Tributes paid as Sewa founder Ela Bhatt dies at 89

The ‘gentle revolutionary’ earned accolades around the world for her work, which included the empowerment of women working in India’s textile industry

Tributes from around the world poured in on social media following the death of Indian co-operative organiser and activist Ela Bhatt.

Born on 7 September 1933 in Ahmedabad, Bhatt grew up in the city of Surat before attending the Sir L.A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad. She obtained a BA in English from M.T.B. College before taking a law degree at the Sir L.A. Shah Law College in Ahmedabad.

In 1955 she joined the Textile Labour Association (TLA), the country’s largest union of textile workers where, alongside Arvind Buch, she worked to empower self-employed women in the textile industry. During her time there, she studied at the Afro-Asian Institute of Labour and Cooperation in Tel Aviv, obtaining an International Diploma of Labour and Cooperatives in 1971.

Her efforts to empower women culminated with the creation of the Self Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA) in 1972, with Buch as its president and Bhatt as general secretary. She served as general secretary until 1996. During this time, she also helped to set up India’s first women’s bank, the Cooperative Bank of SEWA.

In addition to her involvement in SEWA and TLA, 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). 

Bhatt was chair of Sabarmati Ashram Trust and chancellor of the Gujarat Vidyapith university, recently giving up the latter role due to health considerations. She had also served as trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation and was a member of the Council of The Elders, formed by Nelson Mandela, since 2007. 

Her work gained her various accolades, including the Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development, the CGAE Human Rights Award and the Freedom from Want Medal by Roosevelt Institute of Netherlands.

Known as the “gentle revolutionary”, Bhatt was a keynote speaker at the World Cooperative Congress in 2021, where she reaffirmed her lifelong commitment to the co-operative identity. “The co-operative is an answer to poverty in any country,” she said at the time.

SEWA Federation confirmed the death of its founder via a social media post. “It is with profound grief that we announce the passing away of our beloved and respected founder, Smt. Elaben Bhatt. A pioneer in advocating for women workers’ rights, we strive to carry her legacy forward,” it said.

Several co-operative apexes and individual co-operators paid tribute to Bhatt on social media.

“We are saddened to hear about the demise of Ms Elaben Bhatt, the visionary founder of SEWA Federation, India. She was a co-operator by thought & action and a pioneer in advocating for women workers’ rights. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, SEWA workers, and staff!” said the International Co-operative Alliance’s Asia-Pacific office.

ICA-AP regional director Balu Iyer added: “Saddened to hear about the passing of Ela Bhatt of SEWA federation. A pioneer in the field of co-operatives who was at the fore promoting rights of women, empowering informal workers, and building solid institutions. Thoughts and prayers to her family and staff at SEWA.