When a group of illiterate working women in Ahmedabad failed to get loans from banks in the 1970s, they decided to open a bank of their own.
In 1972, battling many odds, these women had registered themselves into a trade union called SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) with help from Ela Bhatt, an activist-lawyer. With Bhatt’s help again, they approached the RBI for getting their bank recognised, only to be rebuffed. “You must be joking,” they were told the story goes, “We can’t have a bunch of women who have never been to school running a bank.”
The women stayed up all night and learned how to sign with Bhatt’s help. The next day they had their license for a cooperative bank. What started with Rs. 40,000 share capital and 4,000 women has today 6 lakh depositors, 12 branches and a collective working capital of more than Rs. 300 crores. SEWA too has grown into a larger organisation for self-employed women, providing services ranging from the bank to healthcare and childcare.
However, the problems that the members of SEWA faced in the 1970s have not gone away. Problems related to employment, healthcare, and bank-loans still persist and still affect women more than men. How do we solve those issues? Youth Ki Awaaz sat down with Mirai Chatterjee, the Director of Social Security at SEWA and a social worker who has worn many hats, to tell us exactly that. Excerpts:
Chandan Sarma (CS): The government runs a number of insurance, healthcare, and childcare programmes for workers, including unorganised workers. Why do we then need an organisation like SEWA?
Mirai Chatterjee (MC): That’s a good question. First of all, 45 years ago, when the SEWA story and movement began, there was no recognition of the unorganised sector. When we went to the labour department and we spoke of women who were biddi rollers or agarbatti workers, we were told they are not workers, that they are doing this to pass their time.
Fortunately, the government now recognises the economic importance of the informal economy, which accounts for more than 50% of India’s GDP, and if you include unpaid work and care-work of women, I am sure it will be 75%.
There are a couple of issues and that’s where SEWA comes in. Firstly, because we ourselves have experimented with different programs, be it crèches or healthcare, we have some tried and tested models. So we can join hands with the government, especially the labour department, and show what is workable and what is not.
The second point is voice and representation, which comes in membership-based organisations like SEWA. What happens is that though well-meaning, programmes are designed by the people far from the day-to-day reality of the poor and women. So if we sit together, it will have the proper flavour and approach.
Let me give you a couple of examples. One is childcare. Without childcare or daycare, women can’t go out to work. So we have been telling the government for long that if you want to do one thing to improve women’s income and women’s development and if you want to increase women’s workforce participation, then please organise full day childcare. ICDS might be a good start, but it is inadequate. There is no point in having a childcare centre for 3 to 4 hours if women work minimum 8-10 hours a day.
The next example which is especially relevant these days is insurance schemes. We have been telling the government that if you want to roll out large-scale insurance programmes, which we should, then please also have an education and awareness component built into your insurance programmes. The concept of insurance is not immediately obvious to workers in the unorganised sector. It is not even obvious to the middle class educated people.
The third important point is helping in the delivery and making these programmes reach women’s doorsteps. One of the biggest problems that we all know in India is that of implementation. Because we have organised women into their own membership-based organisations, these organisations can act as local facilitators between the government authorities and programmes and the people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.
The fourth reason is community-based monitoring, to try to reduce the gaps and also graft. It also builds local ownership, accountability and transparency.
Finally, the fifth one is that, from these workable experiences on the ground, we can try to make policy changes and legislative changes in favour of unorganised sector workers. And for all these reasons, SEWA and SEWA-type organisations are required.
CS: Women’s participation in the workforce in India has come down by 8 percent in the past two decades. Why is that? And how can we fix it?
MC: There are many reasons and there are many people who have different theories. One theory is that more women are out of the workforce because they are pursuing their education. But another article by the World Bank says that the main reason is that in large areas of the economy which employ women, like farming and agriculture, there are shrinking opportunities.
And wherever there are shrinking opportunities, in general, for the workforce, the first to suffer are women because men take whatever little work there is, and there are simply not enough opportunities for women. They want to work but they are not finding work that is commensurate with their skills, and from which they can make a living.
So there are many reasons. We would like to add another reason. There is no enabling or supportive environment for women. And I already mentioned that without childcare, to expect women to be in the workforce is impossible.
CS: So if we were to fix this problem, one of the investments would be in the form of childcare programmes?
