Every Movement Must Start With Organisation

The founder of SEWA narrates the story of growing up during India’s freedom struggle, setting up the women’s cooperative, and the possibilities of swaraj hereon

LILA: Can you tell us about how you came into social work, and the many activities and movements you have engaged with in the process?

Ela Ben: Actually, this is not social work. I was brought up in a time when our country was fighting for freedom. When I was in school, sometimes it would happen that in the middle of class, we would suddenly hear firing. At times, the teacher would gather us around and explain to us why the firing was happening. She would also tell us about the British and swaraj. I am a product of those days. When I came to college, our country had just gotten independence, and we had no confusion in our minds about what our “career” would be. Our teachers had all along told us to build the nation when we attained freedom. And Gandhi ji was there, who taught us by example the values of right and wrong, through the Ashram he ran. In this way, we imbibed all the basic values of life, industry (udyog), and labour (shram).

So it was not social work, it was nation building. But in a larger sense, it was gaining swaraj. Gandhi ji had talked of poorna swaraj, so having independence, parliament and elections was not enough. We also had to establish the proper way of adopting democracy as well as build the kind of country we wanted to live in. My entire generation was more or less thinking like that.

LILA: This was like an idea becoming a movement. How do you think it was able to take that form? To come from one person – Gandhi ji – and spread across an entire generation…

Ela Ben: No, it actually starts with an organisation. After you organise, comes the movement. You have to start like a project.

Personally, I had always wanted to be a lawyer, especially since most members of my family were lawyers. And the Gandhian ideology was so predominant that our career path would naturally follow it. So I passed my law, and in 1955, I joined the Textile Labour Association, the union founded by Anusuya Sarabhai with guidance from Gandhi ji. It had very clear objectives: Whatever you earn, let it be used for the betterment of society and your family. So, as the labourers fought for their work hours to be brought down and their income to be raised, they were asked, “what would you do with the rest of your time? How will you use the additional income? Will you participate in gambling and drinking?” They were encouraged to think about how their time could be used in a better way. Gandhi ji talked about the ways they could give back to society, and wrote these down in the constitution of the Textile Labour Association.

When I joined the union as a lawyer, Ahmedabad was prospering. It had about 60 textile mills, and the union had a huge membership. I was a junior in the legal department, so I used to take up smaller matters. But then, in the late 1960s, the mills started getting sick, and two of the mills closed down. I asked my leader, “if our members are here all the time, either rallying, or visiting the court and negotiating with mill owners’ associations, how would they and their families survive? When would they earn?” My leader said, “Well, go, find out.” So I went to their homes and found that there were women who were working, and their earnings were the main source of income for the family. They were all doing different things: some were home-based; some were hawkers and labourers, doing things like loading and unloading construction material; some had farms in their villages and did various kinds of food-based work via contract systems. When I saw this, I lost interest in the formal sector labour. The textile workers were all protected by labour laws, but, despite working long hours, these workers remained invisible, insecure and highly indebted. They were even recorded as non-workers in the Census of India, because of which they remained unprotected and unrecognised. A woman milking a cow is not considered to be a worker. But actually, that milk goes to the dairy, which is an industry and is recorded in the national income and the GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. But that woman is nothing, neither on the Census, nor on any other framework of the country. I thought if this was swaraj, there was still a long way to go.

My background being that of a trade unionist, I thought of nothing else but unionising this workforce. But that was another struggle. When we went to get the union registered, the Registrar doubted our validity and asked against whom we would agitate, and what our demands would be. We said that first of all, our problems were with the policies of the government, the society, and then of recognition and our existence. It was a big injustice that our work and contribution were not recognised, and therefore, we needed to organise. Secondly, I sort of taught him, that unions are not for fighting or demanding, but for solidarity. But of course, nobody listened to that. Even today they don’t. So it took us about 9-10 months to get it registered. We had to take the issue to Delhi, which is when we finally got permission. Thus, SEWA was registered in April 1972. But still, we could not fight like other unions, because we weren’t supported or protected from anywhere.

LILA: Who were the initial people who came together to form this? How did you come together?

