There is no development without self-reliance. But there is no route to self-reliance except by organisation.

Acceptance speech – Ela Bhatt / Self-Employed Women’s Association

On behalf of my sisters in Sewa, I am here to express our deep sense of gratitude for the honour bestowed on us by conferring the Right Livelihood Award, today, before this august body of distinguished guests in Sweden. This Award has reassured us that we are on the right track in our endeavour. It is a recognition not only of Sewa, but also an honour to the non-industrial world, to the selfemployed workers of the world, who are not destined to live depressed for ever. I am proud to accept the Right Livelihood Award on behalf of the members of Sewa for whose advancement this good money will be used.

Today, I stand before you representing Sewa women. Therefore, let me introduce them to you, their struggles, achievements and hopes.

Maku is a vegetable vendor who borrows 5 $ from a private moneylender early in the morning, repays 5.5 dollars in the evening from her tiny income. This would go on day after day, all her life. But Maku, along with Laxmi, Rail, Mangu and others got organised and created a Cooperative Bank of their own. The authorities said how can you ever have banking with illiterate and poor women. But they did manage to establish their own bank in 1974.Thus shattered the myth that poor, illiterate and women cannot run a Bank. They have run it profitably for a decade. Today about 20,000 sneh Makus and Laxmis have their savings accounts in the Bank, take loans to recover their mortgaged land, house, possess production tools of their own. They elect the Director Board, each member representing a trade, who today manage the working capital of 800,000 dollars. The repayment rate of loans is 98%. Sewa Bank is now on the list of the Reserve (Federal) Bank of India, and, affiliated with Women’s World Banking, New York.

Let me introduce other sisters of Sewa. Here is Jashoda, she sells fish in the downtown market called Manekchowk. She refuses to please the policemen on the beat, so she is in trouble. Then, here is Suraj, who sells fruits in this place in the market all her life, even she was born here in the Manekchowk market. There are 500 sneh vendors sisters in the market. In January 1980, the city authorities decided to solve the traffic problem in the market by removing all vendors. They got organised in Sewa, went to complain before the Police Commissioner and Municipal Commissioner, but the appeal proved futile. So the vendor sisters organised a ‘Satagraha’, stood alongside their vegetable baskets in peaceful defiance of the police orders. Gandian thinking is our source of inspiration. On January 1980 their defensive action won back their old place. But this was no permanent solution. So, in 1982, the vendors and Sewa filed a Writ Petition in the Supreme Court of India seeking right to do business, i.e. official licenses for them. In 1984, by Court Order they got the vending licenses in Manekchowk Market where they have been vending since 3 or 4 generations. This, we could call a turning point in the present urban policy.

A large number of the working population in every city or town consists of hawkers and vendors. They provide an essential distribution service to the community. They create their own employment, making no demands on the society. But they have no place in the city planning. As the city expands, they are arbitrarily removed and made workless, homeless. Often they are treated like antisocials! The negative attitudes are deeply entrenched. The middle class citizens look down upon them as dirty, loud. The authorities and planners see them as nuisance and traffic obstruction. Our planners want their cities like those of the West. We need our own cities! We need to respect our own people, their work, their life-styles, traditions and observe the incessant flow and exchanges between villages and urban centres – the emergence of ‘new cities’ – rural cities I would call. Anyway, do cities have to be urban?

Let me introduce Radha, 45 years old, a headloader in the Cloth Market. She goes to work at 8.0 am and waits for work. She carries headloads from shop to shop and gets paid per trip. She earns two dollars at the end of the day. Before she was organised, she earned only half a dollar, in 1979. Surely Radha works as hard as any factory worker or as hard as any office employee. Surely her work is as essential as theirs? But where are the trade unions who will defend Radha’s right to work, job security, to a living wage?

Baluben is a weaver in the village. She weaves woolen blankets and is paid at piece rate. The rate is low. She can be fired from work any time. She is too weak to raise her demand.

