargain with the management and ensure that the workers get their basic rights. But in the informal sector, where there is no permanent employer, no management, who does one fight with? How does one ensure rights and benefits for women who don’t have a steady source of income?

Ela Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad in 1933. Her father, Sumantrai Bhatt, was a successful lawyer. Her mother, Vanalila Vyas, was active in the women’s movement and also remained secretary of All India Women’s Conference founded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Ela did her schooling in Surat and did her law education from from Sir L.A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad. She graduated as the gold medallist in 1954. She taught in S.N.D.T. college in Bombay for a short time. In 1955 she joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad.

Anusuya Sarabhai, popularly known as Motaben (‘Elder sister’ in Gujarati), was the sister of the famous industrialist, Ambalal Sarabhai. A child widow, she went to London to study medicine. She was a Jain by religion, and it went against her religious beliefs to dissect animals – which was part of the curriculum. So she joined London School of Economics. She was influenced by the Fabian Society, and got involved in the Suffragette movement as well. She returned to India in 1913 and started working for betterment of women and the poor. She decided to get involved in the labour movement after witnessing exhausted female mill workers returning home after a 36-hour shift. She worked to improve the conditions of textile workers.

Motaben was also involved in a month-long strike in 1918, where weavers were asking for a 50 per cent increase in wages and were being offered 20 per cent. Gandhi, a friend of the family, was by then acting as a mentor to Sarabhai. Gandhi began a hunger strike on the workers’ behalf, and the workers eventually obtained a 35 per cent increase. During the time, Sarabhai organized daily mass meetings of the workers that Gandhi addressed. Following this, in 1920, the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association (Mazdoor Mahajan Sangh) was formed.

Ela started working in the legal wing of TLA from 1955 under the guidance of Motaben. In 1968, she was asked to lead the women’s wing of TLA. In 1968, she went to Israel where she studied at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labor and Cooperatives in Tel Aviv for three months, receiving a Diploma in International Labor and Cooperatives in 1971. She came back and started focusing working women’s issues. She was very much affected by the fact that while thousands of female textile workers worked in the informal sector to supplement the family income, the laws protected only those who were solely industrial workers and not these self-employed women. The difficulties in meeting the basic needs with uncertain income flow and fluctuating demands on labor really bothered her.

Under the women’s wing of TLA, she started a sub-wing to serve these self-employed women. In 1972, this evolved into a separate organization – SEWA.

92% of India’s workers work in small scale industries or inthe informal sector. These people mostly live in fringes of rural societies, and slums of urban societies. The common factor among all them is poverty – whether they belong to backward classes, or dalit castes or tribes becomes less important to their lives. SEWA goes beyond the textbook definition of trade union and unites them across the caste barriers.

SEWA’s main aim is to work towards ‘safety’ in jobs, income, food and social benefits for women. Housing, health, and children’s welfare are included in social benefits. SEWA defines safety as woman individually or a as group attaining self-sufficiency and being able to decide on their own future by themselves. SEWA’s path is to effect social change through Gandhian means of Truth, Ahimsa, equality and small scale industries.

SEWA is a mixture of trade union, cooperative movement and feminist organization. It established itself as a movement and an organization at the same time. SEWA unites women who run small businesses and women who work in the informal sector and tries to provide them social prestige and strength. Its main aim is to create new pathways for the women who are affected by The spread of globalization and the resulting decline in traditional craft based industries.

In 1971, women workers who were transporting goods by pulling carts approached Ela through their contractors. They were mostly migrants, and didn’t have a place to stay. While Ela was doing field research to understand their problems, she also got insight into another set of women workers – these workers carried goods from place to place as head load. Ela wrote an article in a local newspaper describing the problems these women face at the hands of traders who employed them. It created a stir. The local traders refuted Ela by writing articles. The controversy blew up, and a meeting was convened with traders and workers. One of the workers suggested that an organization is needed to report and solve the problems they face. SEWA was formed as a result of that suggestion.

The women workers wanted to register SEWA as a trade union. The government’s labor department was flabbergasted at the request. SEWA’s members worked in the informal sector, and several of them were actually running small businesses. There was no single organization or company that employed them. As it was not clear who would be responsible for delivering their rights, the government refused to register them as a trade union. SEWA did not give up, and kept arguing that it was an organization that unites workers, and hence qualifies as a trade union and finally succeeded.

Independent women workers or small business owners can become a member of SEWA by paying annual dues of 5 rupees. All the members were grouped by the trade they pursue, and a representative is selected for every 100 workers. These representatives form a high level committee. In addition, for every 15-20 workers, a representative is selected who handles the day to day issues of her group.