Ela Ben: One of the first groups that came to us was a group of head-loaders, who sell cloth in the markets. These women worked in the wholesale cloth shops and did all the cleaning, fetching water, etc. Then, they would load all the cloth on their head and carry it from the wholesaler to the retailer. They would be paid per trip, and if the retailer did not accept the cloths, the women would have to come all the way back with the entire load, and be paid nothing. In any case, they were paid a pittance. So complaints started coming to us from these women, and I went there to learn more about the situation. That time, our daily newspaper, the Gujarat Samachar, had a women’s column, which was written by a friend of my mother. I happened to meet her around this time, and told her their story. In the next week’s column, she wrote about this issue. Immediately, the shopkeepers replied to the paper saying that they paid the women a proper amount per trip, and what I had said was a lie. The paper printed their response. Overnight, I converted their response into a rate card, stating how much they would pay the women for each trip, and distributed it to everybody. Even after this, the women did not get paid properly. So one day I got very angry, and as the women were taking the cloths back to the wholesalers, I opened the lid of a gutter and threw the bag into it. This naturally angered the shopkeepers, and the President of the market came and hailed abuses at me. I also responded with profanities. I was very angry and adamant. The President was friends with my leader at the Textile Labour Association, so he called him. My leader told me leave the matter alone. After that, I was blamed for not being a Gandhian, and all that. But then slowly, we started negotiating and eventually they fixed a rate for the trips. The women also started getting paid for the cleaning and other things. That was one of our first struggles.

Overtime, we learnt that whoever was part of the union was victimised and thrown out from their jobs. We realised that by unionising, the women were losing more than they got. That was a disservice to the workers. They couldn’t afford to lose work and a job. So, by moral force, we had to start a cooperative that would also involve production.

LILA: Till then were you only doing advocacy?

Ela Ben: Advocacy isn’t the right word. Advocacy means you are doing it for someone else. Here, we are all members. I am also a member. There is a provision in SEWA’s constitution that allows a very small number of people to become members with full rights to vote and take part in the election of the union. They are called honorary members, and are limited to five individuals at any time. But we allow only those who are ready to take legal responsibility for the union, that is, even go to jail if the situation arises.

LILA: It is nice to see you distinguish between these terms –advocacy, social work, nation building, swaraj, etc. It is very hard to find such nuanced understanding and use of these terms in the public space today, where they have been made available to all without a deep understanding of what they really stand for. Is there a word you would use to describe your work?

Ela Ben: Struggle. SEWA, as a body, struggles for our rights, food security, and social security. We struggle for the betterment of our society. We struggle to set up our own institutions. Sometimes we also have to do satyagraha. Sometimes we also have to do civil disobedience. Our work is different shades of satyagraha, and different shades of struggle.

LILA: Can you tell me more about the cooperatives? What were the early days like, once SEWA was set up?

Ela Ben: Fundamentally I believe in sangathan [organisation] – the kind of sangathan where the members are the owners, managers and users. After SEWA was set up, management was the most difficult part to figure out. Managing is more empowering than owning. So, as far as possible, we decided to manage SEWA by ourselves. When we had to go into production and sale, it meant setting up a business. We had the skills of the producer. We also had the buyers ready. What we didn’t have was capital. But thanks to SEWA Cooperative bank, which by that time had already been established…

LILA: How did you establish the bank?

Ela Ben: That is another story. When I decided to get away from formal sector labour, I realised I didn’t know the space I was getting into. I decided to do a survey to choose the occupations I would be dealing with (Because it was to be a trade union, occupation was always central to my mind). The first community I came across were used garment dealers. There were about 500 houses in a particular channel, where we started the survey. We had a set of questions we would ask them, and based on the answers they gave us, we prepared a report. We took this report back to the community, to discuss the most pressing problems they were facing. Through these discussions, we prioritised the concerns and arrived at a conclusion on which ones the union could take up. Then we asked the members to distribute responsibility of different tasks and activities amongst them based on the most trusted members of the community, as well as those who had the time. Because I had conducted the survey myself, I naturally got an understanding of the ground reality, and most of my prejudices on these matters also were washed away.

There was a garden close to the market where these women worked, and we decided to hold our meetings there. I remember the first meeting we had. All the women kept talking about their issues at the same time, without a pause. With the amount of talking they were doing, there was no way for me to speak, or for us to discuss matters in a productive manner. I had to give a loud shout and signal them to put a finger on their lips, to get them to stop talking, and settle down. That is when I was able to bring up all the issues that we had decided to work on, and talk about how we could do this through an organisational structure. I proposed we all contribute financially to run such an organisation, and they immediately asked how much each member would pay. This is not something I had thought about. I said Rs. 3 per annum, and they immediately took the money out and handed it over to me. I didn’t even have a receipt to give them! I just thought, if I had said the same thing to someone from the middle class, they would have come up with a number of excuses to not give the money. It was with such a spirit that the union started.

