ELA RAMESH BHATT was born on September
7, 1933 in Ahmedabad, India. Capital of the state of Gujarat, Ahmedabad is
an industrial center famous for its cotton mills. Like many of its citizens
ELA BHATT's life was greatly influenced by the career and satyagraha
(freedom by passive resistance) movement of Mahatma Gandhi. A Gujarati by
birth, Gandhi spent most of his life after his return from South Africa in
1915, in Ahmedabad and it was here that he established his Satyagraha
Ashram. Here in 1917 he carried out his first fast, on behalf of the textile
workers who were engaged in the first major strike ever held in India
Ahmedabad was the site of his trial for sedition in 1922 and the point of
departure for his famous "salt march" some eight years later.
The second of three daughters, ELA grew up in a well-to-do family deeply
interested and active in social causes. Her girlhood was spent in Surat, an
export center on the coast about 100 miles from Ahmedabad, where her father,
Sumant Bhatt, had a successful law practice; his father and his brother were
also attorneys. In 1952 Sumant Bhatt became a district judge and was later
appointed Charity Commissioner for Bombay and then Gujarat states. In this
position he supervised the work of all charitable organizations in the area.
Her mother, Vanalila Vyas, was active in the women's movement. For some time
she was secretary of the Gujarat State branch of the All-India Women's
Conference, an organization founded in 1927 by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay
(recipient of the 1966 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for
"her enduring creativity with handicrafts and cooperatives, as in politics,
art and the theater"). The conference focused on educational and social
reforms and later became the coordinator for women's organizations
nationwide. ELA BHATT’s maternal grandfather was a doctor and a devoted
follower of Gandhi; he was jailed three times for his participation in
BHATT attended Sarwajanik Girls High School in Surat from 1940 to 1948 and
then M.T.B. College, also in Surat and affiliated with Gujarat University,
where she received a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1952. While in college
she volunteered to work on the 1951 census. This experience made a deep
impression on her. Already influenced by the writings of Tolstoy, Gandhi,
Vinoba Bhave (1958 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership for "his
furtherance of the cause of arousing his countrymen toward voluntary action
in relieving social injustice and economic inequalities") and the Gandhian
economist J.C. Kumarappa, the experience of seeing firsthand the dismal
conditions in which the poor lived made her decide that she would devote her
life to working for them. A further influence on her during those college
days was a fellow student, Ramesh Bhatt (no relation), who was an active
student leader and a follower of Gandhi. ELA credits Ramesh with giving her
direction and encouragement in proceeding with her work on behalf of the
poor and underprivileged.
Following graduation ELA BHATT entered the Sir L.A. Shah Law College,
affiliated with Gujarat University, in Ahmedabad. Her father hoped that she
would follow in the family footsteps by going into the legal profession and
she dutifully complied, even though she was uncertain about her own
abilities in the field. In 1954 she received her law degree and a Gold Medal
for her outstanding work in Hindu law.
BHATT taught English briefly at Shrimati Nathibai Damodardas Thackarsey
Women's University in Bombay, but teaching was not a profession which she
found satisfying. In 1955 she joined the legal department of the Textile
Labor Association (TLA) in Ahmedabad at the invitation of two of the
organization's founders, Anasuyaben Surabhai and Shankarlal Banker. As a
junior lawyer she initially prepared material for the senior counsel. Later,
having done considerable work for the worker's gratuity, which subsequently
became a law, she began to appear in the Labor Court on her own, first on
small and then on important cases.
The Textile Labor Association (TLA) was an outgrowth of the textile workers'
strike of 1917 which had been led by Surabhai, a wealthy young woman who
devoted her life to the cause of the poor. Formed in 1920 by Surabhai,
Banker and Gandhi as India's first trade union, it was a model on which
other unions were based. As a result of its activities over the next decades
the textile laborers of Ahmedabad were the best organized working class
community in India.
In 1956 ELA and Ramesh Bhatt were married. After receiving a master's degree
in economics Ramesh had joined the faculty of Gujarat Vidyapath National
University in Ahmedabad where he not only teaches but is Coordinator of the
Center for Management and Professional Training and Director of the Consumer
Education and Research Center at the university. He has been active as
president of the Gujarat University Area Teacher's Association and founder
of the Gujarat Economic Association, a research organization.