MC: Absolutely. I think a couple of things have to be done. One is that you have to take a holistic view and look at all aspects of women’s lives — both paid and unpaid work that they do. Among the unpaid work, there is what we call the unpaid care work like childcare, elderly-care which pulls women out of the workforce. So there has to be that kind of supportive service.
The second is investing in the sectors of the economy where women are predominant or where women are more likely to be, like agriculture, forestry, service sector, healthcare sector, the self-employed sector like street vendors, home-based work.
So we will have to increase opportunities in these sectors, plus create this enabling environment and invest in making women more skillful, especially the younger women, who would like to work in the new areas of the economy like IT or hospitality. It has to be this kind of a comprehensive approach.
CS: Since Aadhaar was linked to social welfare a schemes, a number of reports have shown the problems it has created for people in the unorganised sector availing those benefits. What was the experience of the workers associated with SEWA with respect to Aadhaar?
MC: I think our experience has been that our members are very keen to have some kind of documentation. It is like a passport for them. So many of them have embraced Aadhaar and it opens doors for them.
Having said that, there are some of our members who are having difficulty accessing welfare benefits because they don’t have an Aadhaar card, because their cards are in their villages and they are migrants. Particularly, there are still issues of portability of welfare schemes for migrants.
Maybe Aadhaar can help, but right now there are still issues. But in general, we do feel that, as the Supreme Court says, we can go slowly to full connectivity, but no one should be excluded because of lack of documentation, because typically the poorest, the most vulnerable, like widows, single women, and migrants are the ones who suffer.
CS: The government is finally planning an insurance scheme for universal health coverage. What is your opinion on the proposed scheme?
MC: In general we welcome the move to cover a larger and larger section of the working population. We don’t know what this scheme is going to look like. There have not been many public consultations so far. We hope there will be some.
In fact, we had a national workshop for micro-insurance practitioners and we have made recommendations: what works and what does not work, what to look out for, what to absolutely do and what to avoid. We have made that report available to the government. So we are trying to be helpful.
The concern is that it should not lead to the fragmentation of the public health sector. What it means is that there should be a continuum between primary healthcare, secondary and tertiary care. Secondary and tertiary care will be taken care of by the new NHPS. But the kind of architecture should be that first people should go to the primary health centre, the enhanced primary health centre or wellness clinics as they are being called, and there is some amount of gatekeeping and screening there. Only then they go for secondary and tertiary care. Otherwise for every small problem people will run to the hospital.
Luckily, the government is also thinking seriously and has shown intent to invest in primary healthcare. We understand that while they are crafting this new NHPS, they are also thinking on how to deepen investment in comprehensive primary healthcare through these wellness clinics. So I think we would like to see the architecture. How will all these fit together — the different pieces of the puzzle? And I have heard from some people who are working on NHPS that it is still under discussion.
CS: Your inspiration for choosing an off-beat career track?
MC: I was always interested in the women’s movement. I was growing up in the late seventies and early eighties when women’s movement and various people’s movements were active.
I remember at the age of 16 joining a rally in my native Mumbai, when there was the issue of the Mathura rape case that actually galvanised the whole nation, much like Nirbhaya and the child victim in Kathua have galvanised the nation and saddened the nation right now.
Anyway, it brought a large number of women to the streets. I was young at that time, and inspired by that collective action, I was also interested in the labour movement. I heard about SEWA. I visited SEWA and Ela Behen inspired me by saying, “We need educated young women like you who are trained but who are ready to work shoulder to shoulder with their sisters.” That’s why I joined and stayed.
CS: Youth is Awaaz is a platform for social issues that reaches out to a lot of young Indians. What advice do you want to give to the young people of the country? How can they engage in issues to make a difference?
MC: Follow your heart. There is a lot young people can do. It is not necessary for everyone to become a social worker. Find your own area of interest and talent and see how you can contribute to society, because only if it is something you are passionate about will you be really able to contribute in any way to society and other people’s well-being.
I think I would also say that it is important in this day and age to have a strong education base and some relevant skills, so that we are useful to others, we can serve others better.
But overall I would say each of us has talent. Find what your hidden talent is. Then you can develop yourself in the service of others, as Gandhi ji told us to do long ago.
The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.