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Sethu Das | January 2012
IN CONVERSATION WITH DR ELA BHATT

"Social and Political Design" Open Electives team of the National Institute of Design (NID) meets with Dr Ela Bhatt, Founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) at her residence in Ahmedabad, Gujarat to seek her blessings and guidance. She welcomed Nitasha Sarangi, Daksh Batra, Sarang Desai, Upmanyudu Mullapudi, Bhaktadas Bora, Benno Zindel, and Sethu Das and discussed on a wide-variety of topics — ranging from Women Empowerment to the bureaucracy of the United Nations.

Dr Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA at her residence at Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Photos: Nitasha Sarangi)

Dr Ela Bhatt, Founder of Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). (Photos: NID/Nitasha Sarangi)

IT was in 2009 that I got my first opportunity to meet and work with Dr Ela Bhatt, Founder of Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). She was in Haryana to participate in the Hind Swaraj Centenary International Conference organised by Swaraj Peeth Trust and present a paper titled "Way Ahead: The 100 Miles". Since the event was organised to celebrate 100 years to discuss "Hind Swaraj", Gandhiji's root text, I decided to shift the focus of my conversation with Ela Bhatt to the significance Hind Swaraj. "I have not fully read Gandhiji's Hind Swaraj text because of my continuous work in the field," she replied. This may sound a surprising to many of us, but not to someone who knew her activities for the betterment of the women in India. Probably this is what the Mahatma wanted to see his disciples doing.

"Way Ahead: The 100 Miles" principle by Ela Bhatt in her own words 'weaves decentralisation, locality, size, and scale, to livelihood'. "The social space defined by citizenship in a nation state is inadequate. Without membership in a community the nation state alone can be alienating and coercive — It provides liberty without freedom," she states in her explanation of the 100 Miles principle. Ela Bhatt continues to pen down her simple thoughts on her "100 Miles" proposal in her small notebook.

As a part of my short-term teaching assignment at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad on "Social and Political Change Through Design," in January 2012, I decided to take the entire team to meet with Smt Ela Bhatt, a pioneer in the empowerment of women in India, particularly in Gujarat. A Gandhian by thought and work, she welcomed Team NID — Nitasha Sarangi, Daksh Batra, Sarang Desai, Upmanyudu Mullapudi, Bhaktadas Bora, Benno Zindel, and me, to her "Toy House" residence at Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Elaben who is always surrounded by people seemed not worried about having so many of us sitting around her in her tiny room. While serving tea to guests, she also invited members to share their thoughts with her to start a meaningful and productive conversation.

Daksh Batra:
Since I am a textile student, I am exposed to a lot of crafts and also talked to a few craftsmen, for example Shamji bhai who came from Bhujodi village told us that designers come to him with their designs and tell him to replicate it. He has no creative liberty and is used as a tool or a machine to make the final product. The Rabari community for example have banned people of their community from wearing their traditional attire because they cannot afford what they produce. How can we establish a balance between the production for the contemporary market and the creative liberty of the craftsmen?

Ela Bhatt:
You see here in Gujarat the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) programme has not worked. But in other states where it is operative, e.g. in Bihar while the weavers go for NREGA work programmes, it just involves pure manual labour. They are not using their skills, just doing pure manual work. So they begin to lose their skills. They may still have their looms, but these are all put aside, put away somewhere in the house. We need weaving schools at the local level, and expose them to new designs, new tools and all those books, while they try to eke out an existence.

In my experience, when you are encouraging people to sustain their craft traditions, it is not enough to get them work. For example, if we have block printers, we also have what we call a design library. The name is big but not that big a library, but it's a library, a repository of traditional designs that were used in their craft. These woman artisans come, they see these designs and then they pick up some designs of their own, and then they also get a chance to interact with some visitors and also some fashion design experts. They look at the work of the fashion designers, and ask questions. They still have the capacity to engage in a dialogue and the potential for creativity.

We have so many weavers in the country, but we neither have weaving schools nor textile or embroidery schools of this kind. In fact we do not even have an agriculture school that teaches the basic skills used in farming.

After they pass school, get an SSC certificate in science, then go to the college. But even those who graduate in a subject from Agriculture do not necessarily go to practice agriculture. Very few, if any would think of would perhaps go back to the fields after graduation. They take up some other jobs so too with construction workers. They have to forget the traditional skills they had and migrate to urban areas for road construction. And those who already have these skills are no more needed. These days you need multiple skills. If you are studying in a local school while learning construction work as a mason, you would learn all the skills involved like — flooring, plastering and all other things.

