Elaben Bhatt, founder and visionary leader of the SEWA movement in India passes away

04 Nov 2022

A 'gentle revolutionary,' Elaben led the movement for women's economic empowerment in India, inspiring many across sectors, governments, and borders. A strong believer in Gandhian values, she firmly believed in the power of organising, uniting women, and building sisterhood and solidarity.

Born in 1933, Ela Bhatt, or Elaben, as she is called, is widely recognised as Padmabhushan Ela R. Bhatt, a Gandhian. In 1972, Elaben founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union that has around two million members. She set up SEWA Cooperative Bank in 1974 which today has three million women members. She was nominated by the President to be a member of the Indian Parliament Rajya sabha and subsequently member of the Indian Planning Commission. She founded and served as Chair of Women’s World Banking, (WWB), the International Alliance of Home-based Workers (HomeNet), Street Vendors (StreetNet) and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing (WIEGO). 

Under Elaben's able and unique leadership, the SEWA cooperative movement of informal women workers grew to be the largest of its kind in the world. She led the women's cooperative movement from the front, forging new paths towards an equitable and inclusive world that she deeply believed in, and one that was respectful of the planet.

“Ela Bhatt will remain in history as one of the key cooperative thinkers and pioneers. I am happy that we could all hear her at the ICA 33rd World Cooperative Congress, where her speech was very much listened to and had a strong echo. She has been a strong source of inspiration for decades, I will keep treasuring her memory” has said Bruno Roelants, Director General of the ICA. 

She been recognised in India and internationally for her work, among those honours and awards are:

  • The Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
  • The Right Livelihood Award for Changing the Human Environment
  • Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, two of India’s highest civilian honours
  • George Meany-Lane Kirkland Labour Rights Award, AFL-CIO, US
  • Légion d’honneur, France. 
  • Madrid Creatividad Award
  • CGAE Human Rights Award, Spain
  • Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development
  • The Freedom from Want Medal by Roosevelt Institute of Netherlands
  • In addition, she received honorary Doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Natal, McMaster, M.S. Baroda and other universities.  

Elaben has been a member of the Council of The Elders formed by Nelson Mandela since 2007. She was Director for the Central Board of the Reserve Bank of India.  She is the writer of “We Are Poor but So Many” (OUP, NY, 2006), “Anubandh – Building Hundred-Mile Communities” (Navajivan Trust 2016), and most recently, “Women, Work and Peace” (Navajivan, 2020). 

Elaben was one of the key speakers at the 2021 ICA World Cooperative Congress that took place in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Watch her intervention in EnglishSpanish, and French.

SEWA Chairperson, Mirai Chatterjee, writes a moving tribute in the Hindustan Times for Elaben - read full article here.