Balamma coughs all day, spits blood because she is a cigarette roller. She is at the mercy of the contractor in spite of having laws protecting her wages. Babuben picks up rags and wastepaper from the street, sells the haul to a wastepaper merchant. Jivatba is a fuelwood picker in the mountains. She collects the fuel for the whole day, sells the headload at one and a half dollar that literally earns her daily bread. Often she gets beaten up by the Forest Department. During the cotton season, thousands of women unshell cottonpods, get paid at piece rate. Where are the trade unions to protect their rights?

Kanku, Lali, Chandra are all agriculture workers. They have employment for hardly five months a year. Their struggle for higher wages failed for lack of bargaining power. They changed their strategy. They learnt new skills, revived the traditional ones and formed coops: dairy coops, weavers’ coop, labour supply coop. Kanku, a landless labourer says, ‘I have a handloom and a buffallo and a calf – and now I am able to bargain for more higher agriculture wages!’
The Bamboo workers survive on bamboocraft, but bamboo is getting more and more expensive. The bamboo that they buy at 2 dollars per piece is sold at half a pence to the Paper Factory: How can they defend themselves against the onslaught of big industries?

There is a limit to the trade union struggles in absence of legal support. Hence, Sewa had to evolve alternative Economic Bodies e.g. Coops. The handblock printers being displaced by screeenprinters upgraded their skills, learnt accountancy and management, formed their own coop. The bambooworkers followed suit. Wastepapers plan a village level paper factory. Woodcutters are being today absorbed by the Forest Department in plantation. Even two woodcutter women have been appointed as Forest Guards!

Technology? Yes, we welcome technology that improves our living conditions, working conditions, but we do not want technology that snatches away whatever little work we have. We are rural women, spending half our life fetching home water, fuel and fodder. We want them at our doorstep. We are artisans, help us to create better tools for faster production. Take us to an expanded market, but that which is in our reach. Help us to improve our brooms, baskets and pushcarts. We face occupational hazards. We unshell peanuts with our teeth (the nation earns foreign exchange out of them), but our lips and mouth get sore that we cannot eat food. When we unshell cottonpods our finger bleed. We break stones, we breathe stone dust, we sweep the streets and fill our lungs with dust, we roll cigarettes and breathe tobacco. We pull carts with 2000 kgs of load and lose our unborn babes. We are not ready to accept this life for our daughters. Our renowned researchers have made miracles like transplanting hearts or reaching the moon. Will our Research Institutes hurry up to design a proper mask, a glove, a footstool, a hammer, a fingercap?

Most often human capacities are underestimated by us, hence we put blind faith in machines which lead to centralisation of money and power. Even the present structures – legal, economic and social including trade unions and cooperatives fail to cater to the needs of our people. For whom do we build our towns, roads, industries, markets, schools and laboratories? Let us ask ourselves. Is it really the few big dams or huge industrial plants or metropolis that change the face of the world? Even a small uplift of the capacities of the people is able to bring total change in the world.

The Sewa women by organising themselves have faced many struggles, gulped bitterness, but in the process have attained selfdignity, a slice of power, increased their capability to think, act, react, manage and lead. Out of their miserable passive acceptance of all the injustices, they have attained courage to stand up and fight. Selfreliance is what they want ultimately. There is no development without selfreliance.

Sewa is struggling to find alternatives in a society based on love and non-violence, to develop forums for the privileged and unprivileged to hold hands without exploitation.

This is an uphill fight, that we may win every now and then, but it is an arduous economic war. My colleagues and myself are like matchsticks used to light lamps – matchsticks are useless once their task is over, however they do dispel some darkness in the darkest corners. To kindle our innumerable lamps, the Right Livelihood Award is a Magnificent Matchstick for which I again thank the Foundation on behalf of Sewa.

SEWA Reception Centre
Opp. Victoria Gardens
Bhadra, Ahmedabad 380 001