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Bhatt, Ela Ramesh | BIOGRAPHY

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 satyagraha.

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 income.

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 committee.

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 momentum.

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 bank.

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, Ltd.).

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 materials.

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 Shreyes.

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."

September 1977




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. (Typewritten.)

______. 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. (Typewritten transcript.)

______. "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 Publishers. 1976. 

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 Experiment.

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.