Elaben Bhatt: A Life Lived for Women, Work and Peace

Under Elaben’s leadership, young professional women founded the SEWA Cooperative Bank
" Then there were a host of poor women who worked as home-based workers. Elaben realised that the TLA could not give the status of a union to such working women."
" Then there were a host of poor women who worked as home-based workers. Elaben realised that the TLA could not give the status of a union to such working women." Special arrangement

Elaben Bhatt breathed her last on 2 November 2022 at the age of 89. She was quintessentially a Gandhian volunteer. She was a critical observer, careful analyst, and innovative constructive worker who designed and demonstrated a world where women tried successfully to build a non-violent, dignified and nurturing society.

She had to struggle hard to make space in the men’s world of organised workers’ unions. After graduating from Surat’s MTB College, she obtained a degree in Law. She joined the Textile Labour Association (TLA) founded with the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi. She was inspired by Anasuyaben Sarabhai who worked with the textile labourers under Gandhiji’s tutelage. Elaben joined as head of the women’s wing of TLA.

During her work, she realised that a large number of women were eking out a living as street vendors and were subject to Municipal and police excesses creating hurdles in carrying out their business. Then there were a host of poor women who worked as home-based workers. Elaben realised that the TLA could not give the status of a union to such working women.

This led to the foundation in 1972 of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA which is now celebrating its Golden Jubilee. Today SEWA is a National Trade Union with around 2.1 million poor self-employed women workers as members in 18 States contributing to the strong informal economy of India. Elaben and her associates have always held that SEWA is a trade union and not a non-government organisation. The concept of women workers’ right to work in good working conditions for a dignified livelihood is strongly asserted.

SEWA’s twin goals are full employment and self-reliance. It struggles for voice, visibility and viability.  Elaben worked as the General Secretary for 24 years and from 1996 onward SEWA has seen young and dynamic General Secretaries from among the women who had come together and organized it.

Elaben soon realised that the women workers needed small amounts of credit to run their enterprises and the lending market was highly exploitative. Under Elaben’s leadership, young professional women founded the SEWA Cooperative Bank. It was a struggle to get recognition as a Bank from the Reserve Bank of India.

SEWA’s strength and the genuineness of the case led to amending the RBI rules. This is a rare feat for women workers in any country of the world.   A humble and polite person, Elaben had nerves of steel. She connected with the women of the world.

She founded ‘Women’s World Banking’ with Esther Ocloo and Michaela Walsh in 1979 and was its Chairperson from 1980 to 1998. She also chaired Home Net, International Alliance of Street Vendors, and was a Board member of the Manchester-based Global Research Policy Network called Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO).

She was bestowed with honorary degrees from various universities including an honorary Doctorate degree in Humane Letters from Harvard University in June 2001. She was honoured with many awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1977 and at home with Padma Bhushan in 1986.

Elaben was a member of the Planning Commission in the 1980s. Her vision was big and encompassed humanity. She provided a novel interpretation of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj.

She had made a presentation to the UNDP before the Sustainable Development Goals appeared. She called it building a 100-mile community. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj discussed a self-reliant rural society based on nonviolence and love.

Elaben gave a modern meaning to it and coined a word for relating to the physical, social, economic, ecological and cultural environment within a radius of 100 miles and called it Anubandh, her word for correlation. She understood deeply the problem of food security, violence, starvation and ecological imbalance that governments and prestigious international agencies were grappling with.

But she called for a firm grip on the ground around and building an active relationship with the world around where people lived. Self-reliance for basic necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, education, health, banking and recreation all could be generated within 100 miles of one’s habitat. The approach she suggested was to be ethical and holistic so that natural resources could be equitably distributed and labour was fairly rewarded.

Addressing a national convention once she said, “While here, we must have a dialogue on building a nurturing economy in India. What we have in mind by ‘nurturing’ is: enhancing our daily life with nourishing food and better health.

Ensuring we have the soil that nurtures the earth that nurtures the living beings, investing in the human mind that nurtures knowledge and technology, and promoting investments that nurture the neighbourhood and the next generation.

We will deliberate on how to promote a nurturing finance that eliminates violence and inequalities and brings peace to the people, society and nature.”  

Elaben was appointed Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad and President of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trusts (SAPMT) known as Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram during the last decade of her life. She was reluctant to take up the Chancellorship as she was succeeding Gandhiji, Sardar Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Morarji Desai and other prominent people, including her immediate predecessor, Narayan Desai.

She had a dream for Gujarat Vidyapith. She envisioned a new avatar of the Vidyapith. In it, she wanted the Vidyapith to give up the run-of-the-mill role of higher education degree-distributing universities to an innovative centre for excellence in promoting Roti Pith, Khadi Pith, and Urja Pith.

She wanted to educate the youth with the hands-on experience of producing food, and clothing with the help of sustainable and clean energy technologies.

Had she lived longer, her vision would have had the chance of getting translated gradually into reality. She wanted to free Gujarat Vidyapith from a government grant-receiving higher educational institution to a public-supported vibrant place for the youth of the country to learn to build a non-violent society based on her philosophy of Anubandh by co-relating the individual, society and nature.

As President of the Sabarmati Ashram, she envisioned a live memorial where most of the constructive activities that took place during Gandhiji’s time could be revived.

The Government of India and the Government of Gujarat came up with a grand plan to redevelop the Sabarmati Ashram precincts spending hundreds of crores and making it a world-class memorial.

She was not happy with such a proposal. As President of the Ashram, she wrote to the Government and said, “All efforts must be undertaken by the Sabarmati Ashram Redevelopment Project, both in terms of its planning and implementation would be consistent with the life and work of Gandhiji.

It needs to ensure that this environment communicates to visitors Gandhiji’s call for attention to the last person, his idea of simplicity, economy and frugality in all matters and his respect for nature and each one of our fellow beings.” 

Elaben’s motto was Women, Work and Peace. She said, “In my experience, women are key to building community. When we invest in women’s participation, we have an ally who wants a stable community and roots for her family.

Each woman is not only a worker, but also a provider, a caretaker, an educator, a net-worker, and a vital forger of bonds in a community. Moreover, women’s participation brings constructive, creative and sustainable solutions to the community. I consider women’s participation and representation an integral part of building stable and peaceful communities.”

In Elaben’s departure, the world has lost a wonderful global citizen who epitomised Gandhi’s nonviolent human being volunteering all her life for building a non-violent society with women at the helm of affairs. 

(Dr. Sudarshan Iyengar is a noted Gandhian economist and the former Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad, a University founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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