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Work and economic security in the 21st Century: What we can learn from Ela Bhatt?

- Edward Webster

Eddie Webster pays tribute to Ela Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India, who died on 2 November at the age of 89.


Ela Bhatt was born in 1933 in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, the home of Mahatma Gandhi after he returned from South Africa in 1915. Her parents were from the professional Brahmin elite. “My father,” she describes in her autobiography, “was a successful lawyer with a thriving practice and a prominent position in society.  My mother was more progressive; her father wasa freedom fighter who had gone with Mahatma Gandhi on the Salt March”2 (Bhatt, 2006:5). Her maternal grandfather was a medical doctor strongly influenced by Gandhi. This led him to changing his life style and sleeping the rest of his life on a mat. He was jailed three times for his anti-British activities (Bhatt, Interview, Ahmedabad, 5th December 2010). All her father’s brothers were lawyers. She described her father as a “very modern man who appreciated British education and thinking” (Bhatt, Interview, 2010).

She was brought up in the neighbouring city of Surat at a time of high idealism. “While I was at school my country was fighting for freedom. Our teachers taught us the importance of decentralising the economy at the village, local and district level” (Bhatt, Interview, 2010). She went on to study for a BA degree at the University of Gujarat in English literature where she met her future husband, Ramesh Bhatt. “Ramesh opened my eyes to the world. It was 1949, and I was a shy and studious university student, who admired Ramesh at a distance. He was a fearless, handsome student leader and an active member of the Youth Congress. He was collecting primary data on slum families for independent India’s first census of 1951. When he invited me to accompany him on his rounds, I timidly agreed. I knew my parents would disapprove of their daughter ‘wandering in dirty neighbourhoods with a young man whose family one knew nothing about’” (Bhatt 2006; 5).

Her parents were to resist her marrying Ramesh and warned her that she would live the rest of her life in poverty if she married him. To prove her commitment, she lived for a year in a slum in conditions of poverty. In 1955 they were married in what was to become a lifelong partnership. “Ramesh was hardly ever on the scene with me in my public life – he was a private man – but we were partners in life. He was my best friend his insight and analysis were critical in helping me come up with unconventional solutions to old-age problems Ramesh supported me every step of the way; that generosity of spirit allowed me to gain self-confidence and trust in myself” (Bhatt, 2010; 6).3

The young Ela Bhatt had become a determined woman, with no doubts as to what to do with her life. In 1952 she completed her BA degree and in 1954 her Bachelor of Laws (LLB). India was a newly independent country at the time. Mahatma Gandhi‘s spirit encouraged the youth to live and work with the poor, to build ‘village republics’ as basic units of a foundation on which Indian democracy could ’prosper.’ “We saw our task as rebuilding the nation and Gandhism taught us to look at things from the perspective of the masses” (Bhatt, Interview, 2010). “Politics,” she wrote, “was idealistic; it had the power to inspire and stimulate action. Ramesh gave me the writings of Gandhi and of J.C.Kumaarappa on the economics of self–reliance and we read and discussed avidly” (Bhatt, 2010:6). It was these Gandhian ideas on the simplicity and dignity, or even sanctity of labour that were the decisive influence on the early Ela Bhatt. It was logical, therefore, for her to join in 1955, the legal department of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), a union founded by Gandhi in the twenties.

You can read the full tribute in Work and economic security in the 21st century. What can we learn from Ela Bhatt? published in Ela Bhatt ICDD Working Paper No,1