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'The women loved Elaben'

Last updated on: November 04, 2022 12:51 IST
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'Who would think of making a bank of poor women? She had vision and boldness.'

IMAGE: Renana Jhabvala, left, with SEWA Founder Elaben Bhatt, right.

Many women from SEWA across caste, religion and professions bid their beloved 'Elaben' a final goodbye with tears, prayers and songs at her cremation in Ahmedabad on Thursday.

Renana Jhabvala had a 45 year-long and close association with Elaben. Jhabvala, the daughter of Booker Prize-winning movelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, returned to India after studying at Harvard and Yale universities to start working for SEWA.

The remarkable Elaben Bhatt -- Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Raman Magsaysay awardee, ex-Rajya Sabha member -- was among the last Gandhians. She lived a life of simplicity, wore only khadi, ate local produce.

'We were a generation that had no confusion as to how to do things because Gandhiji had shown the way,' Elaben once said in an interview to the Berkely Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

A lawyer by profession, she founded the Self Employed Women's Association, a trade union of poor self-employed women in 1972 that included vegetable vendors, construction labourers, incense makers, craftswomen etc. The aim was to give voice, visibility, livelihood and dignity to women workers of the informal sector.

Today with 2.1 million members, SEWA is one of the largest trade unions in the country.

"She had a very profound influence on me and changed the direction of my life, in fact, I would say she gave direction to my life," Renana Jhabvala tells's Archana Masih in a phone conversation after returning from Elaben's cremation.

Ms Jhabvala graciously shared her memories of Elaben Bhatt, one of India's greatest daughters, widely known as the 'Gentle Revolutionary'.

"It is the end of an era for me. I feel heartbroken that she's no more.

There were so many women at the cremation. They remembered her with tears, prayers and songs which were a reflection of all religions. You could feel that her spirit is still there among us. As long as her spirit remains, perhaps we will continue to see a change.

She lived a life of simplicity. She would only wear khadi and preferred to eat foods that were made locally. Her home was always very simple. She was never showy.

She believed you could have a good education, promote new technologies for the betterment of society and still live life in a simple way.

She was a very empathetic personality. Working women who are street vendors or small farmers or rag pickers, get intimidated by people who are too educated or too well dressed because they are often exploited and treated badly by them. But they would always react with love and enthusiasm to Elaben because she would listen to them and talk to them as equals.

She was ready to take action for them; with them. The women loved her."


IMAGE: Elaben with then President Pranab Mukherjee, then prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

One of the first feminists of her era

"Her passing also marks the end of the era of many values that she represented and thought which would be promoted in society.

Many of those values are being eroded.

She grew up during the Independence movement. She was in college just after Independence and was swept into the nationalist spirit of coming together to build a nation -- and of reaching the poorest people in the villages.

She had an enthusiasm and fervour. She promoted the values of Gandhiji and the freedom movement.

She strongly believed that as a nation with different cultures, different religions, we needed to have a blended culture where we respect all religions and bring people together.

At SEWA, we strongly believe in this value.

Another value that was eroded was the trade union movement.

The people who built this nation with their hands and were mostly in the unorganised sector needed their own organisations. In the earlier years, the trade union movements were very strong. But that whole era has gone. It is now very difficult to unite working people. The laws and policies tend to divide rather than unite.

Elaben was also one of the first feminists of her era. Of course, they were Indian feminists well before that, but in the '60s and '70s, she was one of the leading feminists.

I think the women's empowerment movement has become stronger in our country. This is a value that she represented that has grown, not eroded. So it's, of course, a mix."

IMAGE: Elaben speaks to a vegetable vendor. Photograph: Kind courtesy SEWA/Facebook

The bold visionary

"As a leader, she inspired. She always had a vision of where we need to go. But she was also very practical. Women would come, tell her their stories and they would talk to her a lot.

Today, one woman was remembering this incident that took place after the nationalisation of banks. The woman came to her, and showed her rupee notes that she had saved tucked in her roof. The notes were all eaten up by rats. She asked if the banks could change it. Elaben then realised that women had no place to put their savings.

Her experience with street vendors made her realise that moneylenders were charging very high interest rates and the banks were not responsive. So she went back to the women and said, 'What should we do?' And the women told her we are poor, but we are so many, so let's make our own bank."

[4,000 women contributed share capital of Rs 10 each to establish the MAHILA SEWA CO-OPERATIVE BANK. In May 1974, the SEWA Bank was registered as a co-operative bank under the dual control of The Reserve Bank of India and the Gujarat government. Since then it has been providing banking services to poor, illiterate self-employed women and has become a viable financial venture.]

"Who would think of making a bank of poor women? She had vision and boldness."

IMAGE: Elaben with then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, 'one of her great admirers'.

She was always listening

"Elaben was always thinking and visioning. Her values were of caring rather than exploitation; of coming together rather than division.

In the last few years, she didn't travel much. She had become quite weak and frail, but she didn't want to talk about her illness. Her thought process was about building an economy of nurturance. Not an economy of exploitation. She was in her later 80s and still thinking about the future.

She was always thinking of how do we change? How do we make a better future?

She had also written a number of books. In her 70s, she wrote We are poor, but are so many about her experiences. She also wrote Anubandh - building 100-mile communities about how people should produce and consume within 100 miles.

She often went out to the villages and hear what women have to say. She thought all the wisdom and knowledge came from there.

Her big belief was that real knowledge comes from the women themselves. So she was always listening.

She was truthful and non-violent, but was always adamant on her way."

IMAGE: The women folk of SEWA at work.

The India of today

"Elaben thought the economy was going in the wrong direction and was very upset about the religious divide. She felt the value of simplicity was getting lost and was unhappy about the exploitation of Mother Nature."

Renana Jhabvala joined SEWA in 1977 and is the national coordinator of SEWA. She has a long experience as a social worker and has been actively involved in policy issues pertaining to poor women in the unorganised sector.
She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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