Actually it is very important that investments should be made to encourage such skill developments. We should concentrate on skill upgradation, diversifying some traditional skills to be applied in a more contemporary context. But what happens is that India has very good performance at the higher education. But there are all these school dropouts, may be primary school seventh pass also, who do not know how to read and write and count. After that the school dropouts have nothing else to do. Even if you insist that they go back to farming, the sons and daughters of farmers are not going to be able to take up the traditional family farming. They just do not have that skill.

So how do we upgrade these occupations? In countries like the US, you see community colleges, night schools where things are so flexible that whoever wants to learn can learn whatever they want. We too have so many local skills that can be taught by those who are experienced, not necessarily only old, they are also others who can be trained to be teachers.

For teaching some of these crafts and skills, we do not need some high-degree-wallah teachers. That is the whole area where no investments have been made, which has never been looked in to. If these weavers you speak about are allowed to interact and are exposed more and more to how the textile tradition has evolved, then they may also pick up ideas on their own and would also be encouraged to work as they want a regular income. But for a traditional weaver to stand on his own in the mainstream market is a long way off. A lot of handholding, supportive positive policies, enough budgetary support, all that is needed. In fact, your designs schools can bring this point of view.

Upmanyudu Mullapudi:
Do you think your model of empowering women can also be implemented in male-dominated societies?

Ela Bhatt:
It is the same society everywhere. SEWA is not a model. It is basically a trade-union. But our uniqueness is our design of a trade-union. We challenged the very definition of work and trade union. All along it has been assumed that only in industrialised work where there is a specific employer-employee relationship, can there be a trade union. We challenged that and said anybody who is economically active and working — either self-employed or a combination of different modes of working — they are all workers and they can come together and form a union.

Smt Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA with the NID Open Electives Team - Nitasha Sarangi, Daksh Batra, Sarang Desai, Upmanyudu Mullapudi, Bhaktadas Bora, Benno Zindel, and Sethu Das.

Smt Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA with the NID Open Electives Team — Nitasha Sarangi, Daksh Batra, Sarang Desai, Upmanyudu Mullapudi, Bhaktadas Bora, Benno Zindel, and Sethu Das.

Upmanyudu Mullapudi:
Do you also monitor whether the money earned by the SEWA women is finally being used effectively?

Ela Bhatt:
No, we cannot monitor a family. However, what we have been able to do is strengthening them in terms of values and in terms of independence, in a positive way. It takes time, but it does happen. When they are in groups and come together, they have a support system. Other than their own family relations, for them this is a new kind of support of collectiveness because they are the members of the union. The other things is, we also have SEWA Cooperative Bank so that they have a new access to power, which is finance, may be for the first time. They have their savings accounts. They save for different purpose for their lifecycle needs and also are able to borrow money for what they feel is important. They learn what to save what to borrow.

Anyway a woman being a being woman she brings her income to the house and hence more security to the family. Usually she is very well accepted. It is a process. Slowly she strengthens her ability and she gains respect.

Alcoholism is one of the biggest enemies of women and children. But men also do not have work. After work, the youth have nothing else to do. Look at the climate around. There are always such touts who are always going to create trouble and the whole concept of drinking is to show your superiority. If he cannot find anyone else to bully, then his wife. But men also need this good exposure to good options for work and opportunities for employment.

Apne desh mein to yehi chahiye. Every hand should be productive. Everybody — rich, poor, educated, uneducated — they all want to get involved in the production forces of their own country. They want regular income, fair income and also combined with social security. Work security and social security are the two sides of the same coin, because they work at the cost of their health, they work at the cost of their children, their education. As soon as they fall ill, they lose income. We need a good social security system as well. It can be contributory. I am not saying it should be all governmental.

Am I talking something relevant or not? (Laughs)

Smt Ela Bhatt with Sethu Das, Co-founder of Design & People.

Dr Ela Bhatt with Sethu Das, Co-founder of Design & People.

Daksh Batra (UG Textiles, NID) asks a question to Smt Ela Bhatt during the face-to-face at her Ahmedabad residence.

Daksh Batra (UG Textiles, NID) asks a question to Smt Ela Bhatt during the face-to-face at her Ahmedabad residence.

Bhaktadas Bora:
How successful is SEWA in bringing people above the poverty line?

