Elaben Bhatt: Simply Inspiring, Inspiringly Simple

Last week we lost Elaben Bhatt, Gandhian, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), co-founder of Women’s World Banking, Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, Trustee of Gandhi Ashram;  winner of national and international awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Right Livelihood award and the Padma Bhushan.

Ela Bhatt

As people who worked in the development sector in Ahmedabad, we have of course seen her, heard her and admired her. Her simplicity, her straight-forwardness and compete dedication to the cause of the economic empowerment of unorganized women, lifted our eyes and minds to a higher plane, and showed us the possibility of the difference one soft-voiced person could make.

Much has been written about her in the last few days, and maybe there is nothing startlingly new to add. But we still need to refresh our memories of this stalwart and pay our homage.

So here are some excerpts from a book called ‘Don’t Sprint the Marathon’* which can give us some insights on the early influences which shaped her. Elaben spoke to the author and the write-up is based on these conversations.

‘Ela never topped her school or the college. She might have been in the top 10 percentile, but was never unduly pushed into driving herself very hard. Her father would typically buy a variety of books during the summer vacations and expect her to read them to improve her language skills, which she largely did. Her overall value system was shaped not only by her highly principled father, but the entire nationalistic climate of the time. She was growing up in an India which was all set to break the shackles of British rule. Gandhi was a household name, his teachings the religion of the day, and his life and example to be emulated.

Ela, even as a child, seems to have had a highly developed sense of fairness as well as being highly sensitive to any form of exploitation of the under-privileged.

Her mother’s deep involvement in the women’s movement seems to have raised her hackles against the exploitation of women, who she saw were contributing more than their fair share to the economy of the country. But just because they weren’t paid for their ‘service’ and they were not organized in any manner, they seemed to be easy prey for all sorts of exploitation at the hands of the entire organized system. For example, even as a youngster, Ela was sensitive to the fact that while women did most of the agricultural work in the villages, apart from running the households, they did not qualify for any loans from the banking system.

It is awareness of inequities such as these which probably came through her parent’s work that shaped Ela’s perspective and future. Given her nature, she had to stand up for the underdog.’

Nothing can capture her humility and sensitivity like this para in the introduction to her book ‘We Are Poor, But So Many’: ‘In writing about the lives of poor self-employed women, I have been presumptuous. I have written about women who are unlikely to read what I have written about them. Moreover, my perception is unavoidably limited by the economic and social environment to which I belong. So in all honesty, I cannot claim to speak for the women I write about, I can only speak for myself.’ And this from the person who spent her entire working life working with these very women and among them!

May her soul rest in peace, and may she continue to inspire.


*V. Raghunathan. Don’t’ Sprint the Marathon. Harper Collins.

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