A lesson in swaraj from informal women workers

Inspired by Gandhi and his ideas of swaraj, thousands of women have created small, medium and large membership-based organisations.
Mahatma Gandhi with Sabarmati ashramites.(Stock photo)
Mahatma Gandhi with Sabarmati ashramites.(Stock photo)
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 06:30 PM IST
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ByMirai Chatterjee

When I first joined SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association, a national trade union based in Ahmedabad) in 1984, I was surprised to learn that many of our SEWA sisters barely knew of Gandhi. They had not been to school and were not exposed to his life and his work. I had learned about Gandhi in school, but many of his values became clear to me only after I began to work with informal women workers at SEWA. I began to see how relevant and contemporary his messages still were.

Gandhi had a deep and abiding faith in the wisdom and abilities of our people, particularly the women of our country. He had said that if non violence is the law of our being, the future is with women. At SEWA, this faith is at the root of all our action.

Inspired by Gandhi and his ideas of swaraj, thousands of women have created small, medium and large membership-based organisations in Gujarat, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Kerala, and Nagaland, among other states. SEWA, with 1.8 million women members in 18 states, was established in 1972 by Elaben Bhatt. Two decades later, the union set up the SEWA Cooperative Federation, bringing together 106 primary women’s cooperatives in Gujarat. That’s a total of 300,000 informal women workers, who generate a collective turnover of 300 crore through their primary cooperatives and thus contribute to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, whether they are counted in or not. More significantly, they are peace makers, and show us how caste and community barriers can be transcended through solidarity and sisterhood.

Self help for constructive action, which leads to self-reliance and freedom from fear, were dearly held beliefs for Gandhi. When thinking of freedom from fear, my SEWA sister, Chanchiben, comes to mind. Poor, disabled and Dalit, the menfolk of her village were outraged when women chose her to be their health worker. Chanchiben recalled, “I was always afraid. I had no hope. Then I met my SEWA sisters. It changed my life.” Chanchiben took regular training to become a SEWA health worker in 1986.The upper castes of her village, Vichchiya, refused initially to accept medicine from her, nor would they allow her to cross the threshold on her home visits. However, Chanchiben prevailed, and made sure that all the children in her village were immunized. She also organised health education sessions. She was elected to the gram panchayat in 2008.

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She and her other SEWA sisters, Ayeshaben, Jadiben and Leelaben, all informal workers in Ahmedabad city and district, came together and formed their own health cooperative, Lok Swasthya, almost 30 years ago. Today their cooperative is run by an elected board of health workers and is financially sustainable. They run four pharmacies in Ahmedabad city that provide rational, generic drugs and other equipment at affordable prices and have started up their own Ayurvedic production unit.

“I am only a 5th pass,” says Ramilaben Parmar, agricultural labourer from Rampura Village in Ahmedabad district and the president of Lok Swasthya, and also heads the decentralised, local committees under the government’s National Health Mission. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could be a health worker and a leader in my village.”

Gandhi firmly believed that for a society to be free of violence and poverty, it had to be built on the firm pillars of swaraj: free of untouchability and caste discrimination (women have broadened this to include gender discrimination); Hindu-Muslim unity; swadeshi or the promotion of local, decentralised employment; and freedom from fear or abhay.

In their own way, and by building a movement comprising hundreds of thousands of women, the informal women workers of our country have shown the way forward. They have understood that achieving swaraj is not just about obtaining political freedom. Rather, it is about a doosri azadi (second freedom) — from poverty, hunger and fear. It is the building of a just, equitable and inclusive society, preferably through bottom-up or local action.

In describing their empowerment, SEWA women put it simply: “I now have no fear [whether] of my husband, the sarpanch, the police or anyone else” (Rajuben Chavda, Ghoda village). “Now we have enough to eat and send my children to school. I dream of a better future for them.” (Husnaben, Ahmedabad) “I feel as if a thousand light bulbs have lit up in my body” (Narmadaben, Ambliyara village).

These hard-working women of our country realise that achieving swaraj is a continuing struggle. It involves suffering and sacrifice, and great courage to fight the exploitative forces that keep them in poverty and thwart their leadership, whether it is the money lender, the middleman or the male elders of their own communities. They do so with the tools of constructive action and non violence, deftly navigating and challenging these forces, but only with the collective strength and increased bargaining power they get from acting together in solidarity and sisterhood.

Gandhi believed in both outer and inner swaraj. The latter is disciplined rule from within, or learning to rule over oneself. This takes even harder work than achieving outer swaraj. It involves ruling over emotions like greed, jealousy and hatred. It is the need of the hour in our troubled society. Gandhi also believed that only when we have both, outer and inner swaraj, will we truly be able to build a just and moral society.

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Here again, there are lessons to be learned from the informal women workers of this country, whose collectives not only provide strength to each woman, but also challenge each one to remain on the path of swaraj that ensures benefit to all.

Today as we remember Gandhi and the unfinished business of our independence — swaraj for all — we can learn from the women of this country, and, in particular, the informal workers, who are in big and small ways showing the path to this doosri azadi.

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Monday, November 29, 2021