Masters of the World: Ela Ramesh Bhatt


"There are risks in every action. Every success has the seed of some failure. But it doesn't matter. It is how you go about it that is the real challenge."

 - Ela Ramesh Bhatt

In a number of Indian languages, 'sewa' means 'to serve someone', an act that is considered to be the noblest of all. SEWA also stands for Self Employed Women's Association, an organisation that has served the needs of poor, vulnerable women for over 38 years. SEWA is the vision of an extraordinary lady called Ela Ramesh Bhatt. Founded as a trade union in 1972, SEWA has worked tirelessly for the welfare of poor, self-employed women workers who form the bulk of the labour force in India. The next time you pass by a road construction site and see a woman breaking stones, just remember that there are millions like her across the country whose life has been made more secure in many ways through the work done by SEWA.

Ela was born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on September 7, 1933. Ela was a bright student and did her early schooling and college from Surat. She went on to procure a law degree from Sir L A Shah Law College in Ahmedabad where she was also awarded a gold medal for her work on Hindu law. Though Ela taught English briefly at the SNDT University in Mumbai, teaching was not a profession she enjoyed much. A philanthropist at heart, she has done commendable work in the fields of international labour, women and micro finance movements and has won many national and international awards for the same.

Afterher brief stint at SNDT University, Ela returned to Ahmedabad where she joined the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in the legal department and began her legal career. In 1971 she had the opportunity to travel to Israel whereshe studied at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labour and Cooperatives in Tel Aviv for three months, receiving an International Diploma in Labour and Cooperatives. Impressed at how every sector of Israeli labour was organised and how the wives of workers were also union members, Ela began to think of how she could put such a concept into operation in Ahmedabad.

Elawas aware that many wives and daughters of textile workers worked long,hard hours as self-employed junk-smiths, garment makers, vegetable vendors and hawkers to supplement their family income. However, due to state laws, only industrially-employed women were protected and not self-employed ones. Much to her dismay, she discovered that self-employed women were not even included in the 1971 census as workers! With the help of the president of TLA at the time, she took on the responsibility of organising the self-employed women into a union, which was established as SEWA with Ela as the general secretary.

At the time in Ahmedabad, vegetables were distributed largely by women going from door to door carrying the vegetables in small hand carts. Similarly, two-thirds of Ahmedabad received milk delivered by self-employed milk women who got up at 4am to feed and milk the cattle and fill their containers with milk for delivery. Junk-smiths were another category of self-employed women who worked long hours from their homes to produce buckets, stoves, pans and other utensils, but still remained among the poorest. These were the women who were attracted to SEWA, the only organisation which had their interest at heart, and in only a few years the membership grew to over 5,000 women. SEWA soon expanded its activities to include a bank for its members. Ela currently serves as the Chair of SEWA Co-operative Bank.

Ela is one of the founders of Women's World Banking and served as its chair from 1980 to 1998. She is also a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. Ela has been awarded the Padma Shri, a civilian honour awarded by the Government of India, in 1985, the Padma Bhushan in 1986, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1977 and the Right Livelihood Award in 1984. She was also granted an honorary Doctorate degree in Humane Letters by Harvard University, USA, in June 2001. Most recently, she has been chosen for the Niwano Peace Prize for 2010 for her contribution to uplift poor women in India. At the ceremony in Tokyo, where she received her award, she talked about how respectable work will allow women to uplift themselves and their families from poverty and how women can then contribute to building peaceful communities. Ela has been described as "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."

This series is written by Vikas Verma, a business strategist and Founder and CEO of The Colour Factory.