The SEWA founder talks about her work of buliding holistic and mindful communities, and her book ‘Anubandh’
Neelam Gupta | April 2, 2016
At the age of 82, Ela Bhatt remains as active as she was decades ago when she launched a remarkable trade union of poor women, Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), in Ahmedabad and thus pioneered a unique grassroots movement. Bhatt, a Gandhian, has served in various capacities – as a nominated MP, as a member of the planning commission and on a number of international organisations, and has received several honours in the process. Last year, she became the chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith, the university founded by Gandhi.
The indefatigable Elaben published a book last year, ‘Anubandh: Building Hundred-Mile Communities’ (published by Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad) in which she sums up her lifelong work of building holistic and mindful communities. She discussed this innovative concept with Neelam Gupta. Edited excerpts from the interview:
When you started SEWA in 1972 to raise the wages of women carrying on their heads bales of clothes from wholesalers to retailers, did you imagine it would reach the heights it has achieved today?
This is not my way of thinking. I am not a dreamer. As we kept working, we came to understand how the context needed to be maintained, and built our strategy accordingly. I do not know but people say I am a good strategist. SEWA’s organising principle is clear from the outset: we come together to gain collective strength and to fight for what is right. But we bear no ill will towards contractors, employers or people in power. In the Gandhian tradition, we condemn actions, not people. This is how SEWA has grown to strength of two million members across the country over more than 40 years.
It is also because all of SEWA work deals with the reality of everyday lives of the poor working women. SEWA’s struggle aims at improving the economic and social conditions of the women by building collective strength and becoming self-reliant. I call it building Swaraj, meaning ‘self-rule’. Our approach is integrated and in each case we look for holistic solutions which are lasting, empowering, self-sustaining and effective.
SEWA launched a bank in 1974 to bring poor women into the banking fold – something that the government has taken up on a large scale only now. Today your focus is on building ‘hundred-mile communities’ when the government dreams of smart cities. Is it that once again you are doing something that governments will wake up to only decades later?
In recent times global forces have impacted us very fast – be it the growing unemployment or our dress and food habits, be it pollution or pesticides, overproduction or waste. The ratio of the values of raw material and the final output is unrealistic. Problems of food security, violence, starvation and ecological imbalance that governments and august international bodies are grappling with are overwhelming for the people who face them day after day.
Science and technology can solve the problems but they increase them too. That’s why the consumer has started doubting the quality of the food in his plate. Many farmers don’t eat the vegetables that they grow in their fields for market, because they know how much pesticides they have put in them. SEWA has started a kitchen programme for its members to grow vegetables in their own houses, in the backyard or rooftop, in pots.
This imbalance at various social, economic and ecological levels has increased and the greatest source of this imbalance is the distance between producers and consumers, between producers and raw materials, and between the government and the governed. Where is the accountability? If they were closer to each other, there would have been more reliability at all levels. Good food, abundant employment, less prices, no overproduction and no waste. When I say ‘hundred miles’ what I suggest is, let’s begin by building an active relationship with the world around us. Let’s do it in a way that the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the objects we surround ourselves with in our daily lives would reflect our own values and activate the values in our society.
Globalisation is exciting. The internet is exciting. Smart cities are exciting. But it’s time we brought decision-making back into the hands of people. It’s time for decision-makers to feel the direct impact of their decisions on their own daily lives. Change, to be real, has to come from people. It cannot be imported, imposed or trickled down. It is possible only when people and communities organise their own structures that decentralise production and distribution, promote asset formation and ownership, build capacities, provide social security, encourage full participation and give voice to people. Then our world will become a dynamic and nurturing place.
For that, our view of what is called development needs to change. I am reluctant to use the word, yet development as we know it, to be effective, must find more integrated approaches, and above all keep the human being at its centre. Development of an individual needs to take place in all aspects of life: physical, mental, spiritual, social and economic. It is incomplete if it does not integrate the well-being of the entire family. And the family thrives when the community thrives: when food, clothing and housing needs are adequately met, when essential services like education, healthcare and banking are supportive, when every voice has equal weight, and there is respect for each other’s faith, belief and lifestyle. And in the end it includes nature. Development of environment means respect for plant and animal life and living in balance with nature. Development is effective only when all aspects of life are totally integrated and interdependent. In the end, it is about restoring balance between the individual, the community and the environment. When this balance breaks down, we see poverty and exploitation at every stage.
How can we arrive at this balance?
Through relationships which encourage us to follow the links of mutual interconnectedness towards a sense of wholeness. I call it Anubandh. It is not a new word. In Sanskrit, Anu means ‘to follow’ and bandh means ‘bond’ or ‘connection’. So Anubandh means ‘to follow a connection’.
Let me explain the concept: it says “I am not alone in this world. You are bound to me and I to you. I am also bound to people in the community and we are linked to each neighbouring community. Together, we form the world. Like oceanic circles or the rooting branches of the great banyan tree, we are all bound to each other and to the universe. Therefore, the sweetness you pour into our relationship will nourish my life; just as the bitterness I spill will harm your life. We breathe a common air, drink water of the same source, and eat the produce of the same earth that sustains you and me. We all are the children of Mother Earth. This give-and-take ties together in a net of mutuality.” This is Anubandh.
