13 yrs after Modi pressure, SEWA reiterates political, bureaucratic interference, refusal of space in New Economy

A SEWA-supported fish marketing cooperative
By Rajiv Shah
Nearly 13 years after the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat reportedly tried to pressure the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) for his political ends, India's premier organization, headquartered in Ahmedabad, and working with poor women in the informal sector, thinks that even today political-bureaucratic pressure remains high, mainly due to its wide support among women.
Relations between Modi and SEWA had gone so sour in 2005 that US consul-general (CG) in Mumbai Michael S Owen reportedly sent a cable saying that Modi's BJP in Gujarat tried to "use" SEWA as a “conduit to disseminate communal ideologies”; and when the group resisted there were attempts to “obstruct” its work by withholding grants, “ostensibly over financial irregularities.”
Accessed by the Hinduthrough WikiLeaks, the cable, and dated September 22, 2005, the report quotes SEWA general secretary Reema Nanawati as telling Owen that the organisation was facing the “wrath” of the state government for “resisting” pressure.
Nanawati had alleged, Modi government was being “vindictive” and “obstructing” SEWA's activities in the Kutch region, pointing out how "the resistance was making the GOG more vindictive and causing it to step up its pressure on the organization, she added. Due to lack of funds, over 12,000 extremely poor SEWA members have not received wages for over five months, Nanawati claimed”, Owen added.
A report, titled, “Advancing cooperation among women workers in the informal economy: The SEWA way”, released this month, prepared by SEWA and its cooperatives wing, SEWA Cooperative Federation, in association with the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO), has now said that though SEWA-run cooperatives across India "have avoided any political affiliations", the organized membership of cooperatives is "often seen as a potential support base by political parties."
The report notes, "SEWA’s approach underlines the need for cooperatives to maintain their autonomy and independence from political interventions. The SEWA cooperatives follow ethical practices in their production of goods and services, which can at times put them at a disadvantaged position compared to other private operators in the market."
A masons' cooperative promoted by SEWA
Giving the examples cooperatives promoted by SEWA, the report says, Ekta Organic Produce Cooperative is "often unable to access subsidized seeds and fertilizers which get diverted to organizations with clear political affiliation and influence." Similarly, Ruaab, another cooperative, "has to compete with garment manufacturers who are able to reduce their costs and prices by following unethical practices."
A third cooperative, Saundarya Cleaning Cooperative, says the report, "has lost cleaning contracts in the past because they have refused to offer bribes to officials who decide to whom to award contracts. The organized memberships of cooperatives are often seen as an opportunity for capture by political parties. Hence, cooperatives need to be aware and alert to such dangers and be on guard against them."
Sharply criticising "bureaucratization and politicization of cooperative departments", the report states, "SEWA has observed the bureaucratization and politicization of the cooperative departments in several states. Though the government of India has promoted the formation of cooperatives as a constitutional right for all Indians since 2012, the promotion and support for the growth and development of existing and new cooperatives remain limited."
At a SEWA garments cooperative
The report suggests, there were efforts under the previous UPA government "at consulting with cooperatives across India, including those supported by SEWA, through the National Advisory Council (NAC) of the Government of India, chaired by former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
NAC even "finalized a set of recommendations to enable cooperatives of different kinds to develop further through greater access to financial services, flexible and simpler regulations and appropriate capacity-building."
Thus, there was even "a special focus on women’s cooperatives, including recommendations to support women’s leadership, representation in cooperatives and their boards, and access to social security, including childcare to enable their active participation", the report underlines, "However, these recommendations, while accepted by the government at that time, were not followed through for implementation."
SEWA claims it was the first organization in India to include many of the activities such as healthcare, childcare, and insurance into the cooperative movement in order to empower women. Currently supporting 112 cooperatives across India, SEWA report says, "These cooperatives now function alongside other formal organizations in their respective areas of business."
Quoting political-bureaucratic interference as one of the challenges in "building of SEWA’s cooperative movement", it says, they have been largely "external" in nature, pointing out, "SEWA has observed that a challenge faced by many of the earlier cooperatives was resistance from the officers in the cooperative registrar’s office."
The report states, "SEWA has noted that cooperatives in India may not be considered as part of the ‘new economy’, even though they represent an important strategy for joint and democratic production of goods and services, especially among the poor in the urban informal and rural economies."
It adds, "While most economic policies are quite supportive towards the growth and expansion of private enterprises in general, the regulatory environment remains more stringent for the formation and expansion of cooperative enterprises."
ILO-supported SEWA report
"It is in this context, for instance, that Ruaab, the artisans’ cooperative in Delhi, was registered as a producer company instead of a cooperative", the report says, adding, " Also, while the insurance sector in India has been deregulated and several private players, including multinational insurance companies, have been licensed, the licensing of microinsurers, serving the low-income market, continues to be a challenge. The capital requirement for both large insurance companies and microinsurers is INR 1 Billion or approximately $15 Million."
It underlines, "This huge capital requirement is a significant barrier for VimoSEWA which wants to convert itself into a full-fledged insurer but does not have access to this volume of capital. Further, this amount of capital is not required for cooperatives serving workers who can afford premiums of INR 50 ($0.75) per annum to a maximum of INR 1,200 ($18) per annum."
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Click HERE to download report

Comments

Uma Sheth said…
BJP and its supporters are known to harass NGOs across India. If they really want to improve the lives of the destitute, they should support the NGOs and work hand-in-hand with them