Posted: October 30, 2011 in Icons, The NamoLeague Times
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A gentle revolutionary – is what best describes this icon of Gujarat: Elaben Bhatt. A hard-core follower of the Gandhian philosophy, Elaben is one of the most remarkable forces for empowerment at the grass root level. She has dedicated her life for the development of women and improvement of the quality of life of India’s poor and most oppressed section of people. The soft voiced, simple, cotton-saree clad Elaben has been true to the spirit of her country and her inspiration, Mahatma Gandhi. She has followed his ideals all her life.


Elaben was born in a well-educated, middle-class family on 7th September 1933 at Ahmedabad. She spent her childhood in Surat. The inspiration for Gandhiji probably came from her grandparents, who worked with him in the non-violent struggle for Indian Independence from the British. Her father, Sumantrai Bhatt, had a successful law practice. While her mother, Vanalila Vyas, was active in women’s movements.Elaben attended the Sarvajanik Girls High School in Surat from 1940 to 1948. She completed her Bachelor of Arts degree from the MTB College in Surat in 1952. She stepped in her father’s shoes and joined the Sir LA Shah Law College in Ahmedabad. She worked on the Hindu Law and received her degree with a Gold Medal in 1954.

Elaben started her career as an English teacher at the SNDT University in Mumbai. But later, in 1955, she shifted to the Textile Labor Association’s (TLA) legal department at Ahmedabad. TLA was founded by Gandhiji, who had deep respect for the textile producers of India.

Elaben got married to Ramesh Bhatt in 1956.


In 1968, Elaben was asked to head the women’s wing at TLA. While working here, she found that women were doing many labor-intensive tasks needed in textile production, as well as in other fields of work. However, as workers, they were invisible.

TLA sent her to Israel for 3 months. She studied at the Afro-Asian Institute in Tel Aviv and received the International Diploma of Labor and Cooperatives in 1971. Back to India, she decided to protect the self-employed women. She saw that there were rights and laws by the State to protect the interests of the industrial workers but none for the self-employed. This thought lead to SEWA – Self Employed Women’s Association. With the co-operation of Arvind Buch, the then President of TLA, SEWA was born in 1972 with Buch as the President and she herself as the General-Secretary.


Elaben pioneered the idea that people themselves, no matter how poor or uneducated, are able to solve their own problems if they organize together to do so. This idea took shape in the form of SEWA, which is one of the best grassroots programs for women in the world. SEWA has also become a model for micro-finance programs that other parts of the world can follow. A trade union, SEWA grew continuously from 1972, increasing in its membership and including more and more different occupations within its fold.

This was a bold step by a woman in a society where men ran the show. Elaben broke away from the grip of an established mind-set and created her own paths and methods of organization. Even today, instead of using the political system to effective lobbying or struggle for better rights for working women, Elaben has chosen to limit her field of action even while she shares her ideas and experience across the globe.


Elaben was angered by the fact that the workers especially women and home-based workers were the least visible of all. The workers in the informal sector had no rights. They had to work in difficult conditions and the contractors often exploited them. These women included vegetable sellers, rag pickers, bidi rollers, incense makers, cleaners, laborers, cart pullers, and silk and cotton workers. SEWA bridged this gap and works to organize better working conditions and proper pay. It helps workers at the lowest level of the society become empowered to take control of their lives. SEWA has offered retirement accounts and health insurance to women who never had a safety net, lent working capital to entrepreneurs to open beauty salons in the slums, helped artisans sell their handiwork to new urban department stores and boldly trained its members to become gas station attendants – an unusual job for women on the bottom of India’s social ladder.

To cope up with the issues of money and banking, SEWA registered its own bank in 1974 with 4,000 members. When money had to be raised to register the bank, the women, saying, “We are poor but we are so many!” raised the needed Rs 100,000 within six months. Elaben encouraged the habit of savings among women, provided loans through the bank and pioneered the idea of micro lending. The idea was that very small amounts might be all that is needed to make a difference!


In a meeting at Johannesburg, South Africa, on 18 July 2007, Nelson Mandela announced the formation of this new group, The Elders, in a speech he delivered on his 89th birthday. “This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken,” Mandela commented. “Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.” Elaben is one of the founding members of The Elders.

Her other work areas and recognitions include:
• Founder and chair person of Sa-Dhan (the All India Association of Micro Finance Institutions)
• Founder-chair of the Indian School of Micro-finance for Women
• Member of the Indian Parliament and of the Indian Planning Commission from 1986 to 1989
• Chair for Women’s World Banking, the International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet) from 1980 to 1998, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing (WIEGO)
• Trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation
• Honorary Doctorate degree in Humane Letters by Harvard University in June 2001
• The civilian honor of Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1985
• The Padma Bhushan in 1986
• The Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1977
• The Right Livelihood Award in 1984
• Chosen for the Niwano Peace Prize for 2010 for contribution to uplift poor women in India

Elaben has always said, “There are risks in every action. Every success has the seed of some failure. But it does not matter. It is how you go about it. That is the real challenge.”

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