- ELA RAMESH BHATT for four years had been chief of the women’s section of the Textile Labor Association founded in 1920 by the “Father of Modern India,” Mahatma Gandhi.
- Mrs. BHATT organized self-employed women in the Self-Employed Women’s Association. Within three years the organization had enlisted over 5,000 members and won the privilege of registration with the government as a trade union.
- Usurious loans were a major burden to them for which ELA BHATT’s next answer was creation of the Mahila SEWA Cooperative Bank where these women bought shares for US$1.30 each.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her making a reality of the Gandhian principle of self-help among the depressed work force of self-employed women.”
The lot in life of self-employed women in South and Southeast Asia is usually marginal at best. As milkmaids, vendors of vegetables, fish, fruit or sundries, or sewing and embroidery pieceworkers they are working with scant odds in their favor. Stall rents are relatively high, interest rates on working capital usually exorbitant, and they seldom have a cash cushion to allow for the disasters that illness, storm or arbitrary official regulations can bring.
Just how acute the conditions are under which self-employed women live is evident in Ahmedabad, with its population of 1.7 million the largest city in the West Indian State of Gujarat. Among self-employed women there—who also may pull carts, repair and sell used garments or hammer junk into utensils for earnings that range from the equivalent of US$0.25 to US$1.70 per day—nearly 97 percent live in slums and 93 percent are illiterate. Ninety-two percent are married, often at age 10 or 12, and on the average have four children. About two-thirds are below the age of 25 and 60 percent are in debt. More than three-fourths work with rented means of production, and 70 percent must carry their children to their work site—often beside the road or in a crowded corner. Although these self-employed women may outnumber workers in regular factories and other establishments, even census figures frequently ignore them.
In 1972 a 39 year-old lawyer turned social worker, daughter of a high court judge, took on the challenge of helping these depressed women. ELA RAMESH BHATT for four years had been chief of the women’s section of the Textile Labor Association founded in 1920 by the “Father of Modern India,” Mahatma Gandhi. With 120,000 members in 60 Ahmedabad textile mills, this Association bargained with employers for better working conditions, meanwhile seeking better health and social and spiritual advancement for members’ families, many of whom came from the outcaste Harijans or untouchables.
Mrs. BHATT, with support of the Association, first organized selfemployed women—who often were the wives of textile workers—in the Self-Employed Women’s Association. Within three years the organization had enlisted over 5,000 members and won the privilege of registration with the government as a trade union. By organizing, these self-employed women were in a position to protect each other from such things as extortion by abusive policemen and inspectors.
Usurious loans were a major burden to them for which ELA BHATT’s next answer was creation of the Mahila SEWA Cooperative Bank where these women bought shares for US$1.30 each. The Bank now has over 4,500 shareholders, and some 10,000 women have deposited about US$35,000 therein. Training in accounting and in repayment of loans has led to learning other business skills. From this has grown a new, more positive life view. A day care center has been established for children of vegetable vendors which allows them to tend better to their business. The Self-Employed Women’s Association has created a modest health, death and maternity benefit scheme, and helps improve the designs of tools and equipment the women use.
In this enterprise Mrs. BHATT and her associates are fostering development where it matters most—among the poorest and weakest in the community. Their accomplishments in Ahmedabad suggest the possibilities, given leadership, for self advancement among the millions of self-employed women in Asia’s other burgeoning cities.
In electing ELA RAMESH BHATT to receive the 1977 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the Board of Trustees recognizes her making a reality of the Gandhian principle of self-help among the depressed work force of self-employed women.
I am here to thank you personally on behalf of my family, my colleagues, and the members-workers of the two organizations to which I belong, namely the Textile Labor Association and the Self-Employed Women’s Association—popularly known as SEWA, in Ahmedabad, India.
I belong to an ordinary middle class family, brought up and educated like other girls. It was the most significant moment in my life when I was drawn towards my toiling sisters—illiterate slum dwellers, but economically very active, powerful and cheerful—from whom I obtain all my strength, knowledge, answers and hope. It is at their insistence that SEWA as a union, SEWA Cooperative as a bank and SEWA Trust as social security, have come into being. Working with them takes me towards a realization that God is everywhere.