ELA continued to work in the union's legal department—doing what she
described as a "compromise between legal work and social work"—until the
birth of their children, Amimayi (1958) and Mihir (1959).
In 1961 she returned to the work force, taking a position in the Labor
Ministry of Gujarat as an Employment Officer. In this position her first
work was submitting suitable candidates to employers. Later she was given
independent charge of the University Employment and Information Bureau of
Gujarat University in Ahmedabad where she was responsible for providing
vocational guidance and training of candidates in addition to job placement.
She next was sent to the Pusa Institute of Employment and Training in New
Delhi and upon her return was appointed Incharge of Occupation Information.
In this technical job from 1966 to 1968 she explored new employment
opportunities, reviewed existing definitions of various occupations in the
National Code of Occupation and framed definitions for new occupations.
When, in 1968, she was asked by the TLA to become head of its Women's Wing
she rejoined the union, taking with her an intense interest in the women for
whom she had worked in the ministry.
The TLA has had a Women's Wing since the beginning when a fairly large
proportion of the textile workers were female. However as changes in
technology brought about a reduction in labor force, it was the women who
lost opportunities for employment. Out of some 125,000 members in TLA now,
only 3,000 are women. Aware of the difficulties faced by women who could no
longer find employment, the first program of the Women's Wing was to retrain
women workers to get jobs, and to train wives and daughters of male workers
in specific vocations and trades so that they too could add to the family
The Women's Wing has four sections: Training, Production, Unionization and
Research. Under the training division there are 1,873 women in 25 centers
receiving instruction in sewing, embroidery, knitting, doll making,
printing, radio-servicing and home help service. Most of these women are
under the age of 25 and have not completed formal schooling. In production
women make handwoven cotton cloth garments to sell to male workers in union
stores. The wing also has established a number of educational, health and
welfare programs for these women.
Soon after becoming chief BHATT began to explore ways of expending the work
done by the unit. In this connection she went to Israel where she studied at
the Afro-Asian Institute of Labor and Cooperatives in Tel Aviv for three
months, receiving the International Diploma of Labor and Cooperatives in
1971. This was her first formal training in organizing and managing unions
and cooperatives. Impressed to see that every sector of Israeli labor was
organized—even the wives of workers were union members—she began to think of
how to put such concepts into operation in Ahmedabad.
BHATT was aware that thousands of wives and daughters of textile workers, as
well as other women, toiled as self-employed junk-smiths, garment makers,
vegetable vendors and hawkers to supplement the family income. While there
were state laws which protected the interests of industrial workers, there
were none which protected these self-employed women. Much to her
consternation BHATT discovered that self-employed women were not even
included in the 1971 census as workers!
Shuttling between the urban areas and the nearby villages, the self-employed
women were unorganized, unprotected, economically weak and had no bargaining
power. Recognizing this state of affairs BHATT determined to work for this
segment of the population which had a great impact on the economy yet which
was virtually forgotten in terms of legal rights or protection of interests.
The self-employed women themselves implored BHATT to work on their behalf
and the first group to come under the wing of the women's section was the
handcart pullers—women who push, rather than pull, handcarts with loads of
500 to 700 kilograms. A survey was made of their socioeconomic conditions,
to be followed by surveys of women in the job fields of vegetable vendor,
garment maker, used garment vendor, junk-smith and milkmaid. Profiles of
Self-Employed Women (1975) written by BHATT summarizes many of the findings
from these studies.
The findings reported by BHATT and her co-workers are grim. Looking at the
conditions in which the self-employed women lived they found that 97 percent
of those studied lived in slums, 93 percent were illiterates and their
average number of children was four. Their monthly incomes ranged from 50
rupees (about US$7.50 in 1975) for the garment makers to 355 rupees (US$54)
for the vegetable vendors. Large percentages in each group were in debt: 25
percent of the junk-smiths, 35 percent of the milk producers, 44 percent of
the garment makers, 46 percent of the handcart pullers, 61 percent of the
used garment vendors and 79 percent of vegetable sellers. The reason for the
high debt ratio of vegetable vendors was that 49 percent rented their means
of conveyance as did 46 percent of the handcart pullers. Taking their
children to the worksite was the practice of a large number of women. Among
other common problems for these women were shortage of capital, shortage of
raw materials, inadequacy of work place and extremely high interest rates on
money borrowed for daily rental of means of production or stock purchase.
