Ela Ramesh Bhatt: A Gandian Revolutionary


Ela Ramesh Bhatt is a gentle revolutionary who is a pioneer in women’s empowerment and financial inclusion in India and abroad. She is a Gandhian to the core, believing that self- reliance is the key to eradicating poverty. Not long ago, it was almost impossible to imagine solutions big and smart enough to address unjust treatment to women globally. But Ela Bhatt revolutionized the whole idea of women’s empowerment through her humble yet bold approach.

Ela Bhatt is called Elaben, meaning “Ela, my sister” as she constantly inspires us to challenge our limitations. She was born in 1933 to a middle class, educated family in Gujarat. Her grandparents were involved with Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns, and young Ela herself was deeply influenced by Gandhian philosophy. She is an advocate by training and started her career as a teacher and, later, a legal expert for the Textile Labour Association in Ahmadabad. During this tenure she realized that self-employed women are denied many of the entitlements and privileges accessible to their male counterparts. She decided to organize these women to advocate for their well-deserved rights.

Elaben began by working with vegetable vendors, rag pickers, cigarette rollers and other women who were fighting for economic independence, a fair wage and freedom from the chains of poverty. She fought with them for fairness through self-reliance and, in 1972, formed the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union for self-employed women. SEWA is committed to ending poverty by giving poor women an equal shot at healthy, productive and fulfilling lives, with access to markets, credit, and training to translate their inherent abilities into a higher standard of living and greater opportunity.

SEWA is an organization of poor, self-employed women workers who typically earn a living through their own informal labor or small businesses and do not earn fixed income or benefits like workers in the formal sector. SEWA’s aim is to organize these women for full, formal employment with job security, income security, food security and social security (including health care, child care and shelter). SEWA is both an organization and the confluence of three movements: the labor movement, the women’s movement and the cooperative movement. Today, SEWA works with several sister organizations to help SEWA members with marketing, health, education and more.

In 1973, SEWA members formed the Cooperative Bank of SEWA to build assets, save, and borrow. The idea was triggered by a thought of one of SEWA’s members who said, “We may be poor, but we are so many. Why don’t we start a bank of our own? Our own women’s bank, where we are treated with the respect and service that we deserve.” Elaben later authored a book titled We Are Poor but So Many. SEWA bank offers an array of financial products tailored to women including savings, recurring deposit, pension, loan, fixed deposit, and insurance. The recurring deposit includes customized products for items like building a house, the marriage of children, natural calamities that might strike and buying gold for an occasion.

“Poverty will never be removed without participation of women.”

Many of Elaben’s ideas were initially considered challenging and impossible. She challenged the views and ambitions of her counterparts about filling the gap between rich and poor and inspired many other visionaries and organizations around the world. She has spent nearly every minute of the past few decades striving to help women of India attain a life of dignity, freedom and peace. She has helped women and girls in India start small businesses, earn wages equal to those of men, avoid an illicit marriage and go to school, open bank accounts and much more. She helped women gain respect from their husbands, fathers, mothers, in-laws and whole of society.

Elaben is a founder or member of many progressive and innovative groups and organizations working towards equality, independence and self-reliance for poor communities globally. She is a member of The Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela, a group of world leaders who contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity toward tackling some of the world’s toughest problems. Elaben is particularly involved in The Elders’ initiative on equality for women and girls, including on the issue of child marriage. Some of the organizations that Elaben created and inspired are Sa-Dhan (the All India Association of Microfinance Institutions in India), The Indian School of Microfinance for Women, The International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet), Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing (WIEGO), and the International Alliance of Street Vendors. Elaben became a founding member of Women’s World Banking in 1980, serving as chair of the Board of Trustees in the 1990s, and remains an honorary board member for life.

Elaben has been recognized internationally for her efforts. She won the Ramon Magsasay Award for Community Leadership; the PadmaShri and Padmabhushan awards by the Government of India; the Niwano Peace Prize; the Radcliffe Medal; and the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace; as well as honorary doctorates from Harvard University, Georgetown University and Brussels University. She was a member of the Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and subsequently the first female member of the Indian Planning Commission. Elaben was inducted as director of Reserve Bank of India in 2011.

Elaben believes that keeping poor people poor is a form of violence. In her acceptance speech after receiving the first Global Fairness Award, she said, “…where there is poverty, there is injustice. There is exploitation—of the individual, of the community and of the environment. Where there is poverty, there is discrimination. Where there is poverty, there is fear and intimidation in the community, in the family, in the work environment. Where there is poverty, we can assume rigid hierarchy and inequality. Consequently, where there is poverty, there is also enormous vulnerability. Poverty is a form of violence; it does not respect human labor, it strips a person of humanity, and it takes away their freedom.” Her story and philosophy can be explained in three words: women, work and peace.

She said, “Poverty will never be removed without participation of women.” The author’s organization, Ujjivan Financial Services of India, imbibes many of its principles and its ideology from Elaben. We cherish the association Ujjivan shares with SEWA and Elaben. She continues to inspire us as we strive to provide access to financial services to the poor in India through our varied ventures. As she says, “There are risks in every action. Every success has the seed of some failure. But it doesn’t matter. It is how you go about it that is the real challenge.”

Further Reading:
A detailed interview with Elaben by Culture Unplugged Studios
An interview with Elaben by CIVICUS Worldwide Alliance: “Womens rights must be upheld for full development”
Research papers by Elaben published by SEWA
“Livelihood Security–Sewa’s Approach” by 
Reema Nanavaty
A video by Skoch Consultancy Services Pvt Ltd.: “Ela R. Bhatt: Last of the Gandhian Economics”
An interview by UNICEF: “Ela Bhatt: education, empowerment and ending child marriage
Elaben receives the Greatest Global Living Indian Award

Sources for this story:
Walsh, Michaela; De Gonanzaga, Shamina; Lilia, Clemente. Founding A Movement: Women’s World Banking 1975 – 1990 (2012).

, originally from Kerala is a Management Graduate from Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. She started working with Ujjivan as a Management Associate since April, 2013 and takes care of Product Management under Individual Loan Program.