Ela Bhatt:
(Laughs) This is a Planning Commission question! Poverty goes up and down. It is difficult to monitor or to keep track of it. Generally I would say that SEWA members have come out of starvation. They have enough to eat. They have some surplus by way of savings. They are also highly aware of what is happening around.

Below Poverty Line is a bogus idea. Those who are really under the poverty line are not card holders and are not able to access the Public Distribution System (PDS). Poverty goes down, and those who come up poverty line in few years also go down again. Some get old and their productivity goes down. You are asking the wrong person. I do not believe in this poverty line and free distribution of food in this way. When we have already seen that government system has miserably failed which quite a big issue of corruption. Why should we go into that again?

Instead we should give more support to the producers. Grow more food and coarse grains. Let there be enough production, in fact more than enough production, as we had all these years in the past. Now globally there is a food grain deficit. The whole of Africa is in famine. Here in Gujarat too, till I was in Planning Commission, there was surplus. But in last ten years, the state has become food grain deficit. We should go to the root of these problems, how do we grow more coarse grains and put them in the market so that everybody can buy nutritious food at a fair price. That is the way to go about the problem. But we are just going the other way.

Daksh Batra:
We were talking to few farmers in a village in Gujarat who only grew either tobacco or cotton, two cash crops. ITC pays them really high for growing tobacco, which is the reason why they do not grow any food grains. They have small farms and if a small portion of the farm is used for food grains, they would loose that much amount of money. So they have to go out to buy food. Earlier they used to grow bajra, jawar and other grains which are local to Gujarat. Today no one wants to buy bajra and jawar. This is the reason they go for cotton. Cotton is also decreasing because the market price of cotton has also gone down.

Ela Bhatt:
You are absolutely right. There is so much of speculation.

The challenge is how we make small and marginal farming sustainable and viable. I think that is the challenge, not just giving subsidies and food. Of course giving food in the case of relief measures is humanitarian. But there is so much scope for employment in this roti, kapda, makan condition. For example, animal husbandry, forestry and fisheries provide ample opportunities for work. That's why we need planning, design of planning in such a way that we are productive. To ensure that our labour is used in a productive way, and in a way that sustain Mother Earth that sustains the family. The middle class also needs to think what they are consuming — consuming unnecessary things unnecessarily. Children eating those packaged snacks and all that! Children have become thoughtless! We are spoiling our children. They are smart, very smart in computer skills and all that. Even my own grandson is like that!

Sethu Das:
Our educational institutions which are centres of learning are also flooded with multinational toxic drinks and food products. Do you think awareness alone can work or there is a need for enforcement as well?

Ela Bhatt:
I think 70 percent awareness and 30 percent restrictions — not a violent type of a ban. If people understand themselves, then at least they would know they are doing wrong, or half-wrong or that this can be avoided. If I have two pairs of shoes then I do not need a third one. So let us not buy thoughtlessly. My son has a principle which is very hard — do not buy a new thing unless you do away with the old one.


In Conversation with Smt Ela Bhatt (Audio)

Sethu Das:
Moving away from the local issues, you recently addressed a gathering at the global meet of the UN Development Programme with the Secretary General. This is a rare opportunity and a honour for an individual because such meets are usually meant for the head of nations. What exactly was your message to the world leaders who are responsible for the poverty we see around us?

Ela Bhatt:
I did not mention poverty so much. Just wait and see what has been the impact of what they have so far done; whether there is the need to revisit or rethink or change; think fresh or new. Because they are all UNDP — programmewallahs and heads of the regions. And question like whether urbanisation is development or technology is by itself development, we just need to wait and think, “What are the ways of dealing with hunger?”

My first point was that we must realise that Hunger is violence. To keep people jobless or hungry is violence. The second thing I spoke about was of course de-centralisation and a little bit of the "100 Miles" hypothesis — developing autonomy and diversity. Without improving the lives of farmers and artisans, no country and people can develop. Third was to evaluate our efforts. I talked how we evaluate in SEWA to see if we are in the right track or missing the point. We have ten questions in SEWA that we ask to validate what we are doing. That part became very popular. "Urbanisation is not development" became the headline. I repeated that. I started with Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and ended with MDGs. Lastly I stated that with MDGs goals if we follow these eight goals, I think we have done the job, the whole world is going to be happy, content and peaceful.

Sethu Das:
Was your suggestion well-received?

Ela Bhatt:
These questions went well. They've been writing to me again and again following that. MDG is giving it a little more importance. Putting all these things piecemeal is nothing, it is meaningless. It has to have a holistic and broad vision and a mission to do that, for the United Nations.

