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A selfless life devoted to working with women, empowering them

Ela Bhatt who passed away on 2nd November was a guiding light and powerful strategist for millions of self-employed and unorganised sector women workers not only in India but world over. She taught poor women at the bottom of economic pyramid to get organised and was convinced that collective effort and wisdom would help provide solutions to day-to-day existential challenges and lead to happy, healthy and contented lives. Vibhuti Patel writes about her life and times

Elaben believed in ‘work with women, not work for women’ and strived for ‘power for women, not power over women’. She stood tall in her vision, mission and goal – the poorest of the poor women were her focus throughout. Her aura, charm, aesthetic simplicity and faith in the power of collective efforts were such that her friends and co-workers saw in her a ‘living Gandhian’. She was clear in her thoughts and perspectives, her long term strategies and day-to-day tactics improved the lives of informal sector workers. She would often say, “nothing about women, without women” and trusted collective wisdom of women to execute an action agenda.

Elaben made a crucial contribution towards bringing in conversations on ‘unpaid family workers’ and home-based workers. She would put forward her views in a calm and composed manner, but was always firm with her stand. She was always concerned and negotiate space for working-class women in the neo-liberal macro-economy. Innumerable development practitioners have expressed their endless debt of gratitude to Elaben for transforming ‘resolution’ into ‘revolution’ and showing the pathway to challenge patriarchy on a day-to-day basis. Elaben personified feminist solidarity in action and projected ‘simplicity as power’.

Elaben was a secular humanist who stood by the Dalits, adivasis and religious minorities. She made a path-breaking contribution by forming the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) as the women’s trade union, and the Friend of Women’s Rights and Women’s Studies Movement. SEWA played pivotal role for the enactment of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act (2008), National Rural Livelihood Mission (2011) and Street Vendors Act (2014). In the II Labour Commission’s Report only two chapters – on the informal sector and child labour – stood out to reflect a commitment to social justice and workers’ rights. Both the chapters were drafted by the SEWA team.

In 2007, Elaben was invited to South Africa to attend ae meeting convened by Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Desmond Tutu in Johannesburg in which world leaders arrived at a consensus to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems under the banner of The Elders. Elaben won the hearts of activists and academicians, researchers and policy makers by her polite but firm style of communication, her refined sense of humour, warm hospitality that had a personal touch, her courage of conviction and creative methods of finding solutions to unfolding challenges in the changing socio-economic and political realities that threatened the survival base of the urban, rural and tribal women.

Elaben was a recipient of several prestigious awards – the Padma Shree, Padma Vibhushan, Magsaysay Award for Community leadership and Frances Legion d; Honneur, Right Livelihood Award, Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, honoris causa from Harvard-Yale-SNDT Women’s University. Yet, she Elaben remained humble and accessible to all of us till the last day of her life. As she spoke slowly and in a non-threatening manner, she could reach out to her listeners effectively, be they young students, working class women, elderly artisans, erudite professionals, funders, global politicians or firebrand journalists. As Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, Ahmedaba,d during 2015-2022, Elaben firmly adhered to Gandhian principles of non-sectarian and pluralist approach in governance.

Elaben was a product of the Freedom Movement and put into practice Rabindranath Tagore’s patriotic song verse Ekla Cholo Re, when faced with adversities in her public life. While working with poor women at the grassroots, she learned from realities on the ground. Whether it was a matter of desirable rate of interest to be charged by the SEWA Cooperative Bank or launching the SEWA Insurance Programme, she consulted the members of SEWA.

Several obituaries by her colleagues and admirers have described Elaben as a ‘gentle revolutionary’. I would like to end this tribute with some beautiful lines written by Marianne Williamson (author and spiritual leader) that was often recited by Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking,
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,
As children do.

We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us,
It’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

(The writer has been active in the women’s rights movement since 1970. She was a professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

October – December 2022