Is it really the few big dams, or huge industrial plants or metropolises that change the face of the world? No, even a small uplift in the capacities of the people is able to bring total change in the world.
Most often human capacities are underestimated by us, hence we put blind faith in machines which lead to centralization of money and power. Even the present structures—legal, economic and social, including trade unions and cooperatives—fail to cater to the needs of people. Let us ask ourselves, for whom do we build our towns, roads, industries, markets, schools and laboratories?
The hard struggle that men face in a life of poverty is harder for women who most often work at the expense of their families. For the woman the economic problem of earning her daily bread is linked with her entire social and physical life.
From humble experience I have learned that it is possible to organize, without too much elaborate technique or expense, poor self-employed women workers for self-help. Women are ready to be organized and are capable of utilizing assistance and ideas if exposed to them.
The trade union movement has promoted the growth of the organized industrial sector. In developing countries industrialization and unionization have proceeded hand in hand. The benefits of development have reached the organized workers, but the share of the self-employed poor has yet to grow.
In Asia a very large number of women are participating in the economic activities of their countries. The industrial unions and social security cover a very small, insignificant part of the total number of working women. We hope this will be a turning point for the labor and cooperative movements to act unitedly for the emancipation of working women from economic, social and political suppression.
This Award has reassured us that we are on the right track in our endeavor, and has given encouragement not only to SEWA members, but also to millions of self-employed women workers elsewhere, to organize themselves and realize the power generating from association outside their homes.
Therefore the 1977 Ramon Magsaysay Award is an honor to the non-industrial, self-employed women and men of Asia who are not destined to live depressed forever. A new challenge has emerged for those running economic organizations and also for social workers.
I am proud to receive the Award on behalf of the self-employed women who are the real recipients of it and for whose advancement this good money will be used.
ELA RAMESH BHATT was born on September 7, 1933 in Ahmedabad, India. Capital of the state of Gujarat, Ahmedabad is an industrial center famous for its cotton mills. Like many of its citizens ELA BHATT’s life was greatly influenced by the career and satyagraha (freedom by passive resistance) movement of Mahatma Gandhi. A Gujarati by birth, Gandhi spent most of his life after his return from South Africa in 1915, in Ahmedabad and it was here that he established his Satyagraha Ashram. Here in 1917 he carried out his first fast, on behalf of the textile workers who were engaged in the first major strike ever held in India Ahmedabad was the site of his trial for sedition in 1922 and the point of departure for his famous “salt march” some eight years later.
The second of three daughters, ELA grew up in a well-to-do family deeply interested and active in social causes. Her girlhood was spent in Surat, an export center on the coast about 100 miles from Ahmedabad, where her father, Sumant Bhatt, had a successful law practice; his father and his brother were also attorneys. In 1952 Sumant Bhatt became a district judge and was later appointed Charity Commissioner for Bombay and then Gujarat states. In this position he supervised the work of all charitable organizations in the area. Her mother, Vanalila Vyas, was active in the women’s movement. For some time she was secretary of the Gujarat State branch of the All-India Women’s Conference, an organization founded in 1927 by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (recipient of the 1966 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for “her enduring creativity with handicrafts and cooperatives, as in politics, art and the theater”). The conference focused on educational and social reforms and later became the coordinator for women’s organizations nationwide. ELA BHATT’s maternal grandfather was a doctor and a devoted follower of Gandhi; he was jailed three times for his participation in satyagraha.
BHATT attended Sarwajanik Girls High School in Surat from 1940 to 1948 and then M.T.B. College, also in Surat and affiliated with Gujarat University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1952. While in college she volunteered to work on the 1951 census. This experience made a deep impression on her. Already influenced by the writings of Tolstoy, Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave (1958 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership for “his furtherance of the cause of arousing his countrymen toward voluntary action in relieving social injustice and economic inequalities”) and the Gandhian economist J.C. Kumarappa, the experience of seeing firsthand the dismal conditions in which the poor lived made her decide that she would devote her life to working for them. A further influence on her during those college days was a fellow student, Ramesh Bhatt (no relation), who was an active student leader and a follower of Gandhi. ELA credits Ramesh with giving her direction and encouragement in proceeding with her work on behalf of the poor and underprivileged.
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