BHATT, with the full cooperation of Arvind Buch, president of TLA, undertook
to organize these self-employed women into a union under the auspices of the
Women's Wing of the TLA. In 1972, with Buch as president and BHATT as
general secretary, the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was
established. One of the first difficulties they encountered was in
registering SEWA with the government. The government objected to the
registration of SEWA as a union because, it was argued, under the law a
union was only for those who worked for someone else. Since the members of
SEWA were self-employed, the organization did not fall into that legal
category. BHATT, however, convinced the government that a union could exist
for the economic development of its members as well as for protection
against exploitation by employers. The government reluctantly agreed and the
union was registered in 1972 under the Trade Union Act of 1926.
SEWA today has a part-time committed staff of 20, with 14 in field work, 2
in administration, 2 in loan recovery and 2 in research. The membership fee
of Rs.3 was raised to Rs.5 in 1975. SEWA is governed by a 22 member
executive committee and a representative board made up of 153 elected
leaders from the seven different sections of the membership; garment makers,
used garment dealers, handcart pullers, vegetable vendors, junk-smiths, milk
producers and miscellaneous workers. Leaders of each group meet every month
and, because they know the conditions under which their fellow workers toil,
they provide the necessary link between the membership and the executive
Although the modern textile industry in India is a century old, garment
making is a new and growing trade and most garments are produced by a
non-unionized sector of the labor force. Few garments are made in factories;
rather they are made in the tiny shops of tailors and in thousands of homes.
The women who are involved in this segment of the economy work in their
homes (99 percent according to BHATT's studies) and get paid on a piece rate
basis. Most are below the age of 25 and most are working to supplement the
family income. Clothing made by them covers the entire spectrum: blouses,
underwear, dresses, pants, skirts, trousers, suits, shirts and the
traditional sari, as well as bed and pillow covers.
There is also a large scale business in used garments in Ahmedabad. The
poorer segment of the population cannot afford to purchase new clothing and
thus depends upon the enormous used garment business; a large number of
people may never buy a new article of clothing during their entire lifetime.
The women involved in the used garment business roam the streets, exchanging
used clothing for household utensils of glass, steel or aluminum which they
carry in baskets on their heads. Of these articles of clothing, the good
ones are sold directly to merchants, the others are repaired by the women at
home before selling them in the Sunday markets. Repairing is an art—by
patching, darning; cutting, altering and dry cleaning, the look and value of
the clothes is upgraded.
Human labor in Ahmedabad, as throughout India, is much cheaper than
mechanical labor and handcart pullers are often relied upon to transport
heavy loads of coal, timber, grain, cloth bales, iron bars, rods, machinery
and household items such as furniture and refrigerators, from one place to
another. Technically they should be called handcart pushers since they
actually push the carts from behind rather than pulling them from the front.
In most parts of India this work is done by men but in Ahmedabad it is
normally done by women and men together as a team. Barefoot and working in
the hot sun they do a job which is strenuous and tiring. The women,
according to BHATT’s studies, are usually married to the men in the same
work and frequently continue their hard labor up to the sixth month of
pregnancy. They experience general fatigue, sores on the skin, back pain and
breathlessness, as well as other ailments, even under normal conditions. A
large percentage of the women take their children along with them when they
work, the eldest sitting between the handles while the youngest is tied to
the bottom in a cradle—all adding to the weight which must be pushed. Most
of the carts have no braking system so that when going down steep hills the
pushers must use their own bodies to keep the cart from gathering too much
SEWA, with the help of L.D. Engineering College and the National
Occupational Health Institute, has designed a cart which can alleviate some
of the problems. One of the advantages of the new cart—which is now being
tested by some of the women—is that it avoids excessive strain on abdominal
muscles. The old carts are designed in such a way that there is constant
friction between the handles and the abdomen of the women and the thighs of
the men. In the new version the female partner adopts a comfortable pushing
posture which allows a margin of safety between the handle and the body.
Also, the new carts include extra space for carrying a baby underneath as
well as a braking system.
