Elaben's was a life lived for women, work and peace

A true Gandhian, she reinterpreted Hind Swaraj to build a non-violent society in modern times

- Sudarshan Iyengar*

Ela Bhatt

Elaben Bhatt breathed her last on November 2, 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 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 saw a large number of women street vendors subjected to municipal and police excesses, creating hurdles to their businesses. Then there were a host of poor home-based women 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 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 was the general secretary for 24 years and from 1996 onward SEWA has seen young and dynamic general secretaries.

Elaben soon realised that the women workers needed small amounts of credit to run their enterprises, and the lending market was highly exploitative. Under her leadership, young professional women founded the SEWA Cooperative Bank. It was a struggle to get recognition as a bank from the RBI. SEWA’s strength and genuineness led to amending the RBI rules. This is a rare feat for women workers in any country.

Humble and polite, 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, the 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 the Padma Bhushan in 1986.

Elaben was a member of the Planning Commission in the 1980s. Her vision encompassed humanity. She reinterpreted Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj, which discussed a self-reliant rural society based on nonviolence and love giving it a modern meaning. Elaben coined a word for relating to the physical, social, economic, ecological, and cultural environment within a radius of 100 miles -- Anubandh, her word for correlation. She had made a presentation about Anubandh to the UNDP even before the Sustainable Development Goals appeared.

She understood deeply the problems of food security, violence, starvation, and ecological imbalance that governments and international agencies were grappling with. She called for a firm grip on the ground and an active relationship with the world where people lived. Self-reliance for the basic necessities of life could be generated within 100 miles of one’s habitat. She suggested an ethical and holistic approach for an equitable distribution of natural resources, in which labour could be 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 be a chancellor as she was succeeding Gandhiji, Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Morarji Desai and other prominent people, including her immediate predecessor, Narayan Desai.

She had a dream for Gujarat Vidyapith; she wanted the Vidyapith to give up the role of a degree-distributing university to an innovative centre for excellence in promoting Roti Pith, Khadi Pith, and Urja Pith. She wanted to impart hands-on experience of producing food and clothing with the help of sustainable and clean energy technologies, to the youth. Had she lived longer, her vision might have gradually translated into reality. She wanted to free Gujarat Vidyapith from being a government grant-receiving institution and turn it into a vibrant, public-supported place for the youth to learn how to build a non-violent society based on her philosophy of Anubandh.

As President of the Sabarmati Ashram, she envisioned a live memorial that could revive the activities that took place during Gandhiji’s time. She was not happy with the proposal of the governments at the centre and state to redevelop the Ashram precincts as a world-class memorial, spending hundreds of crores. She wrote to the government: “All efforts undertaken by the Sabarmati Ashram Redevelopment Project, both in terms of its planning and implementation, must 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, “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...I consider women’s participation and representation an integral part of building stable and peaceful communities.”

With Elaben’s departure, the world has lost a global citizen who epitomised Gandhi’s nonviolent human being.

Courtesy: Deccan Herald, dt. 04.11.2022

* The writer is a noted Gandhian economist and former Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith.