Women’s Day 2024: “Why can’t we have our own bank?”

The question that led to the setting up of India’s first women self-help group-led bank in the 1970s

By Kaleem Siddiqui
Published: Wednesday 06 March 2024
SEWA currently has 4,000 self-help groups, 110 cooperative societies and three companies, all run by women (Photograph courtesy: SEWA)

In 1972, the late Ela Bhatt, along with 12 self-employed women in the unorganised sector, set up the Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad, Gujarat—considered to be the country’s first women self-help group (or a women’s trade union, as it was known at the time due to the lack of any precedent for it). A lawyer and trade unionist, Bhatt worked with women workers in the unorganised sector in Ahmedabad urban areas. She felt that the biggest challenge to empowering women was the lack of access to fair economic pursuits. “They must generate and control the capital,” she would later say as the guiding principle for setting up SEWA.

Immediately after the formation of SEWA, she had to face hurdles. Its members were termed “not bankable” by commercial banks, thus denying them the finance needed to start new businesses. On the other hand, the moneylenders were charging prohibitively high interest, which pushed the women into a debt trap. The challenges faced by women due to the absence of financial services would regularly come up during the meetings of SEWA. In one such meeting, some women frustratingly asked, “Why can we not have our own bank?”

This article was originally published as part of  Down To Earth’s special issue dated 1-15 March, 2024. 
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In 1974, SEWA registered the Mahila Sewa Co-Operative Bank, or SEWA Bank. It was the country’s first such cooperative of self-employed women. Its 4,000 members—all unorganised women workers—contributed Rs 10 each as their founding capital. Its owners and customers belonged to the same socio-economic groups and stayed together in the same neighbourhood. The cooperative bank’s services range from opening savings accounts, recurring accounts, giving loans for businesses, owning or repairing houses, depositing money for fixed tenure, and a pension scheme as well. Today, SEWA Bank is popularly known as the “rich bank of the poor”. In 2016–17, it had over 471,000 depositors with a working capital of Rs 345 crore. The SEWA Bank also started SEWA’s famed cooperatives, which are not just focused on services but also on various trades.

In 1980, SEWA made inroads into rural areas. This was the time when the country was witnessing the dairy revolution sweeping Gujarat. SEWA did something that was unheard of: setting up the country’s first dairy cooperative led by women called Dholera Women Milk Producers Cooperative Society. “Women look after cattle, give fodder to them and milk them, and that is why only women should control the dairy cooperatives,” Ela told Down To Earth (DTE) in a conversation in 2012. With 50 members, the dairy cooperative prospered and inspired women from nearby villages to form such groups. In 1980-84, SEWA registered 15 women-led dairy cooperatives. SEWA currently has 4,000 SHGs, 110 cooperative societies, 15 federations of cooperatives, and three companies, all led by women. Smita Bhatnagar, a senior coordinator with SEWA, told DTE, “The women self-help movement that started over 50 years ago now has a footprint in 18 states.”

These networks have 2.1 million women members are into 125 trades ranging from healthcare, banking, insurance, child care, housing, legal services, videography, research, training and capacity-building. The group has also established Rudy Multi Trading Company for the purchase and sale of agricultural products, and its annual turnover is approximately Rs 25 crore. Jyoti Ben Maikwan, general secretary of SEWA, says, “When the women’s groups in rural areas started to stand on their own two feet, we introduced the concept of Bachat Mandali (savings group), where 20-25 women were asked to save collectively to ensure their overall financial well being. The money saved by these mandalis is deposited in the SEWA bank, which gives them dividends every year.”

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