Skip to main content

Relevance of Ela Bhatt, SEWA for unorganised women, 'bypassed' by Indian labour laws

By Bharat Dogra* 

Ela Bhatt breathed her last on November 2 at the age of 89. With important contributions extending over 67 years, her name has become synonymous with struggles and efforts to improve the employment and income prospects of self-employed women workers, artisans and small entrepreneurs. 
She was founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), India’s most well-known organization of women self-employed workers and its general secretary for 24 years ( 1972-1996).
She played a leading role in starting the SEWA Bank so that women could expand and improve their work. Helping to organize garment workers (several of whom create beautiful garments even from left-over rags), street vendors, cart-pullers and other sections of women workers, Ela Bhatt and her colleagues in SEWA went from strength to strength.
Leaving the parent union, Majoor Mahajan Sangh, when it was not helpful enough to the cause of women workers, SEWA could progress even more and in more enthusiastic and creative ways when it decided to march ahead on its own.
Although significant national and international recognition soon followed, the achievements of Ela Bhatt and SEWA were never easy as the women they sought to mobilize often worked in very difficult conditions and had to overcome a lot of social prejudice as well. Protective and welfare labour laws have generally bypassed them, and in any case were not enacted keeping in view their special needs.
Several of these problems still continue and new ones are being added. While the work of Ela Bhatt and SEWA has touched millions of women, the compelling need for mobilizing and helping women workers has not decreased.
In fact in some contexts their problems have been increasing in recent times. Due to a complex of factors, ranging from demonetization to GST to prolonged lockdowns, unorganized sector workers including self-employed ones have suffered a lot in recent years, and within these workers invariably the women workers have suffered even more, losing jobs and income in a big way. 
Hence there is a new sense of urgency relating to the protection and promotion of the work of self-employed women workers and other women workers.
On the plus side the organization of so many self-help groups of women in recent years has led to increasing mobilization of women, particularly in rural areas, their increasing ability to work together and jointly contribute savings to initiate this. Some very creative work has been taken up, helped by imaginative officials as well as social activists.
Despite there being some promising initiatives here and there, however, we cannot see any truly significant breakthrough at the national level in the form of large-scale increase of sustainable livelihoods for women because of the limited nature of the market that they can tap.
As even goods that can be produced easily locally, and for which there are economic and ecological advantages with production being close to consumption, are being manufactured mostly by big industries using more capital intensive methods , brand names and other advantages, there is less scope for self-employment and small or cottage scale work.
This is why women self-help groups can get only very limited openings. In fact many openings which existed till recently, in areas like food processing, are getting reduced. The work available for women farm workers in harvesting as well as weeding has declined drastically.
In areas closer to the interventions of SEWA, although protective legislation for street vendors has been enacted, an important achievement to which Ela Bhatt also contributed, there are still frequent violations of this and it is often not implemented in the right spirit. Hence, there is much that needs to be done to carry forward the work which was pioneered by Ela Bhatt.
The horizons of this work should be widened so that, apart from protecting rights of women workers, more opportunities are also opened up in the economy for the cooperatives and groups of women workers and small entrepreneurs. As has been seen time and again, women self-employed workers, their self-help groups and cooperatives have shown very high levels of commitment and creativity.
A more enabling environment is needed for the full potential of this to be realized, and reputed organizations like SEWA are now better placed to achieve this by mobilizing for national and state level policy changes as well.
If the opportunities for the progress of self-employed women workers and small entrepreneurs, their groups and cooperatives, can increase significantly in the near future, this will surely be the best homage the nation can offer to Ela Bhatt.
At the same time it should be emphasized that outside India also, and more particularly in the global south, there is much to learn from the work and experiences of Ela Bhatt.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; his books include ‘Man over Machine', ‘A Day in 2071’ and ‘Another Path Exists'

Comments

TRENDING

What's Bill Gates up to? Have 'irregularities' found in funding HPV vaccine trials faded?

