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Philanthropists’ Views – Mirai Chatterjee, Director – Social Security, SEWA

The Knowledge Centre recently conducted email interviews with leading philanthropists like Rohini Nilekani, Padmini Somani, Gururaj and Jaishree Deshpande, among others for our first annual NGO Yearbook. We also spoke with Mirai Chatterjee, Director, Social Security at Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). She spoke about her experiences in SEWA and the impact SEWA had on its members. Her insights were both inspiring and eye-opening. We are reproducing the interview in its entirety here. To see the rest of the interviews, go here.

Self Employed Women’s Organisation (SEWA) is a national union of over 19 lakh women in 13 states. SEWA follows Gandhian values and organises women workers of the informal economy into their own self-reliant organisations in their quest for justice and equality.

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Please could you describe what inspired you to join SEWA, and what was the inspiration behind the name and the logo?

I was active in the social work club in my school, and as a result, by the age of 14 felt that poverty and inequality was unacceptable. This inclination continued through college in America, where I was active in the college’s social action organisations—Phillips Brooks House and Education for Action (E4A).I saw how inequality and injustice were widespread–even prevalent in rich countries. While at university in the late ’70’s, I heard about SEWA and Elaben Bhatt. I was drawn to SEWA’s organising of women into their own self-reliant organisations, and to the SEWA movement’s quest for justice and equality, based on Gandhian values. Elaben herself was inspirational. She advised me: “Finish your education and join our movement. We need young women who are ready to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with their sisters.” And so I joined in 1984 and never left!

Elaben began organising women workers of the informal economy in the early ’70’s. Till then she had been Head of the Women’s Wing of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), a union of mill workers. One day, a group of women head-loaders from the main cloth market approached her for some help. They were self-employed, carrying loads of cloth on their heads for a pittance. They were paid per round by the cloth merchants. They could not earn enough to feed their children. Elaben was moved by their plight and her eyes were opened to the world of such self-employed, informal workers. Then she learned that there were millions of others like the head-loaders who were poor, vulnerable, unprotected by labour laws and ekeing out a living, hand-to-mouth. It was then that she resolved to form a union of self-employed women workers—the Self-Employed Women’s Association–in 1972.That itself was a struggle. The labour authorities had never seen such a union! They registered SEWA with much reluctance. The logo is of a woman carrying a load on her head—basket with goods, reminding us of our earliest members, the head-loaders and soon after, street vendors.

Today SEWA is a national union of over 19 lakh women in 13 states.

Describe an event which created a sense of pride for you and made you feel you were on the right track.

The Young President’s Organisation (YPO) invited Chanchiben Chauhan, from Vichhiya village, Ahmedabad district, to attend their international conference in Mumbai. I accompanied her. Chanchiben is one of our oldest health workers, former board member of our health cooperative and a small farmer. She had never been on an aeroplane nor attended a conference with CEOs from all over the world. She was a picture of dignity and grace. The most moving moment and one that made me proud, and that assured me that we at SEWA were on the right track, was when she spoke of her hard life, her struggles and how she had no hope from life till she joined SEWA. And then, as a health worker, she was transformed, served her village and was asked to be the village sarpanch! And that too, even as she is disabled and from the Dalit community. Earlier, the upper castes in her village refused to accept medicines from her, and did not allow her to cross their threshold. Now she not only provides them medicines, but also blesses their newborns and drinks tea with them! When the CEOs from around the world heard her story, she got a standing ovation. Not an eye was dry, with rapt attention to her inspiring and moving journey.

What are some of the challenges SEWA has faced during its growth phase?

We are in a phase of rapid growth. As Elaben says, in 40 plus years, we have grown way beyond her dreams—from the first 200 members to a national union of almost 20 lakhs, across 13 states and growing. The biggest challenge is capacity-building and education of our grassroots leaders to manage this growing and large organisation. It takes time to build up their confidence and skills—and then there is no stopping them! Also, we need women and men to run the quite large organisations promoted by SEWA like SEWA Bank, VimoSEWA (SEWA Insurance), SEWA Cooperative Federation and others.

The other challenge is of sustainability—both financial and also in terms of women running their own organisations and making their own decisions. As a movement inspired by Gandhiji, we believe deeply in self-reliance. Hence, all projects and programmes must work for sustainability from day one. Of course, this is not easy. It is hard for our cooperatives to remain competitive in the market, to adapt to changing situations, to obtain raw materials and at affordable prices, to obtain working capital and to continue to find markets. Middlemen and others who exploit and under-pay women are often formidable barriers.

A further challenge is the rapidly changing world outside—both full of opportunities but also of threats, including work loss due to mechanisation, policies and thinking that do not value women’s work and that of informal workers in general.

Finally, ensuring that all sisters of the SEWA movement remain connected and feel part of a large family is a challenge.

What kind of performance metrics can best measure progress/impact in your focus area?

Over the years we have developed the 11 points of SEWA as a measure of our progress. These are:

Have we increased our members’ employment?
Have we increased our members’ income?
Do our members now have enough to eat?
Do our members have access to health care?
Do our members have access to child care?
Has there been any increase in housing and basic amenities for our members?
Has there been any increase in the members’ ownership (property, work tools etc)?
Has there been any increase in women’s leadership?
Has there been any increase in members’ self-reliance?
Has there been any increase in our organised strength?
Do our members have access to education (in the broad sense: capacity-building etc, in addition to literacy)?

In addition, each of the main teams of SEWA have more detailed performance indicators for their projects and programmes.

Which are some of the changes which you would like to observe in the philanthropy space?

I think we need to have more dialogue on the Indian way of giving or philanthropy. Personally, I feel drawn to Gandhiji’s idea of trusteeship. He was of the view that wealth should not be seen as an entitlement by the wealthy. Rather it should be seen as something to be held in trust for the well-being of society. Further, he suggested that wealthy people exercise restraint in their needs, and after using what they need, they should give the rest of their wealth away or else a big chunk of it, to others or for use for the well-being of all. This view of giving and sharing is more than just giving money. It involves being in solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed, supporting and helping through ideas, though skills like management and other ways. I think it would be good to discuss the trusteeship idea in the current context and engage with wealthy Indians so as to begin closing the gap.

What is your view of CSR?

I think the idea of sharing profits with those in need in our country is a good one, in principle. But just legislating for this without the change of heart that Gandhiji suggested will not be enough. All of us need to ensure that no Indian is without “roti, kapda, makaan”, basic education and health, and financial services. CSR can contribute to this vision of a more just and equal India. However, CSR should be part of a larger attempt to close gaps, as per the trusteeship idea that Gandhiji outlined decades ago, and that remains a challenge to all of us, as mentioned above.

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