Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ela Bhatt and SEWA: A Personal Essay

When you have spent a large part of your life in Gujarat it is difficult not to come across, meet and admire two very divergent personalities who have done so much for the state and the country. I have already written about Dr.Kurien who revolutionized the lives of the poor dairy farmers, and whose work largely affected the rural populace of the state. Ela Bhatt or Elaben as she is fondly called is an antithesis of Kurien. She is hardly seen, very soft spoken and looks frail. I have never seen her raise her decibel levels, never seen her thump tables and she looks like a woman who would not even harm a fly. But she is made of steely resolve and has been steadfastly working with the women of Gujarat for the entire part of her working lifetime. Oxford has recently published her memoirs “We Are Poor But So Many”. Like Kurien’s book “I Too Had A Dream” this book talks more about her professional life than her personal life and gives an insight into the life of an activist, who never appeared to be so. In a way the contrasting styles of their leadership is also evident in the way I connect to them. I have been a distant admirer of Kurien, and I guess he would never recognize me even though I spent years in an institution that he headed. With Elaben I have always had a personal rapport and she has always been extremely courteous and kind to me – to the extent of inscribing – quite underservedly - “Dear Shri Ram for your continued guidance, Regards, Love” when I asked for her autograph on the book. Of course, I do have a letter written by Kurien inviting me to a workshop with a signature as a memento for his autograph!!

Elaben started her life as a young lawyer working for a trade union – Textile Labour Association. Throughout her life, her husband Ramesh Bhatt, who was an academic in his own right provided her the support and guidance, and possibly acted as an alterego, as a friend with whom she could check out her ideas and as a pillar of support. This comes out very evident in the book which is dedicated to Rameshbhai. You can see the genuineness, the nervousness and the steely resolve of Elaben when she narrates her early experiences with TLA and the legal profession “My early days in the labor court was tense. The slightest comment about my clothes or my short height would upset me, and I would begin to stammer. There were hardly any women in court…” and as she proceeded, in several of the forums she would be the lone lady, possibly supported invisibly by thousands and lakhs of women but indeed it would have been a difficult fight.

This is something I can identify myself with from a totally different perspective. While I was working on my book on microfinance, I had the occasion to visit Sewa Bank several times and during one of the visits I kept talking to Jayashree Vyas, the Managing Director of the bank on the importance of the flow of information that should be available on a periodic basis, in an understandable manner. Jayashree thought it was a good idea for me to talk to her staff and there I was in a “board room” of Sewa Bank trying to address several women who could understand only Gujarati and could manage with Hindi. I was trying to infuse the concept of management to them. The most destabilizing part of this all was, that this was the first time I was addressing an all women audience, the board room was nothing but a series of mattresses, pillows and floor cushions laid out and I was supposed to speak at least in Hindi, if not in Gujarati. I came out and told Jayashree that I now fully empathise when some woman says that it is difficult to be in an all men gathering. I just could not pull myself up and the attempt to handle that session was indeed a disaster. [The only other time I felt destabilized while teaching was a class room of CBSE School Principals, predominantly women, very articulate, having ticked many a parent off in their long careers. These women gave me feedback not only about the session, but about my diction, body language and the use of examples!!]

To put Elaben’s work in perspective it is important to recognize the constraints under which SEWA operated and continues to operate. She says: “..we had trouble registering labour cooperatives. Our rag pickers’ cooperative was suspect because they did not manufacture any products; the midwives’ cooperative was asked why delivering babies should be considered an economic activity; the video producers’ cooperative was denied registration because the directors, the producers and the sound and camera technicians were illiterate…”[p.17]. Her art is in organizing women workers of diverse vocations, bringing them under a single banner, fighting for their rights and also providing common services to them, while they continued to work in their respective unorganized sector. A trade union where the woman was “self-employed” was possibly an oxymoron, but the need for them to get together was recognized early and working in this uncharted territory was what set Ela Bhatt apart from all her contemporaries.

Elaben has been a recipient of many awards and honours, the Magasasay Award for community service, the Padmashri and Padmabhushan award, a stint as a member of the Rajya Sabha, a doctorate from Harvard and Yale, and surprisingly the businesswoman of the year award from Economic Times and Business Standard. However, every time there has been an award, Elaben has never gone to the venue alone. She always has had one or two or more women from the community that she has been working with tagging along. This is the usual strategy that the SEWA family adopts. Infact not only have the women attended such functions, many a time they have even walked the ramp. Their embroiders from Kutch and Banaskantha have worked closely with designers from National Institute of Fashion Technology and some of them had no hesitation in walking the ramp with their ethnic clothes. What better way to bridge the gap while making a style statement!!

On the board of Sewa Trade Facilitation Centre which markets the ethnic embroidery based work of women, are a crowd of a Professor, a couple of people from SEWA family of executives, but more importantly a few women, who possibly cannot read the board papers, but ask probing and basic questions. Is this a way of empowering women, or is this the way to educate the executives about ground reality? I have never been sure, but I guess it works both ways.

