Mirai Chatterjee pays tribute to Ela Ramesh Bhatt

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Ela Ramesh Bhatt: Founder of SEWA, Co-Founder and Founding Chair of WIEGO

In an article titled "Elaben, who redefined women’s empowerment" for the Hindustan Times News, Mirai Chatterjee, Chair of the WIEGO Board, writes:

"Many an epithet has been used to celebrate her—the gentle revolutionary, the Mahatma of “shramjeevi” (working) women, and more. For us, her SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) sisters, and thousands across India and the globe, Ela Bhatt was simply “ben” (sister).

Born in a family of freedom fighters, the spirit of sacrifice and service was imbued early in her. While in college in Surat, she met the student leader and her future husband, Ramesh Bhatt, and together they forged a unique partnership—of service to the poorest and most vulnerable, in the spirit and tradition of Gandhiji.

She was a firm believer in organising—the act of uniting women, building the sisterhood and solidarity. It is the basic building block, she often told us, and with her infectious smile, would add, “No short cuts, we must do the hard work of organising and building up membership-based organisations such as unions and cooperatives, and then our SEWA movement—a ‘sangam’ (confluence) of labour, cooperative and women’s movement and something more than all these put together, the informal women workers’ movement.”

A visionary, she worked round-the-clock to realise her dream of a movement of self-employed women. There are so many firsts to her name, yet she wore her achievements and the many awards and recognition she obtained, lightly. She truly believed these were collective, small victories in the long road to economic empowerment and self-reliance or “swaraj”, as she explained to us. One of her seminal contributions was to the microfinance movement and setting up SEWA Bank, the first of its kind anywhere. An early friendship with Michaela Walsh at the United Nations women’s conference in Mexico resulted in financial services for women, such as the Women’s World Banking, Friends of Women’s World Banking, VimoSEWA, SEWA’s insurance cooperative, and more.

[...] She was a prodigious writer who penned in Anasuya, our Gujarati newsletter, a play on street vendors, apart from numerous papers and several books in English and Gujarati. One of these was her book We are Poor But We are Many ,which described as her life’s work. Another illuminating report she steered and edited was Shramshakti, the report of the National Commission on Self-Employed Women and Women in the Informal sector. Crisscrossing the length and breadth of India, she listened to women, recorded their grind of work, their songs and their hopes for a future of equality and justice.

Elaben leaves us a rich legacy of the many organisations she founded and ably led, of reminding us of the unfinished business of our freedom movement and to take the fight against poverty and for swaraj forward, ensure work and income security, food and social security for all, especially the hard-working women of our country. As we celebrate her life, we SEWA sisters resolve to take forward her unfinished work and organise in every corner of our land, build women’s leadership and their own democratic, inclusive, decentralised, membership-based organisations, to build a firm future for them and their families, for India and for our shared global family."

This article was originally published (behind a paywall) on Hindustan Times.

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