We worked like this for about two years, and through the survey and our regular meetings, we realised that the most pressing concern for these individuals was debt to private lenders. Though they ran a business, all the money they earned went into paying back these debts, and nothing remained with them. Then, there were also costs involved in running the union. At that time, Indira Gandhi had announced the nationalisation of banks, and her slogan was “Go to the small borrowers.” But the banks did not know who these small borrowers were. It so happened that the General Secretary of Textile Labour Association was also the Chair of the Bank of India Employees’ Union. He was a well-respected man, so we went to him, and Bank of India ended up giving loans of Rs. 500 to each of these women. But the banks could not stand their presence. The banks had a certain decorum, while these women would go in a group, would talk a lot over there, wouldn’t know where to go, whom to speak with, etc.. So the bank employees found them to be a nuisance. Meanwhile, [Congress] party workers were spreading the message that this money was being given to them by Sonia Gandhi, and they didn’t have to worry about paying it back. So the women stopped doing that as well, which became a problem. We called a meeting to discuss this, and Chandaben, one of the co-founders of SEWA and an old clothes vendor herself, proposed we start our own bank. I had never thought of that, but the others supported the idea. I said we were poor, but Chandaben said we were enough in number to manage(this meeting was attended by around 1000-1500 members, but in total we had around 5000 members by then, including those from another occupation as well). So in six months’ time, we had managed to gather the necessary share capital to apply for a bank license. But again, it was so tough to convince the registrar of the Cooperative Bank Act. The registrar would tell me, “Ben, you should drop these ideas. These are all illiterate women, and from different social and religious communities. Nobody trusts them. You will set up a bank, but these women will not return the money. You are from a well respected family, but you won’t be able to show your face in society anymore.” His heart was in the right place. It was like a younger brother giving me advice. But I had faith in them. I had been engaging with people from the working class for many years by then, and these women had also grown very close to me. Also, they knew business and money very well. So we kept at it and finally got ourselves registered as a bank. Because this was a cooperative, the women felt a stronger sense of ownership. Now that the bank was set up, they wanted to ensure that it was run carefully and properly, to maintain their prestige.

The first problem we faced was that they couldn’t write or sign their names. So, for record maintenance, we got slates on which we wrote their names and account details, and then clicked photographs of them with these slates. For some time this worked, but a few years later the women started complaining that they didn’t like this process because it felt like prisoners being photographed. So we put up posters of the Hindi alphabet and numbers, in the bank and at SEWA, wherever there was space, to teach them how to read and write in order to do the paperwork.

LILA: And by this time bank was giving out loans and functioning properly?

Ela Ben: Yes, this happened five years after the bank was established. The first year there was no profit and no loss. Second year onwards we started making a little surplus, and as soon as that happened, we started paying dividends. I always said, no matter how much surplus we have, we must distribute it as dividends. Till this year, we have paid dividends to all the members without any break.

LILA: Do you think there are any changes that have come with time?

Ela Ben: Ya, there are big challenges today. The biggest one is the new generation of members. Nowadays everybody wants to educate their children. Though I have never been a strong supporter of the idea of schools, but now you don’t have to go around convincing people to educate their daughters or daughters-in-law. It is a given. So the members did the same thing. All their children are educated now, holding different degrees. And these children don’t want to go for the same occupations as their families. For instance, if a family has been picking garbage for generations, their children naturally don’t want to do that anymore, and their families also don’t want them to get into such a profession. With the education they get, they all want jobs in the cities. So that is a big challenge for us.

For the last six months we have started special courses for the children of our members, to cater to these needs. But our highest emphasis is still on udyog (skill). We have not let the skill go away. So if they are paper sellers, then even the educated girls are taught to make stationary and then strike deals with the big stationary sellers in Ahmedabad. Instead of letting the skill go, we have upgraded our processes and business within that skill. Similarly, our garbage collection cooperative has worked towards systemising the work. Garbage collection was outsourced to private corporations, who would simply send trucks to collect the same garbage these women had gathered. So the cooperative worked with the municipal corporation to convince them that instead of giving all zones of the city to private contractors, why don’t they divide the zones in the city and let some be managed by the cooperative. After some struggle, we were able to get 3-4 zones that are now managed by us. Similarly, with the construction cooperative what happened was that in construction jobs, women masons are hardly ever selected. And even when they are, they are not paid equal wages. Then, we also realised that only having the skills of a mason doesn’t work anymore. These days you have to be multi-skilled. You have to know the other processes involved as well, like flooring, plastering etc. So now we have set up a school for them to upgrade their skills.

The challenge therefore is how to remain rooted to your goals, your values and ideals, and still be doing business.