It is this liberation which the SEWA family provides, shows that life out there is no different than elsewhere and bridges the gaps seamlessly. The only other experiment where I see women liberated is the Velugu programme of AP Government, headed by a committed civil servant Vijayakumar. In village after village, the women who are a part of the Velugu Self-Help groups greet you with a hand shake. This hand shake is symbolic, but a stroke of genius. By one hand shake, you have first removed untouchability, made the poor women reach out to men and bridge the “us and them” “rural and urban” gap easily. In contrast, for instance, I have never seen Kurien even acknowledge the support he has got from the community and his team. [This should not be misread as belittling Kurien’s contribution, but more as a contrast in styles].

The offices of SEWA are simple, somewhat like Elaben, her white Khadi saree and the private autorickshaw in which she used to move around in Ahmedabad. I am not sure if this was symbolic, or just the way Elaben is made. She has never made a virtue of austerity. Infact even as Elaben was moving about in the autorickshaw several of her executives would move around in Jeeps, possibly all these dictated by necessity rather than as a style statement. It is likely that Jayashree, Merai or Reema would have much more of field travel to do, at more frequent intervals than possibly Elaben. However, it was striking to see her come in a grey coloured autorickshaw to attend the board meeting of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad [IIMA], where she has been a soft spoken but firm member reminding the board and others of the fact that it was not just a “Business School” but a “Management Institute” – a distinction made by the founding fathers of the Institute starting with Vikram Sarabhai and Ravi Matthai. The Institute possibly benefitted from a constant reminder from Elaben to not lose focus on the social sectors which needed management support as much as the business houses. It is hard not to bring Kurien into the discussion while the issue of board membership of IIMA is being discussed. Kurien was on the board of IIMA and like Elaben kept reminding the Institute about its need to be committed to the rural and undermanaged sectors. However, when he found that the graduates of IIM were not joining the sectors that needed them most, he did what Kurien would do best – went ahead and set up a Institute of Rural Management. This possibly was the felt need of the co-operatives, but never articulated. Kurien was able to think and respond to unarticulated needs. This would possibly never happen with Elaben. Even if she got the idea, she would possibly throw it around and wait for the community to really feel that this need was indeed there and they were willing to put their resources into it. In that sense, we need both styles of management to bridge the gaps that are ever widening between the haves and the have nots.

Very much the way SEWA’s offices are Spartan, its staff were also largely drawn from the community. The language of communication was always Gujarati. I remember once that one of the newly appointed marketing experts of the Trade Facilitation Centre, a well qualified urban educated girl with good insights was making a presentation to the board on the plans for the ensuing year. She was very gently reminded by Reema the Chair of the organization that she needs to speak in Gujarati so that the board members like Puriben and Mahtabben from Banaskantha and Kutch had to understand. When the girl told that it was difficult to speak in Gujarati, and even Hindi was rusty, she was clearly told that the next presentation had to be in Gujarati. It possibly was a message to the other independent members of the board as well, but it was not lost on the girl. She did indeed make the next presentation in Gujarati. In case of the other pompous board members, whatever they say is parallely translated into Gujarati, never leaving even the women out of the process. They needed to know what we were doing with their lives. All these were values imbibed into the SEWA family by Elaben. Every person was important, and every decision was to be taken by taking the community into confidence. For instance why has SEWA been restricted as a Women’s organization? One has never seen Elaben in the gender brigade shouting for the rights of women. Rather she is seen working for the cause of the poor first, and within the poor, the women. She says “Initially, I was open to the idea of men joining our union struggles, because I felt that they would lend more strength to SEWA’ however, the women emphatically refused. They said they would feel inhibited with men around, and they believed men would dominate and create tensions.” So the consultative process that Elaben has adopted has helped her to build stronger all women trade union movement.

Unlike Kurien’s institutions which are marked by great buildings, fine ambiance and slick management, the institutions set up by SEWA look like neighbourhood buildings, provide the beneficiaries the confidence to move in and transact. For instance, on building a great sixty acre campus with individual rooms for the students with manicured lawns all for rural management education Kurien once retorted “Kings do not grow up in pigstys and you – the students of Rural Management – are my Princes”. On the other hand SEWA bought up office space for its bank SEWA Bank in a posh Sakar building on Ellisbridge in Ahmedabad. The bank’s offices are rubbing shoulders with upmarket Bank National des Paribas and Kotak Mahindra Bank. The story goes that the others business houses occupying the building complained to the builder that the “dirty and noisy” women customers of SEWA Bank spoil the ambience of the building. SEWA Bank had no qualms in opening up a side entrance to their women and insulate their own premises from the rest – thereby making their own women more comfortable.