By Colin Gonsalves*  After having read the 72nd report of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on alleged irregularities in the conduct of studies using HPV vaccines by PATH in India, it was startling to see Bill Gates bobbing his head up and down and smiling ingratiatingly on prime time television while the Prime Minister lectured him in Hindi on his plans for the country. 

Muted profit margins, moderate increase in costs and sales: IIM-A survey of 1000 cos

By Our Representative  The Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad’s (IIM-A's) latest Business Inflation Expectations Survey (BIES) has said that the cost perceptions data obtained from India’s business executives suggests that there is “mild increase in cost pressures”.

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

Alleged killing of another Bangladesh youth inside Indian territory: NHRC inquiry sought

By Kirity Roy* There was yet another incident of the killing of a Bangladeshi youth by the Border Security Force personnel attached with ‘Barthar’ BOP of ‘G’ Company of 75 BSF Battalion. In last five years several incidents of killings happened under this police station’s jurisdiction and the cases will get the award as “Not Guilty” as usual.

Govt putting India's professionals, skilled, unskilled labour 'at mercy of' big business

By Thomas Franco, Dinesh Abrol*  As it is impossible to refute the report of the International Labour Organisation, Chief Economic Advisor Anantha Nageswaran recently said that the government cannot solve all social, economic problems like unemployment and social security. He blamed the youth for not acquiring enough skills to get employment. Then can’t the people ask, ‘Why do we have a government? Is it not the government’s responsibility to provide adequate employment to its citizens?’

IMA vs Ramdev: Why what's good or bad for goose should be good or bad for gander

By Dr Amitav Banerjee, MD* Baba Ramdev and his associate Balkrishna faced the wrath of the Supreme Court for their propaganda about their Ayurvedic products and belittling mainstream medicine. Baba Ramdev had to apologize in court. His apology was not accepted and he may face the contempt of court with harsher punishment. The Supreme Court acted on a public interest litigation (PIL) moved by the Indian Medical Association (IMA).

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Modi model, Hindutva icon 'justified' alliance with Muslim League before Independence

By Shamsul Islam*  Our PM describes himself as ‘Hindu’ nationalist and member of RSS. He proudly shares the fact that he was groomed to be a political leader by one of the two fathers of the Hindutva politics, MS Golwalkar (the other being VD Savarkar) and given the task of establishing Hindutva polity in India after eradicating secularism.

'Flawed' argument: Gandhi had minimal role, naval mutinies alone led to Independence

Counterview Desk Reacting to a Counterview  story , "Rewiring history? Bose, not Gandhi, was real Father of Nation: British PM Attlee 'cited'" (January 26, 2016), an avid reader has forwarded  reaction  in the form of a  link , which carries the article "Did Atlee say Gandhi had minimal role in Independence? #FactCheck", published in the site satyagrahis.in. The satyagraha.in article seeks to debunk the view, reported in the Counterview story, taken by retired army officer GD Bakshi in his book, “Bose: An Indian Samurai”, which claims that Gandhiji had a minimal role to play in India's freedom struggle, and that it was Netaji who played the crucial role. We reproduce the satyagraha.in article here. Text: Nowadays it is said by many MK Gandhi critics that Clement Atlee made a statement in which he said Gandhi has ‘minimal’ role in India's independence and gave credit to naval mutinies and with this statement, they concluded the whole freedom struggle.

Youth as game changers in Lok Sabha polls? Young voter registration 'is so very low'

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*  Young voters will be the game changers in 2024. Do they realise this? Does it matter to them? If it does, what they should/must vote for? India’s population of nearly 1.3 billion has about one-fifth 19.1% as youth. With 66% of its population (808 million) below the age of 35, India has the world's largest youth population. Among them, less than 40% of those who turned 18 or 19 have registered themselves for 2024 election. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), just above 1.8 crore new voters (18-and 19-year-olds) are on the electoral rolls/registration out of the total projected 4.9 crore new voters in this age group.