The importance of being Ela Bhatt - Hindustan Times
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The importance of being Ela Bhatt

Nov 03, 2022 07:53 PM IST

She cared most about women who she found working hard, and yet unrecognised, invisible. Her movement has now, 50 years, after it started, been taken up by young people who are taking it forward to change millions more lives.

Elaben’s main achievement was that she changed lives. She certainly changed mine as I met her while I was doing my PhD in economics from Yale University, joined SEWA, the movement she had started, and never left! There were many others like me, who joined her and poured their hearts and minds into what she started.

Ela Bhatt started Sewa in 1972 as its general secretary. (HT Photo)
Ela Bhatt started Sewa in 1972 as its general secretary. (HT Photo)

She cared most about women who she found working hard, and yet unrecognised, invisible and earning a pittance — the street vendors, the rag pickers, the agricultural workers and many many more. She changed the lives of millions of these women, by bringing them together, giving them a voice, changing their economic conditions and inspiring them to change the lives of those around them.

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Elaben had a vision to change the world, to bring about change from the bottom up, but she believed that this change, this revolution should be non-violent and caring, based on truth, and should come about by people changing their lives in accordance with these values. She especially believed in the value of simplicity and focusing on the last mile, who had owned the least. In her own life, she embodied a simple physical life with a boundless enthusiasm for new ideas, new experiments and untiring proselytization of her cause.

Elaben had many ideas and visions of her own. She wrote about a different type of economy — an economy of nurturance, rather than one of exploitation. She showed that a fuller better life could be led by all, especially the poor, if everyone produced and consumed their essentials within a hundred miles of each other. She wrote about Anubandh — how we are all linked and how our actions of consumption can positively affect the poor producer. In whatever she did, whatever she said, her focus was the poor working women, not only in Ahmedabad, but all over India and throughout the world.

She, and the millions she influenced turned those ideas into actions with the result that today Sewa is spread all over India and the many organisations she founded are all over the world. Her ideas and her movement have now, 50 years, after it started, been taken up by young people who are taking it forward to change millions more lives.

Renana Jhabvala is executive trustee, Mahila Housing SEWA Trust and co-author of The City-Makers

The views expressed are personal

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