SEWA’s member are divided into 4 categories viz:
1. Street vendors – sellers of vegetables, eggs, fish, meat, household good and clothes
2. Home Workers – Weavers, Potters, Beedi makers, Incense stick makers, Papad makers, Readymade clothes makers, Tailors, Handicraft makers
3. Laborers (Physical Labor) – Agricultural workers, Construction workers, Contract workers, Cart pullers, Head load carriers, Household maids
4. Service Workers and Manufacturers – Farmers, Cattle owners, Salt makers, Small scale food vendors and caterers

SEWA established a co-operative bank – the SEWA bank – in 1974 with just 15 members. 4000 women members contributed 10 rupees each and provided the initial capital. Before this, pavement vendors and pushcart vendors had to borrow money at exorbitant and usurious rates for their cash flow. The usurious rates practically ensured that they cannot repay the loan and put them under the thumb of the lenders. Big banks did not want to bother with them; and there was no institution where they could save a tiny portion of their small incomes.

SEWA bank tried to solve these problems by taking unconventional approaches to banking. It appointed grassroots level employeed called Banksathis. Banksathis usually lived in areas where they lived. They were carefully selected – they were usually locally popular, well known figures and they had leadership qualities and they were relatively well off. The last condition was important as the Banksathis had to put up a security deposit of 15000 rupees. The Banksathi’s major responsibility was researching the background of people who need loans. They would look at aspects like the family background, children, income flow, whether the husband has a habit of drinking and so on and would recommend the loan amount.

Several of these Banksathis reported to a bank officer. The bank officer would study the recommendations of the Banksathi and make the final decision about whether to loan the money or not. If (s)he decides to loan the money, then (s)he would meet the borrower directly and explain all the logistics – monthly repayment amount, number of installments, the penalties if an installment is mised etc. 3% of the loan amount is paid out as the commission to Banksathi who made the recommendation. In addition, 1% commission is paid to the Banksathi on the total deposits she manages to collect from the members. In addition to business loans, SEWA bank also loans money for buying/building a home and marriage expenses.

At the end of the fiscal year 2016-17, SEWA bank had 471 thousand members and had deposits worth 243 crore rupees (34.5 million USD). It has given away loans to the amount of 143 crores (20.3 million USD). The net profit was 3.6 crores (511 thousand USD). Ela Bhatt won the ‘Best businesswoman’ award given by Economic Times.

SEWA bank also runs a pension scheme for the poor. It has 40000 members at this time. It makes saving money easier and streamlines the government pension to the old, thus guaranteeing minimum income in the old age for the poor.

Kennedy administration school has studied the activities of SEWA bank and the SEWA trade union and has recorded the economic improvements in the lives of SEWA members. SEWA has made it easier for its members to avail benefits from government schemes. SEWA members make use of government schemes for children’s education, building houses etc. Because SEWA protests, the daily wages of beedi workers and headload laborers has risen.

In 2015, Internation Labor Organization – ILO – decided to extend it reach to workers in the informal sector. SEWA has played an iportant part in drafting the rights and rules for workers in the informal sector.

SEWA, whicih started in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, has now spread to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Kerala, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and other North-Eastern states. 45% of SEWA members are now outside Gujarat. SEWA adapts to local conditions. For instance, in Bihar, it trains women in food processing. In Rajasthan, it trains women in the usage of computers.

In a nutshell, SEWA unites women working in informal sector, helps them in whatever area they currently work and tries to assure them a minimum price/wage for their work. It derives its strength from the numbers, from the women it represents whose economic status is very low. This is especially true o fwomen working in the informal sector.

The ups and downs of Indian economy affects the workers in the informal sector first. For instance, in Alang, Gujarat, there is a huge ship breaking industry – just breaking up old ships for scrap metal. In Alang, 1,00,000 workers were employed in this, 40% of which were women. In 2015, the industry collapsed, leaving the workers in the lurch. SEWA hurried there, trained women to work in other sectors, and thus provided them alternatives.

Ela Bhatt is now 85. She lives in Ahmedabad with her children. She has been awarded the Padma Vibhushan (second highest civilian award from the government of India), Ramon Magsaysay award, the Indira Gandhi award, and a honorary doctorate from Harvard University. She is also a member of the ‘Elders’ group, started in 2007 by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Former American President Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan are among the current members of this group. This group tries to act as the conscience of the world and raises its voice on any world problem without fear.

The only common factor about the informal sector is the economic instability. Media and the government usually don’t bother about them. SEWA has touched only 1.6 million of them so far, and it is estimated that there are 200 to 300 million of them in India alone. SEWA and the society still have a long distance to go to address their problems.

தொகுக்கப்பட்ட பக்கம்: ஆளுமைகள்

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