Sethu Das:
Are you hopeful about an outcome from the meeting?

Ela Bhatt:
Kya hopeful! UN is a big big bureaucracy (Laughs).

Sethu Das:
That's the reason I asked.

Ela Bhatt:
Whatever is working, they share it. In that it has worked. They give you awards and PhDs and all that, but that lesson does not get translated into mainstream policies. I stopped going for any government policy meetings.

Sethu Das:
But you are a part of the Reserve Bank of India board, right?

Ela Bhatt:
I am very keen late on financial inclusion. This has come a little late because I have less energy than before. But they do their due-diligence. Reserve Bank of India's due-diligence on me took them three years. But we have a good Board now. I am hopeful. My main concentration is financial inclusion. I do not get into other things. And I also do not understand so much of inflation, prices etc.

Sethu Das:
You come from a law background, right?

Ela Bhatt:
Yes. Whatever law I learnt it did not prove to be useful. The workers I started unionising happened to be the 90% of the workforce of the country and they are not covered by any law.

Sethu Das:
But only a lawyer can do that!

Ela Bhatt:
(Laughs) And then the laws were there, but never got implemented. I am not enthusiastic at all for any new legislation.

Benno Zindel:
I was Interested in knowing how SEWA has influenced men's attitude and behavior towards women in India over the last few decades?

Ela Bhatt:
Among the poor it is not too much of a man-women thing, though not that they are not equal. But women have pretty much of freedom — socially and economically. May be because she is an economic component of the family. There are laws and customs regarding marriage and children but they are very flexible. If she does not get along with the husband, she just walks out on her own. She can marry again. In the lower castes all these are very flexible. I believe it is because she has the economic power. I believe that is because we have the economic power not really power but earning. My experience with men is not so negative.

Dr Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA at her residence at Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Photos: Nitasha Sarangi)

Dr Ela Bhatt in conversation with the students from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. Sarang Desai and Sethu Das next to her.

Smt Ela Bhatt, Founder of SEWA at her residence at Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Photos: Nitasha Sarangi)

Benno Zindel:
My question was not meant to be negative in any way. I was only wondering why you started this organisation for women and not for men.

Ela Bhatt:
I was working in textile labour union which was started by Gandhi ji in 1912-17. I joined in 1955 as a lawyer and then slowly I got involved with Labour Court practicing labour laws. So these were all textile workers well covered by labour legislations, in terms of their remuneration, working conditions and compensations. I was fighting for their rights in the court, and we were a very strong union. Then in the late 1980s, the mills started closing down. Then our leader asked me to go and find out how these workers of the closed mills are able to maintain their families — what is the condition of their families. They were all the time busy in the union rallies and court cases. I did the survey and found out that it was the women who were the breadwinner of all these families. And because they were working and earning, the families at least pulled on.

This opened my eyes. Then I saw what is the kind of work they are doing. So they were home-based producers, they were cart-pullers, garbage pickers, street vendors and hawkers. I said these are the other occupations and with my background in trade unions, I said why not unionise them. They happen to be a massive workforce of the country, who is not even recorded as workers in the Census of India. They are all working but unfortunately they are not recorded as workers and do not think of themselves as a worker. So then I said they should be unionised because that is the only way I understood at that time. Now I think it was fortunate to go that way. Their work slowly became visible. For that organising is most important. For visibility, that we are here. Then for their voice. Because when they are organised, then a point comes when someone is able to have dialogue with you, including the government and policy makers etc. And then there is some validation of your work. Once they have a collective voice and presence, they are able to intervene at different policy levels or to bring new legislations and helping to get them passed.

So it was the women who are always left out. In unorganised sector, or informal sector, whatever is it called. In the US they are called black economy. But in informal economy, these workers, more than half of them being women, are at the lowest rung of the structure of the workforce. I have great faith in women. These women particularly. Even otherwise. One is that a women's income is very important for the survival of a family. When different types of micro studies are done, in general it has been found that about 33 percent of the women are the sole supporters of the family, amongst poor doing work that is also informal.

Either men are waiting for work because for them any work is not work. It has to be proper work and they wait and wait and in this process they get depressed. High level of depression among men. Then another 50 percent of the families were where more than 50 percent of the family income comes from women. Then in my experience, particularly through the SEWA Bank, I saw that asset is safer in the hands of women than in the hands of their men. She is by nature is more future-oriented. She is also a better fighter against poverty, against wrath of nature. She is so much responsible for the family, to be able to feed the family. So there is great future in the women and in their leadership. For that you need to invest a lot in them. They are so resourceful and so ready to get organised.

