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Elaben: Remembering The Soft Revolutionary

Simplicity, softness, smiles, and a firmness that made you perform, summarises the personality of Ela Bhatt.

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Simplicity, softness, smiles, and a firmness that made you perform, summarises the personality of Ela Bhatt known with respect as Elaben, the gentle woman who revolutionised the women’s movement globally.

My first encounter with Elaben was on a fine day of June 2005 in the sweltering heat of Ahmedabad. I was patiently waiting with anticipation to meet my boss Ela Bhatt, a woman about whom I had heard and read a lot but never met. She entered the office dot on time, to my surprise in a three-wheeler instead of an AC vehicle! As soon as she entered, her smiles and words embraced me like no other bosses’ ever had.

“It is so empowering that a woman from our neighbouring country has come to lead Indian School of Microfinance for Women (ISMW). Welcome Namrata. Your name is beautiful and I know you will succeed in your work” were Elaben’s first words to me.

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It was an introductory half an hour meeting that extended to over two hours. I was curious to know “her.” She spoke and I listened, mesmerised to know how she had established the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) movement in India and what her vision was for ISMW.

How SEWA Came to Be

Ela Bhatt has motivated women who were some of the poorest, marginalised, and illiterate, rag pickers, and bidi rollers to unite and help them form a Trade Union. An active worker of the Gandhian movement based in Gujarat, Ela Bhatt was a leader and trade union activist. However, trade unions were for employed workers, but the people Ela Bhatt was interested to work with were poor marginalised women, who had no employers but who were doing some of the dirtiest menial works for the communities. To assert their rights, they needed to be in an Union. Ela Bhatt was determined to make this happen.

The first Trade Union for these 'neediest' people was registered as the Self-Employed Women’s Association on 12 April 1972. The next step Ela Bhat felt was that the Trade Union members required a place to safely keep the money they earned.

“Namrata, as no bank wanted to take small amounts of money from these poor people who were dressed in dirty and torn clothes, I had to start a savings and credit cooperative for them,” she said.

While setting up the Sewa Cooperative Bank, Elaben locked up the union leaders in a room for several days in order to teach them how to write their names. They were all illiterate but to register a cooperative bank, the signatures of the promoters were required.

I had several questions and Ela Bhatt had a desire to transfer her knowledge and skills to her sister from across the border. In my quest of working for the marginalised and the most deprived communities, I pleasantly bumped into someone who had set up a system where the poor could live with dignity and take care of their needs.

While there is criticism that India’s huge middle class has failed to pull up the people from below the poverty line, leaders like Ela Bhatt have shown an alternate path for them to follow the “for women by women approach” to uplift women out of poverty.

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Lifting Others Up

In 2006, I got a call from her office saying that she was invited as the keynote speaker for an event organised by a Gandhian Association in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, but instead of her going, she requested me to represent her to deliver the keynote address.

I was overwhelmed that she had confidence in me, a young director from a neighbouring country. I, of course, accepted and was exposed to one more amazing set up and social leadership in Orissa. Of course, no one can fill in the shoes of Elaben but with gestures like these she succeeded in creating women leaders all over the world.

Before working in the development sector, I was a working journalist as Editor of The Independent Weekly in Nepal. During my career as a development worker, I continued writing articles in several newspapers.

Elaben was aware of my journalistic skills. During my tenure with ISMW, there was a visit by the CEO of Citigroup Inc, the American multinational Bank, and a big press meet was organised in Mumbai. Ela Bhatt was the chief guest. She asked me to accompany her.

The Citigroup CEO, in his opening remark, mentioned that the press meet was mainly to focus on the informal sector and the interest that Citigroup had in its investments there, so the questions should focus on the informal sector. There was a pin drop silence. No questions.

I could feel Elaben’ eyes on me and quickly posed a question on what the Citigroup’s views were on whether the poor were bankable. Although the CEO did focus on this topic, the main queries of the press was on the macro-economy and financial growth in India and globally.

Very little coverage was given by the mainstream media on microfinance but The Economic Times carried my article on the microfinance sector in India and the need for the poor to access external finance.

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In a world where the poor are not seen as clients of the financial market, people like Ela Bhatt have established that the poor are bankable and have very disciplined financial behaviour, therefore, it is important and profitable for big financial institutions to invest in them.

Ela Bhatt, who was born on 7 September 1933, passed away on 2 November 2022. Her life was full of struggles and achievements. To me and several women all over the world, Ela Bhatt will remain a beckoning light encouraging us to get up and work for those who need it the most.

(Namrata Sharma is a senior journalist and women rights advocate. She can be reached at namrata1964@yahoo.com or @NamrataSharmaP on Twitter.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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