The distribution of vegetables, an all important part of the daily diet in
India, is also done by women in Ahmedabad. Going from door to door around
the city, into every nook and corner, women carry vegetable baskets on their
heads or draw small carts piled high with their produce. Like the cart
pullers, the women are accompanied by their children, young girls being
taught the trade by their mothers.
Junk-smiths are another segment of self-employed women in Ahmedabad studied
by BHATT. Skilled blacksmiths, they carry out their trade in their homes.
They purchase the raw materials such as barrels, tar, chemicals, tin sheets
and other metal goods from scattered shops and factories, or collect them
while moving about the streets. The work is hard, hot, and demanding—and
they remain the lowest income group—yet they produce much that is necessary
for the rest of society—buckets, stoves, pans, toys, racks and tin boxes.
While the city of Ahmedabad has a dairy to cater to the milk needs of its
citizens it serves only a third of the population. The other two thirds is
served by self-employed women who are called milk producers. These women get
up at 4 a.m. to feed their cattle, milk them, put the milk in containers and
deliver it. When finished they return home to clean the shed, wash the
containers and then take care of the needs of their families. Feeding the
cattle—the average milk producer has about five cows or water
buffalo—continues throughout the day, and finally by midnight the milk
producer is ready for sleep.
These then were the women who became members of SEWA. Sharing many of the
same difficulties in terms of getting the materials needed for their
livelihood and of poor living conditions, they came in large numbers to the
only organization which had their interests at heart.
The union has had unprecedented success from the very beginning in
attracting membership. By the end of 1975, only three years after its
inception, there were 5,258 members, and one year later the membership had
reached 9,000 in Ahmedabad, with some 2,000 members in a newly opened center
in the handloom community of Bhavnagar. Today there are 10,667 members in
the city. In addition to bringing together women from a variety of
occupations SEWA has been successful in joining women from different tribes—Waghris,
Rabaris and Marwaris for example—who were previously divided by religious
and cultural differences.
One of the findings which came out most clearly from the early studies was
the dependency of the self-employed woman on moneylenders who demanded
extremely high interest rates. Therefore the first concern of SEWA was the
protection of its members from exploitation. To alleviate this dependency
SEWA embarked on a project to provide financial loans to its members.
Several banks were approached and to everyone's surprise the banks agreed to
process loans. However, unforeseen problems arose as it became evident that
union members were inexperienced in the world of finance and that the banks
were unprepared to deal with SEWA customers, the like of which they had
never before seen. The women, on the whole, were filthy in appearance,
illiterate, rowdy, uncouth in manners and unaccustomed to business talk.
They could not fill out the necessary forms and were often inconsistent in
the use of names—sometimes using their husband's name and sometimes their
maiden name. Unfamiliar with banking they often did not realize that banks
had only certain times when they were open and would frequently arrive
before or after business hours. Since they could not read it was not
uncommon for members to attempt to do business at the wrong bank.
In order to avoid these discouraging problems SEWA decided that it would
have to change the procedures. Staff members would complete all the
preliminary paper work necessary for loans and would accompany needy members
when submitting the papers. From 1975 to 1976 nationalized banks gave loans
totaling almost 1,500,000 rupees to about 2,900 SEWA borrowers.
Yet in spite of the apparent success of this project, members of SEWA were
disheartened by the overwhelming number of difficulties encountered. In
December 1973, during a meeting at which this problem was being discussed,
one member happened to ask, "Why can't we have a bank of our own for our own
purposes?" "But a bank is for rich people," another answered. "We are poor;
we would need 100,000 rupees," cried another, mentioning the largest sum she
could think of (roughly US$15,000). Another voice was heard: "Sisters, we
are poor but we are many; before we had nothing but now we have SEWA, and if
people like us can have a union then we can also have a bank." And so the
idea was born; the members of SEWA decided to form a women's cooperative
The bank required a minimum investment of 10 rupees (US$1.40) per member and
this was quickly acquired. More difficult to attain were the legally
required signatures of 15 charter SEWA members. Staff members sat down with
the illiterate women—whose fingers were pricked by needles, soiled by
vegetables and scarred by scrap metal—to teach them how to write their
names. Finally 15 could put their shaky signatures on a piece of paper and
in July 1974, after a struggle with the government to convince officials of
the bank's viability, an official of the Gujarat government inaugurated the
Shri Mahila SEWA Sahakari Bank Limited (the Mahila SEWA Cooperative Bank,
One year later the bank enjoyed a working capital of Rs.300,000 (US$35,000),
increased to Rs.1,044,932 by February 1976. Most members have deposited
modest savings and most can qualify to receive low interest loans of between
250 and 1,000 rupees. Aware of the difficulties connected with paper work,
the bank instituted simple identification procedures: each member has a card
with her photograph on it which matches a similar card in the bank's file.
