Padma Bhushan Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA, passes away at 89

Renowned activist Ela Bhatt was involved in many movements related to international labour, and women's issues.

Published: 02nd November 2022 04:02 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th November 2022 05:02 PM   |  A+A-

Renowned activist Ela Bhatt

Renowned activist Ela Bhatt.

Express News Service

AHMEDABAD: Renowned social activist and Gandhi Ela Bhatt who was the founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) passed away on Wednesday. She was 89.

She was the recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1977, the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, and the Padma Bhushan in 1986 for her work in empowering impoverished women in Gujarat. She was also selected for the Niwano Peace Prize in 2010.

Ela Bhatt was also serving as the chairperson of the Sabarmati Ashram since 2016.

Until recently, for seven years, she had served as the chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith. She stepped down from the post on 19 October due to failing health.

The Vidyapith, which is over 100 years old, was founded by Mahatma Gandhi and he himself had been its first chancellor.

Elaben Bhatt was born on 7 September 1933. Her father Sumantrai Bhatt was a successful lawyer while her mother Vanalila Vyas was active in the women's movement and was the secretary of the All India Women’s Conference founded by Kamladevi Chattopadhyay,

Ela Bhatt, who studied law in college, joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA) in 1951, one of the oldest unions of textile workers in Ahmedabad.

Her association with the TLA led her to organise self-employed women who worked in textile markets.

Ela Bhatt founded SEWA, an organisation of poor, self-employed women workers, in 1972 and served as its general secretary from 1972 to 1996.

SEWA's work gradually expanded to cover the poor women working in other unorganized sectors too. It also started a cooperative bank and pioneered the microfinance movement.

Ela Bhatt was deeply influenced by Gandhian philosophy and thinking. Her grandfather had joined Mahatma Gandhi on the Salt Satyagraha in 1930 to protest the British ban on Indians making salt.

In an interview with the Berkley Center, Ela Bhatt described what led her to start SEWA. "I became more and more aware, as I worked with the unionized (textile) labour, of the much larger labour force that was outside the purview of the protective labour laws, of any form of social security, access to justice, access to financial services, anything. That tugged at my heart. And those people were unorganized and had no strength to act to seek remedies."

She also served as a Rajya Sabha MP and an adviser to the World Bank. She also served on the Planning Commission.

In 2007, she had joined the Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to promote human rights and peace.

She was also one of the founders of Women's World Banking, Women in Informal Economy: Globalising, Organising (WIEGO) and International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet).

Ela Bhatt had married Ramesh Bhatt in 1956. Their two children Amimayi Potter (1958) and Mihir Bhatt (1959) live in Ahmedabad. She also has four grandchildren.

"One fails to not only put her in a category to address, but one also fails to find words potent and pithy enough to describe and approximate her work and thoughts," her grandson Rameshwar Bhatt said. She lived by Gandhian principles all her life, he said.

Expressing grief over the death of Ela Bhatt, Gujarat BJP chief CR Patil said, “The news of the death of Padma Bhushan Elaben Bhatt was Painful. Elaben Bhatt remained a lifelong activist for the upliftment of women, and her services to make women self-reliant will always be an inspiration. I pray that God may grant peace to his departed soul."

"Extremely saddened by the passing away of renowned Gandhian & founder of SEWA, Ela Bhatt ji. A Padma Bhushan recipient and a pioneer of women's rights, she devoted her life in empowering them through grassroots entrepreneurship. Her exceptional legacy shall always inspire," Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge wrote on Twitter.

(With inputs from online desk)

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