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SEWA coops may explore 'using' digital platforms UrbanClap, UPI, Amazon, Myntra

SEWA founder Ela Bhatt (middle) with Dr Simel Esim at the workshop
By Rajiv Shah
Is the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), India’s premier organization representing mainly working women in the informal sector of Ahmedabad, and cooperatives promoted by it, readying themselves to enter into the new arena of finding a space in the online market? It would seem so, if a two-day SEWA workshop, in which, among others, tens of representatives of national and international women’s cooperatives participated is any indication.
The two-day workshop, which took place on August 8-9, “unpacked four themes”, access to finance, online economy and digitisation, market linkages and governance, even as discussing the need to explore possibilities of how to use available digital platforms for women’s cooperatives, such as UrbanClap, UPI, Amazon and Myntra.
Insisting their tieup into the women’s cooperatives can “transformed the way we work”, a concept note presented at the workshop said, in the current globalized liberal business environment, women’s cooperatives would need to compete and  ensure that “they don’t lose their market share to other forms of cooperatives or corporate enterprises.”
As of today, SEWA-run women's cooperatives produce and market artisan and organic agricultural products, ranging from garments, embroidery works and puppetries to red chilies, turmeric, coriander, quinoa and holy basil. These have limited reach, as they are sold at selected consumer and wholesale outlets as also fairs held in different parts of the country.
Some of the cooperatives also buy raw produce from the members, processes and packages these products, and then markets them to local traders and also to individual households. A wider outreach through online market would help, because traditional arts and crafts have been an unexplored market with fewer options to promote and sell various handicraft products.
Wanting women’s cooperatives to acquire “knowledge of modern technologies and market linkages” to ensure “the sustainability of women’s cooperatives”, the concept note said, “Networking amongst women for engaging in business development and exploring possibilities to enter into business agreements for procurement and sale of respective products is an important need of the hour”.
Agreeing that banking institutions may be “willing to fund new-age start-ups, but similar avenues are lacking for women’s cooperatives”, the concept note, however, believed, “The financial recession and subsequent consolidation of evidence on widespread disparities in wealth” has simultaneously “resulted in the rise of a solidarity economy in which cooperatives again play a central role.”
The concept note said, “Cooperatives continue to be the only viable alternative to the volatility and exploitation of the free-market economy and may therefore be one of the few institutional structures that can provide a modicum of balance between the disparate groups within both India, and globally. Finding means to support and enhance the capabilities of these cooperatives is therefore imperative.”
The concept note said all this and more, even as Mirai Chatterjee, chairperson, SEWA Cooperative Federation, having a membership of 106 women’s cooperatives, told the workshop that less than 2% are women’s cooperatives in India, seeking a “change this by advocating for an enabling policy environment” by involving public and private partnership.
The workshop was inaugurated by veteran social worker and SEWA founder Ela Bhatt, a winner of Ramon Magsaysay Award (1977) and Right Livelihood Award (1984), who regretted, “When a woman milks a cow in her village, she is not counted as a worker.” But she said, “When she is in a dairy cooperative, she gets an identity and visibility.” She wanted promotion of “a joint strategy of struggle and development for building an economy of nurturance.”
Among those who participated in the workshop included representatives from the SEWA Cooperative Federation, SEWA Bharat (SEWA’s national federation), International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), 42 grassroots women leaders of 21 cooperatives from 12 Indian states, and two participants from Iran’s Rah-e-Roshd Cooperative.
When a woman milks a cow in her village, she is not counted as a worker. But when she is in a dairy cooperative, she gets an identity and visibility
The “joint strategy”, discussed in the presence of Dr Simel Esim, director, International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) cooperative unit, not only included a “decentralized, inclusive, equitable and self-reliant growth that promote the transcendence of structural barriers by small producers, consumers and service-providers”, but also how to operate when “liberalisation and globalisation” are allegedly having an adverse impact on cooperatives.
The workshop was told, India has around 6.10 lakh cooperatives, with a total membership of about 25 crore, and quoting a 24,93,67,000. It quoted the ILO National Advisory Council’s report “Development of Cooperatives in India”, released in 2018 , it was pointed out, less than 2% of these were women, pointing out, this has “consequences” for the overall economy.
The study said, if female employment rates were to match male rates in the United States, overall GDP global would rise by 5%. In Japan, such initiatives could increase GDP by 9%. In developing economies like India, the effect soars to 27%. Hence, it concluded, a starting point for all countries “is a long, hard look at their female workforce participation rates.”
The study further said, the initial findings of the ILO study of Workforce Participation Rate (WFPR) reflect marginal progress we have made to close the gap in male-female workforce participation. Since 1990, the overall WFPR has increased but in 2018 it stands at 48.5%, which is a staggering 26.5 percentage points below that of men. It added, women are over-represented in the vulnerable employment category.

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