In the beginning the bank made its loans through the established
nationalized banks; today the bank makes its own loans.
The purpose of the bank goes beyond making it possible for members to obtain
low interest loans. The bank's function is also to teach members how to make
their money more productive, encourage savings and develop a sense of
independence; the women are discouraged from bringing their husbands along
when they make transactions. In addition, the bank will provide guidance for
financial management, marketing of goods and purchase of necessary
Repayment of loans, however, has been a constant concern to the members of
SEWA. A recovery section, made up of 14 field workers, has the duty of going
out to remind those who have taken loans to repay them on time. On the whole
the experience has been encouraging. In a survey of borrowers BHATT has
found that 44 percent have repaid their installments regularly, 43 percent
irregularly and only 13 percent are serious defaulters. Their rate of
repayment is higher than that of traders or small businessmen. Ever aware of
the need to understand the membership, BHATT has studied the major reasons
behind the lack of repayments. Most of the time the woman is unable to make
the payment because of family reasons: recurring sickness in the family,
unsteady employment of the husband and frequent pregnancies leading to loss
of work time. A related reason for indebtedness, including the inability to
repay bank loans, is adherence to traditional social customs. Marriage and
deaths traditionally involve entertaining relatives and guests and generous
gifts. This practice takes a heavy toll upon the poor and yet, since
families desire to maintain their social standing, they do not easily
discard tradition. Debts are thus often passed on from generation to
generation, resulting in a circle that is difficult to break. This pattern
of debt can only be reduced if new value systems and status concepts can be
taught and accepted; SEWA is attempting to do so.
A second major group of reasons for lack of repayment by borrowers relates
to professional difficulties: limited resources for buying goods, lack of
marketing skills, inability to find market space and, associated with the
latter, police harassment. Cases of intentional fraud on the part of
borrowers have been few and BHATT remains optimistic that members will
remain conscientious and honorable. Guiding her is the belief that if SEWA,
the union, creates the motivation, and SEWA, the bank, provides financial
and managerial skills, the self-employed worker will soon rise and be able
to stand on her own feet.
In published surveys of the living and working conditions of self-employed
women BHATT included a number of recommendations concerning areas that need
attention. The vast problem of illiteracy needs to be attacked; government
should sponsor training programs so that women can become more proficient in
their trade; more credit must be available so that women can purchase their
means of production, such as their own sewing machines and handcarts; child
care centers should be established so that children do not have to wander
the streets with their mother or wait by the roadside to be collected at the
end of the day; and basic living conditions should be improved.
SEWA has set up programs aimed at solving some of these problems. It has
established a literacy program to teach members to read but has had little
positive response; the women's energies are directed toward earning a
living. A welfare section focuses upon solving some of the major social
problems. It provides a child care center for vegetable vendors and plans
for similar centers for other groups. It has been negotiating with the State
Housing Board for low cost housing for 1,000 SEWA members. After studying
the medical conditions of its participants, SEWA set up the Mahila SEWA
Trust which provides health, maternity, widowhood and death benefits for
members at a modest price. Eye checkups are made and glasses have been
provided to a number of members.
One of the many obstacles faced by self-employed women is harassment by the
police and the union now processes any complaints members have. In 1975
there were 796 complaints registered; 745 were solved by the field workers
assigned to this job; in three cases legal aid was provided by SEWA. There
is now an attorney connected with SEWA who will handle all complaints that
need legal assistance.
Another area into which SEWA has expanded involves actions to increase the
profit and/or productivity of workers. In order to help the garment makers
the union now purchases materials which have been discarded by textile mills
and sells them to members at cost. This eliminates the middlemen and lowers
the cost; efforts have also been made to motorize their sewing machines.