How do you look at a tree? Is it just wood? No, it provides us oxygen, shade and shelter, it nourishes cattle or worms. Some are source of medicines or many other useful products. These are homes and resting places of birds and animals, ants and insects. They hold water in ground and enrich the soil. So when we choose to cut a tree for wood, we need to ponder the effects on all the creatures and people dependent on it. It gives us an opportunity to think more holistically and weigh the consequences of our actions to determine their worth. If we treat the tree as the source of a single commodity, we effectively blind ourselves to the consequences of our actions.
As it is with tree, so is with everything in our lives. The cow is not just a source of milk. When we recognise our bond with cattle, we start looking at the dairy and meat industry with new eyes, and we begin to relate with the cattle herders.
In terms of products, be it broom or khadi or earthen pots, each one originates from nature, is transformed by human hands and woven into the social and cultural fabrics of civilisation, and then dies in the arms of nature either to be reborn from the earth or sink back into the earth. The makers of such vital objects possess a rich knowledge of the natural world, skills of manufacturing; they practice sustainable harvesting and produce enough to supply one’s need – not greed – and eventually their handiwork returns to nature.
But what about cars, cell phones or computers, the tools of the modern life? We love them and wonder how we ever lived without them. But these all are without a life cycle. They live a short life and then enter a state that is neither life nor death. Mother Earth also can neither save nor swallow them.
In fact, the problem is not with the products. They have certainly enriched our lives. The problem is in our relationship with them. Whatever we consume or produce sets in motion a chain reaction that impacts the world around us. By taking conscious charge of our role as a link in this chain, we embody and perpetuate the world we live in for better or the worse. This linked relationship with the world is anubandh. So let us be mindful of our deeds and think in terms of anubandh, to set in motion the changes we would like to see in the world.
Your book Anubandh describes SEWA’s experiences of creating ‘hundred-mile communities’ in various places. Can governments also do it?
The government can do it provided it has faith in lokshakti [people’s power] and wants to govern less. Today it is the government that plans, implements and monitors schemes, whereas people should be doing these. The government’s approach to every commodity is market-oriented. The day it starts thinking for the common man, problems like hunger and pollution will be automatically solved.
Why do you have a strong faith in ‘people’s power’?
Could we have achieved freedom if Gandhiji had not believed in lokshakti? If he can, why can’t we? Why not the government? If I have to do something for the betterment of your life, I would have to first ask you. It’s the same with the government. If it wants to remove poverty, wants development, impart skills to people, give them a better life, it has to go to the poor to know what they want, what kind of environment they are in, what type of land they live on, and what really needs to be done to bring them out of poverty. You would have to know from the elders of that area as we did, for example, in Kheda of Gujarat. Imposing plans on them will not work, that may even be devastating. In the second part of Anubandh, titled ‘Possibilities: the SEWA experience’, I have shared stories of the power of local action and the possibilities of finding a solution with some lateral thinking and local planning. If SEWA can, others also can. What is required is faith in people’s capacity, in lokshakti.
SEWA’s success is thanks to the cooperative system. How could you organise two million women through the system which in many other instances is an utter failure?
I have great faith in the cooperative system. I consider it as a creative work. To organise people, cooperative structures are must. Many cooperatives fail because they were not run by actual producers. Those who headed them used the position as a stepping stone of electoral politics. A cooperative is the need of a poor producer who does not have marketing skills. Already under heavy debt, he has to forgo his profit to a middleman. RUDI (Rural Urban Development Initiative) is an example of how, by coming together in a cooperative manner, people can come out of poverty and make their communities progressive.
What policy interventions would be needed for development based on ‘hundred-mile communities’?
I am afraid, in today’s environment, no government is going to deal with the issues of roti, kapada and makan. People themselves will have to take initiative for their basic needs. They should try to find out what is best for them, according to their local social, ecological and environmental conditions, traditional skills and traditional productions. The government should invest in what they demand. If they want any change in their tools, or any training to improve their production or want housing, the government should only facilitate them. This is in contrast to what is happening: all programmes come from above, planned either by politicians or by bureaucrats who do not know anything about the local conditions.
There was a time when our public representatives were aware of local ecology, traditions and economics. Today they have no clue because, firstly, nothing [relevant] is taught in the schools, and secondly, they are least interested in these matters.
So, you also want changes in education system…
Absolutely. Most of our problems can be traced to today’s education system. It keeps our children away from the local land and environment. Children and parents are concerned only about marks. Knowledge of local natural resources has no place in the curriculum. A child without roots is like a plant without roots.
Can the ‘hundred-mile communities’ concept be integrated into the smart city project?
I do not know what a smart city is. To my mind, there are people who can be smart. With smart people any city can improve its conditions. But if digitalisation is considered smart, how does a common man benefit from it? How will it increase employment?
With your long experience of SEWA Bank, how do you look at the gigantic NPA problem of the big banks?
Banking is not just about putting money in the bank. We have to do it in an integrated way. Without savings it won’t work, only lending will also not work. The lending bank should know the travel route of the money lent. It should know the real purpose of lending and the end user. Money is just a means. If it is given to dig a well, the bank has to monitor whether it has been dug or not; if dug, is there water in it or not. Banks just lend money and do not monitor this at all.
The government is considering several measures, for example, setting up food processing units, to provide relief to distressed farmers. Will it help?
These units should be established at the local level on cooperative basis, otherwise the story will be the same: what we produce we do not eat and what we eat we do not produce. Large processing units at one or two places won’t help. Today a variety of processed food products are in the market, but our villages and farmers are becoming poorer and poorer. Before getting into policy planning and action, we will have to go to farmers and figure out what they want.
(This interview appears in the April 1-15, 2016 issue)