Laxmiben lives in a slum area in Ahmedabad with her four children. She supports her family by carrying cloth parcels on her head in the downtown cloth market. She inherited this work from her mother, and has done it all her life. Although Laxmiben’s earnings are small and insecure, she is well respected among her fellow workers and the market’s shopkeepers because she is the vice president of SEWA Bank – a women’s cooperative set up by the nationwide Self Employed Women’s Association. SEWA has been gaining strength in its work of helping to lift women out of poverty since 1972.
Laxmiben is part of India’s vast informal economy, which includes door-to-door vegetable vendors, rickshaw pullers and rag-pickers, as well as garment and paperback makers, beedi rollers and food processors. In rural areas, the landless agricultural labourer, the woman crafts-worker, the silkworm farmer or the forest worker are all part of the crucial informal economy, which accounts for nearly 93 percent of the total workforce in India. And over half of them, 53 percent, are self-employed. Women constitute roughly 40 percent of this part of this economy, although official statistics often report significantly less. At the same time, informal-economy workers are extremely active economically, accounting for about 60 percent of India’s GDP, over 50 percent of national savings, and about 47 percent of all exports.
In spite of these significant contributions, however, these workers remain at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. Their earnings are low, just one-third that of formal-sector workers; their employment is insecure; and, especially in rural areas, they are often without work for several months every year. Unlike workers in the organised economy, they also have access to neither social security nor pension plans. Within the informal sector, women fare worse, earning the lowest amounts. Out of the entire female workforce in India, 94 percent toil in the informal sector.
It was as in an attempt to organise these workers that, in Ahmedabad in 1972, trade union leader Elaben Bhatt founded SEWA on Gandhian principles. Functioning as a trade union, SEWA operates through a joint strategy of struggle and development, with goals of full employment and self-reliance. Full employment includes four types of security: work, income, food and social. Today, SEWA has a membership of nearly 800,000 in nine states. By and large, SEWA members are poor women, traditional and deeply rooted in their communities. Throughout her life, a woman faces multiple needs and risks; Ela Bhatt believed that both the needs and the risks must be addressed if a woman is to emerge from poverty. Through SEWA, members struggle for their rights by building a mass movement of workers, grounded in the everyday issues of the women themselves. Local and national collective bargaining is subsequently able to take place with employers, contractors, municipal authorities, police, forest departments and the like.
SEWA has also promoted about 100 women-owned cooperatives. The largest of these is the SEWA Cooperative Bank, with whom Laxmiben works, but also include initiatives for artisans, agricultural and dairy farmers, and others. In addition, the organisation has initiated more than 5000 membership-based organisations, which include village-based savings and credit groups, as well as producer groups. Owned by the women workers who put up the capital, and managed by an elected board, these organisations are sustainable in terms of both finances and decision-making. In the rural areas, the self-help groups, or mandals, have formed their own district federations, with which the government has been working closely for the past 15 years, in order to channel developmental projects aimed at poor women.
Over the years, a host of programmes have been set up to focus specifically on the many needs of SEWA’s members. The Bank, set up in 1974, prioritises asset-creation for its members. It has established over 20 types of savings accounts and 15 types of loans, tailored to the worker’s immediate or long-term needs. While the women themselves are the Bank’s owners and board-members, day-to-day operations are conducted by a team of qualified professionals, along with a large number of ‘Bank Sathis’ who are ‘mini-banks’ in themselves. In rural areas, banking operations are conducted through self-help groups and district federations run by the rural women. At present, there are 300,000 depositors in SEWA Bank, with a capital of INR 950 billion.
Of necessity, self-employed workers depend heavily on market systems and structures. The process for poor, rural, self-employed workers’ organisations to enter national markets is a long and slow one, however, facing endless constraints, cutthroat competition, and constantly changing tastes and requirements. The SEWA Trade Facilitation Centre, started in 2000, helps local organisations develop their own infrastructure to meet market demands, linking the local district federations and cooperatives with national and even global markets. A related project, the SEWA Gram Mahila Haat, aims to eliminate middlemen and provide market-oriented services to its members, so that they can be in direct contact with their local-level customers and clientele. The Gram Mahila Haat sells such items as salt, gum, agricultural products and handicrafts.
Beginning in the 1970s, one of the earliest SEWA focuses was on health. Today, SEWA Health provides a wide range of primary healthcare services, emphasising disease prevention and promotion of well-being, including both mental and physical health. Additional curative initiatives include health centres, mobile clinics, and programmes for tuberculosis, AIDS and occupational health. All of these are particularly dependent on local women, especially traditional midwives (dais), who can subsequently become the barefoot doctors of their communities. Two critical related concerns were childcare and insurance, both of which are now widely available to SEWA members and their families.
Finally, for more than a decade a SEWA sister organisation has offered technical and financial housing services, having built over 5000 low-cost houses and undertaken large-scale slum upgradation programmes. With the understanding that training, research and communications are vital to building a movement, an academic institute, the SEWA Academy, also offers several specialised courses, as well as a basic training programme for members who are identified as potential leaders. At present, the Academy has undertaken a campaign to make every SEWA member literate.
In the last five years, SEWA’s membership has increased four-fold, and has gone from working in just Gujarat to having operations in eight additional states. Perhaps because of its emerging size, the organisation has recently come under attack from the Gujarat state government. After the devastating earthquake of 2001, SEWA supported its members in the worst-affected districts, through both relief work and long- term rehabilitation focusing on livelihood restoration. Taking note of these efforts, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development approached SEWA and Gujarati officials to undertake a holistic, seven-year rehabilitation programme.
For three years, the project went well, with notable accomplishments. Slowly, however, official attitudes towards SEWA changed in Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital. First, the government began to withhold payments to the women for work done. At one point, the total outstanding amount was a staggering INR 20 million, a sum that was impossible for SEWA to work around, resulting in a complete cessation of all project activities. This situation naturally caused immense hardship for the local people, and more than 12,000 poor women’s livelihoods came to a grinding halt. In addition, it caused a loss of credibility for SEWA and its sister organisations, since local suppliers were owed thousands of rupees.
Instead of heeding SEWA’s request for reimbursement, the government slapped a special audit on the organisation and began to leak disinformation to the newspapers. SEWA subsequently decided to withdraw from all projects with the Gujarat government. Nonetheless, the government has continued to attack SEWA, in both the media and the villages.
In October 2005, some of what the organisation took away from the experience was recorded in the SEWA newsletter:
What we have learned is that when a mass-based organisation – and that too of poor, working women of all communities and castes – grows and expands its base, it becomes a strong political force. This undoubtedly attracts both the attention and ire of politicians, bureaucrats and others. A feeling of competitiveness, of being threatened to some extent by this collective strength develops … Also, the fact that SEWA organises women of all faiths and castes is not acceptable in all quarters. And it is these poor women who take the lead for social change in their villages.
SEWA’s strength – indeed, its most crucial asset – has always been its membership. And in spite of all the setbacks, SEWA membership continues to grow, while new services continue to be added. As Gauriben, a member from rural Gujarat, says: “We are used to the cycle of drought and plenty. When there is a drought, we just tighten our belts and continue our work.”