Attempts are underway to familiarize the junk-smith women with modern tools
and methods of work. Development of mini-markets, to provide better
facilities for vegetable vendors, is under consideration, and programs are
being established to educate and train milk producers in the areas of
nutrition, care of cattle and sale of milk.
Classes are sponsored by SEWA for the different groups to make them aware of
their rights as workers and their duties as citizens. At the same time
studies are continuously underway to determine the needs of the membership
and of other segments of society. BHATT has done surveys on the conditions
of unemployed textile workers, on the indebtedness of textile workers in
general and those of the Saraspur Mills in particular. She has completed
research projects on Cooperative Credit Societies of the Mills' Employees,
The Impact of Welfare on the State Transport Employees of Gujarat State, and
Economic Participation of Cottonpod Openers. Her publications include
Gujarat-ni-Nari (Women of Gujarat), The Impact of Education on Women of the
Harijan Community, and Profiles of Self-Employed Women.
A mother of two—Amimayi is a graduate student specializing in languages at
Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and Mihir is a student in architecture
at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad—ELA BHATT leads an active and
busy life. In addition to her work with TLA and the SEWA union, she is
Managing Director of the SEWA bank and Vice President of the Gujarat
Agriculture Workers' Union, the Self-Employed Workers' Organization and the
Construction Workers' Union, and has found time to serve on the advisory
boards of the Gujarat State Adult Education Committee and the International
SOS Village. The latter organization, based in Vienna, has a worldwide
network of villages where orphaned children and destitute women live
together in family units and help is given to rehabilitate and strengthen
these new families. Such an SOS Children's Village exists in Ahmedabad at
Because of her experience in developing SEWA, BHATT has often been asked to
participate in international meetings and conferences. In 1972 she attended
the Women's Leadership Seminar in Japan and in 1975 she participated as a
panelist on the topic of "Women at Work" in Mexico in a UN-sponsored
International Women's Year Conference. She traveled to the United States in
1973 under a U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) grant, and to
England in 1977 as a Study Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies of
the University of Sussex where she delivered a paper, "An Approach to the
Rural Poor." In 1977 she also became a consultant to UNICEF (the United
Nations Children's Fund) for the Bangladesh Women's Department.
As the guiding spirit behind SEWA and its many projects ELA RAMESH BHATT has
shown that the weak and the poor can, through their collective strength,
overcome numerous handicaps. Her great confidence in the ability of
self-employed women is seen in the structure of SEWA; it is a grass-roots
organization which genuinely utilizes the talents and knowledge of its
members. One who has observed her at work has said of ELA BHATT: "She is an
extraordinarily calm, strong person whose gentleness and patience with the
women is certainly one of the most important reasons for the success of SEWA."
Bhatt, Ela R. "An Approach to the Rural Poor," a paper presented to the
study seminar on the "Role of Women in Rural Development," Institute of
Development Studies, University of Sussex, England. January, 1977.
______. Economic Status of Vegetable Women. Pamphlet. Ahmedabad:
Self-Employed Women's Association. 1975.
______. The Impact of Education on Girls of the Harijan Community. Pamphlet.
Ahmedabad: J.B. Trust. 1975.
______. "Organizing Self-Employed Women," Presentation made to Group
Discussion. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila. September 1, 1977.
______. "Organizing the Unprotected Women: An Experiment." Ahmedabad:
Self-Employed Women's Association. 1975. (Typewritten.)
______. Profiles of Self-Employed Women. Booklet. Ahmedabad: Self-Employed
Women's Association. 1976.
Bhatt, Tushar. The Women's Union Ela Bhatt Helped Organize. Leaflet.
Ahmedabad: Majoor Mudranalaya. 1977.
Directory of Indian Women Today, 1976. New Delhi: India International
SEWA, Report and Studies Ahmedabad. Prepared 1975-1977. (Typewritten.)
Annual Report of SEWA—1975.
Economic Status of Milk Producer Women: A Study.
History and Activities of SEWA.
A Note on Needs of SEWA.
Organizing the Self-Employed Women Workers into Labor and Cooperatives: An
Redesign of the Hand Cart.
Verghese, B.G. "Blue-Blouse United." Commerce. Bombay, May 15, 1976.
Letters from and interviews with colleagues and others knowledgeable about
the work of Ela Bhatt.