LILA: This brings us back to the question of swaraj. All these ideas and concepts that we have discussed so far – of the nation, swaraj, etc. – were easier to understand that time. The idea of nation then was like the self-governing cooperatives you have talked about, which are multifarious, self-reliant, and yet united by certain ideals and practices. The idea of self-reliance here is privileged. But today, the idea of the nation itself has gained prominence over these individual units, where everybody is expected to build towards the same singular idea. This poses a threat to the ideals of swaraj that this country was being built on. How do you look at the situation today? How do you think we can respond?

Ela Ben: First of all, Gandhi ji said that till each person doesn’t enjoy swaraj, swaraj is incomplete. It is that idea I have dedicated my life to. Now, the exact meaning that we make of swaraj can vary. Gandhi ji has elaborated on this in his book Hind Swaraj. But somehow, I don’t get stuck to anybody else’s idea. I make my own concepts from what I see and understand. It is difficult to verbalise. Let me give you an example. I believe that it is not swaraj when the one who puts in hours and hours of productive labour (productive in the sense that it nourishes society and the environment) remains starved. And that has to be dealt with. A person living in a city, with all her talents, skill and education, and all the readiness to work, can’t get any opportunity to be productive – that obstructs her life. That is not swaraj either. Whatever we are doing from our space is towards gaining swaraj. So as her capabilities grow, skills are gained, and put in productive use; from that she earns, the family is nurtured, then she saves something for her daughter’s wedding, or borrows for her working capital, then gets an asset and owns it – that is moving towards swaraj, in a broad sense. But there are many constraints that do not let her generate asset or own it. These constraints may even make her lose it; all these constraints stop swaraj. This is how I broadly understand it. 

A few years ago I held a national conference of micro-finance and women leaders, because I thought though women have been successful in the micro-finance sector worldwide, both professionally and also as leaders, but that leadership has not grown vertically or laterally. Why? I spent all my life in micro-finance, and built different associations and structures, but why hasn’t women’s leadership grown? The only leadership we see is that which is copied. Why are the grassroots leaders failing? We talked a lot about this during the conference, and more or less we came to an understanding that our concerns were not about leadership and finance, but about subsistence economy. All the micro-finance goes to subsistence economy; it is no doubt a grassroots activity. But that subsistence economy itself is getting eroded, which is why we are not growing.

What I also understood from this conference was that sustainability is also growth, because that which does not grow cannot remain sustainable. So now I have arrived at a concept of building an economy of nurturing, where we nurture such systems towards growth. Economy and ecology are not separate that way. We are not talking about obstructing the economy or stagnating growth. Instead, the economy of nurturing asks questions like where should our money go? Does it go to nurture our economy, not just for yourself and your family, but also the national economy? We have to think about that. This is what I am working on now. To me, these are all aspects of swaraj.

LILA: What about the people involved in such a project? Evidently their profile has changed. Has that had an impact?

Ela Ben: People in micro-finance, and also other occupations, do work that is creative and constructive, but maybe they don’t have a strong direction for it. Or, they don’t have indicators to test whether the direction they are following is correct or not. Gandhi ji had given us these indicators, but we have conveniently forgotten them, or at least limited our memory of them. All his ideas have been narrowed down to only the sphere of education – like nai talim, buniyadi talim – that is it. Gandhi ji had asked us to think about the correlations in our work and its impact on society. So, whatever I do, how does it impact me; how does it impact the society; and how does it impact the universe? It is not that we don’t think about these things. But we have to think about them in correlation to one another. For instance, when I drink tea, what is its impact on me (on my health and my body), on the society (like tea plantations, its workers, etc.) and the larger universe (the ecology of our planet)? If we understand the connections between all these, even when we make a mistake, we will be able to know and acknowledge it. Suppose you are eating a packet of chips: Now you can eat a packet of Lays, or you can eat a packet of local Balaji chips. We often make this decision purely based on our own convenience – we buy whichever brand is easily available. But by spending that money, what happened to us – chips are fried, so we know its harmful effects on our body; how did it impact society – we might think about the potato growers (which hardly occurs to anyone eating chips these days), or we could think about the economy and foreign exchange involved in this transaction; and how did it impact the universe – what happens to our planet through the journey of growing these foods, to processing and packaging them.. When eating roti (bread), nobody thinks about who would’ve grown the wheat, where it might have grown, who processed it, who transported it, who cooked it. In that journey, who gained and who lost? And what was gained and what was lost for all three levels – myself, my society and the universe? This is something I have come up with myself on the basis of Gandhi ji’s buniyaadi shiksha. These are the challenges we need to consider and find solutions to today.

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