A typical day in SEWA starts with a multi religious prayer and then it shows that the women are extremely comfortable socializing, shouting and exchanging notes while transacting their business. It is afterall how they are when they are at their trade, be it selling vegetables, picking rags or stiching clothes. Naturally this work ambience had people from the community working, at salaries that the community could afford to pay.

For a long time, it appeared that SEWA had an allergy to hire professionals [as it is understood in the modern day]. There were hardly any MBAs or the English speaking, powerpoint savvy youngsters in ties and jackets. The culture was that of trust, community involvement and lifetime engagement. If one looks at the second generation chief executives of all the organizations that Elaben has been instrumental in establishing, they have all been with her for a long time. Each one is a great manager herself, but have all been a part of the team – Reema who gave up her civil service to join SEWA family, Renana Jhabvala of Sewa Bharat who apart from her own merit, by just being in the family she belonged to could have chosen any alternative career, Merai who can have a meal with Bill Clinton at the same ease as spending a lifetime working on health related issues, Jayashree a Chartered Accountant who decided to shed the image of an Accountant to become a community banker, Vijayalakshmi who heads the Friends of Women’s World Banking, reveling in the fact that she was able to get ten urchin like kids from the slums to eat in the upmarket Green Park Hotel in Hyderabad as a part of a review meeting, and Jyoti who herself started as a Beedi worker and eventually became a English speaking general secretary of SEWA. The list goes on.

Nobody noticed that when Kurien was having his battles with Amrita Patel - the person he had groomed to take over, Elaben had quietly slipped out of the operational management of the SEWA group of institutions. There was never a succession problem in SEWA, never did people realize that Elaben was not there and never did people feel her absence. However, when you look at the SEWA family today, Elaben is hardly there except as a motherly figure giving guidance when sought and lending a shoulder in the unlikely event of somebody wanting to cry on it. She is there when she is wanted, but the transition has been more professional than any other organization that could be run by the “certified” professionals. So indeed their allergy for the “professionals” has not affected their functioning in any manner.

While Elaben has never been at the centre of any controversy, it is not that she had not had her unpleasant moments with the powers that be. In the post earthquake disaster mitigation programme, SEWA had a big run-in with the government. A reason attributed to the difference with the government was that SEWA was supporting a large number of women who belonged to the minority community. It similarly had an issue in 1981 when there were riots protesting reservations. Then, Elaben writes: “Communal harmony was a union issue and a feminist issue. It was fundamental to our existence” [p.15]. This stand took the women away from the Textile Labour Association – forcing them to chart out their own path. As usual Elaben’s friend and counsel Rameshbhai suggests that she look at it as an opportunity rather than as a set back. Writes Elaben “At the time of the break from TLA, SEWA had 4,900 members a small co-operative bank, an office building, a rural centre, one vehicle, and a few typewriters. But we also had a ten year history of organizing” [p15-16].

The growth of SEWA and its activities have been in response to the needs of the members. Today SEWA Bank is recognized as one of the pioneering institutions of microfinance in urban India. What we need to realize is that this institution was set up by the community, far before the word microfinance was coined, and at least three years before Yunus went to Jorba to discover the Grameen model. Elaben writes on how the bank came about being: “At a SEWA members’ meeting at Naranghat in December 1973, Chandaben, a used garment dealer from Poori Bazar, asked me, “Ben, why can’t we have our own bank?” “Because we have no money,” I replied patiently. “You need a large amount of capital to start a bank!” “Well we may be poor, but we are so many,” Chandaben replied..” and so they went ahead and started a bank.

It has never been difficult to get through to Elaben. I do not know who her secretary is and when wanted her appointment, she herself would immediately respond on phone as to whether she was available at a particular day and time or not. I had invited Elaben for a dinner meeting with our students as a part of one of the courses. During the interaction, one student asked in typical management style: “Madam, what were the goals you set out for yourself, how much have you achieved and what do you consider your failures”. Elaben looked back and said “I never had goals. I do not think there are achievements against objectives. That is not how I looked at work. I just see this as a process. This is the process of living, and there are always interesting pieces of work to do. Therefore there is neither a sense of fulfillment not desperation. We just keep working to make lives better.” There have been several occasions Elaben has invited me for a lunch or dinner at her place. I have never gathered the courage to accept the invitation, hopefully I will do it soon. It has been an honour to have known Elaben, interacted with her in person and seen and heard the unseen and unheard.


Liby Johnson said...

Hi, looks like the train from Jobra to Amdavad took a very long time....June 2007 and March 2008! Am glad that you have written this piece. Particularly liked the last bit, on what Elaben told the student, about life's goals. Have cut and pasted that portion in a mail to some friends, with due acknowledgement, of course!


Anonymous said...

Hi MS,
I loved your style of writing. Just brilliant! It was great to know more about Elaben through your insightful article where you compare and contrast two personalities and bring out the humility of Ela ben despite her huge achievments.