I was a member of the National Commission on Women in the Informal Sector and we travelled to 18 states and held more than 4,000 meetings taking evidences and talking to women. Everywhere I found that the women knew that they had some rights, in the back of their minds they knew — may be because of Mahatma Gandhi or Indira Gandhi. They knew they have some rights, and they were also ready to get organised. They were ready for new ideas, new exposures — all over India I saw that. Invariable, in each of these groups, there would be two or three such women, not so young but with bright eyes, to take the leadership or do something. During those interactions also I felt a great hope in women. And in my daily experience I see that. Village women alone would be able to travel to Santa Fe, USA where her products are on display and for sale or in an exhibition, she can and she does so. So informal sector is the future of the economy and women are the future of leadership.

'Social and Political Design' Open Electives members of the National Institute of Design (NID) led by Sethu Das, Co-Founder of Design & People in conversation with Bhoomika Mehta, Financial Literary Coordinator of SEWA Bank, Ahmedabad, Gujarat on January 24, 2012. (Photo: Benno Zindel)

"Social and Political Design" Open Electives members of the National Institute of Design (NID) led by Sethu Das, Co-Founder of Design & People in conversation with Bhoomika Mehta, Financial Literary Coordinator of SEWA Bank, Ahmedabad, Gujarat on January 24, 2012. (Photo: Benno Zindel)

'Social and Political Design' Open Electives members of the National Institute of Design (NID) learning low cost and environment friendly housing methods from a SEWA Bank coordinator at the SEWA Bank at Ahmedabad, Gujarat on January 24, 2012. (Photo: Benno Zindel)

"Social and Political Design" Open Electives members of the National Institute of Design (NID) learning low cost and environment friendly housing methods from a SEWA Bank coordinator at the SEWA Bank at Ahmedabad, Gujarat on January 24, 2012. (Photo: Benno Zindel)

Sethu Das:
I was wondering if there is a question from Natisha, though she has come only to document the session. Do you have a question for Ela ji?

Nitasha Sarangi:
Natisha Sarangi: Even after having so many policies, situation with girl's education and women empowerment remains unchanged. Male person of the family holds the right to acquire the wealth of the family. It is sad that even after 50 years of our independence, the equality between men and women has not come to that level. What is the future of the women in India?

Ela Bhatt:
No. I do not think so. I see women as future. And women have done far better than men, worldwide. Women are finding their way. I think the mentality of the society is changing. They are getting all these new opportunities that their mothers did not have. Instead of men sitting on decision-making positions, in so many cases women are being preferred as they have performed better, whenever given opportunities. Of course women have to work harder. But I think keep faith, and keep the spirit. There is so much difference in that sense. If you see, for example, the age of marriage of our grandmother, then our mother, then our own, it has made good improvement now. It takes time to change.

One thing about women is that women also need to change their mentality. Particularly when they think in certain ways and most of the women under feminist influence. They think that motherhood is a burden, and then household work is a burden. Actually both are very empowering regions. If you take it in terms of control, then you have far more control over the next generation than the father. And household work is a very skill-developing activity. That is why those women who has done housework, they are far better in their performance and develop their intelligence as well, applications and multitasking etc. So women should see this household work and childbirth as their privilege. We are already empowered more than men. God has given us certain gifts. Women will be feminine. Do you understand what I mean to say? Feminine not in dressing, but in the way of thinking. And the feminine way of thinking involves togetherness. Women in general, I have seen that… If you give some work to somebody, she will not do to it alone. She will take somebody with her to do that work. To shop something or whatever. She will take somebody together. She has that togetherness. She has a future-oriented approach, may be because of biological reasons. Maintaining relationships… all that is the feminine way. We should also honour the feminine way in men, they are so many men like that also. I think that is another thing women should realise and develop further.

Sethu Das:
I think we have taken so much of time of yours. The mosquitoes have started entering your house. We thank you very much for your time. There are videos and writings about you easily available in the Internet but we were looking forward to have your blessings and direction in our work.

Ela Bhatt:
Because you are sitting here, these windows are not closed (Laughs). Otherwise we close the windows by this time. I am very happy to have you. Because I learn a lot from you. But today only I have been speaking. Someday I would like to hear your views on superpower, India Shining etc. (Laughs)

Thank you. And all the best to you!

Sethu Das is the Co-founder of Design & People. He can be reached at: sethu.das@designandpeople.org

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