A void that cannot be filled: SEWA founder Ela Bhatt dies in Ahmedabad

Ela Bhatt founded SEWA in 1972, which has since blazed a trail in empowering women in various ways

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 02 November 2022
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ela Bhatt, prominent Gandhian and the founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) passed away at a hospital in Ahmedabad on the afternoon of November 2, 2022. She was 89 years old.

“She was under critical care in the intensive care unit. She passed away sometime after noon,” Sudarshan Iyengar, former vice chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith told Down To Earth from Ahmedabad.

Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad in 1933 and studied law. She joined the legal cell of the Majur Mahajan Sangh or the Textile Labour Association (TLA), claimed to be India’s oldest trade union for textile workers, in 1955. The TLA had been formed after a strike led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920.

“It occurred to her that many of the issues faced by women textile mill workers were not addressed. She subsequently turned her focus to that area,” Rajnibhai Dave, editor of the Bhumiputra newspaper, told DTE from Vadodara.

Bhatt founded SEWA in 1972, which has since worked at empowering women in various ways. These include granting micro-credit, providing banking services and teaching various skills to women from poor and marginalised sections of society.

Bhatt was felicitated with the Padma Shri in 1985 and the Padma Bhushan in 1986 for her contributions to society.  

She also propounded the idea of ‘hundred-mile communities’ in her book Anubandh: Building Hundred-Mile Communities published in 2015. “She was always looking at applying Gandhian philosophy to modern India. The hundred-mile communities was an effort in this direction,” Dave said.

Bhatt had written in the book:

There are three basic needs of life — food, clothing and shelter — which are vital to the survival of all human beings. Furthermore I consider three basic services — primary healthcare, primary education and primary financial services — essential to the wellbeing of everyone on our planet.

“I believe that if these six basic needs can be met at the local level, we can set in motion the holistic development of people, their communities and their environment,” she had added.

“Based on my experiences working with SEWA, I have realised that these necessities can be met within a radius of 100 miles. A 100 miles is roughly the distance where the land, people, climate, and the market are equally familiar to all,” she had reasoned.

Bhatt had left her position as the chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith founded by Gandhiji only last month.

Tributes pour in

“The passing of Elaben is untimely. She was 89. She lived a full life and enjoyed fairly good health. She took ill only a few months back and hence her departure is sudden and sad. A person of her stature, moral standing and sincerity is acutely required in today’s turbulent times,” Iyengar said.

Ganesh Devy, scholar and linguist, who also hails from Gujarat, expressed shock on Bhatt’s demise.

“It is a very big loss. She was among the most distinguished women Gujarat produced in the second half of the last century. Her work with SEWA was phenomenal. What she has done for women in India will rarely be surpassed by anyone else,” he told DTE.

Devy added that Bhatt had kept Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy alive as chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith and head of the trust that ran the Sabramati Ashram.

Gujarat had been left orphaned, he said. Devy noted that many eminent Gandhians had passed away in recent years and Bhatt’s demise was a very big blow.

“SEWA is Bhatt’s everlasting legacy. Being a Gandhian, she worked with downtrodden women. It is very difficult to replace her. It is a big loss for both Gujarat and India,” Achyut Yagnik, author of The Shaping of Modern Gujarat told DTE.

“I worked very closely with her on Sabarmati Ashram to maintain its simplicity even as the Gujarat government sought to make it grand. She herself wanted an inclusive approach to see to it that women, Dalits and other minority groups were equally involved in making the legacy of Gandhi strong and everlasting,” Kartikeya Sarabhai from Centre for Environmental Education told DTE.

“For someone who dedicated her life to public service and left behind so much for us to ponder about, think and use as a beacon, there will undoubtedly be a vacuum. But we must also think about all that she has given and celebrate her life,” Sarabhai said.

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