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Vancouver Sun

Where Freedom Means a Chance to Work

With Mahatma Gandhi's ideas in mind, Ela Bhatt raised hope when she organized female labourers in India

Daphne Bramham

Ela Bhatt. She notes that half of the world's people have no access to clean water and 900 million go to bed hungry every night. "I plead for gentler economics. How can we live in a world where people go to bed hungry? It is just another way of killing people with the consent of society."(Photograph by: Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun)

Ela Bhatt never met Mohandas Gandhi, but as a child she caught a glimpse of him leaving her family's home in Ahmedabad.

Her grandfather and great-uncle were among Gandhi's followers who were jailed for civil disobedience. And it's Gandhi's philosophy that has profoundly influenced Bhatt's own thoughts and actions.

As a young lawyer in 1972, she helped found a trade union for the 93 per cent of female labourers whose efforts aren't counted as part of the Indian economy.

Based in her home city of 5.2 million people, the Self-Employed Women's Association or SEWA now has more than a million members across India. It operates dozens of cooperatives that market and process agricultural products and provide insurance, health care, education and housing as well as a bank that does mainly micro-credit lending.

"Gandhi-ji has shown the way," she said in an interview this week.

"What I like best is the wonderful combination of modernity and the traditional. The link is not complexity, but simplicity. The khadi [homespun cloth] stands for economic freedom. It is both symbolic and practical."

The two ideas of Gandhi's that have influenced her most are ones that Bhatt says are not widely taught or followed.

One is correlation and the other is the sanctity and beauty of work.

Correlation is an awkward translation from Gujarati. But Bhatt explains it this way: People need to think about every action, and even something as simple as drinking tea should be a conscious action.

Where does the tea come from? Who produced it? What does its production mean for society, the producers, consumers and for the Earth itself?

By making those kinds of connections, Bhatt says we can't help but recognize how we are bound together.

"Food is a thing that is local. It connects us to nature and has so many layers of culture, tradition and religion attached to it."

But around the world, what people use and what they produce have become disconnected.

For centuries in Uttar Pradesh, women made offerings of grain to the Hindu harvest goddess each year. Last year, they had to buy the grain. They can no longer grow it because of drought and climate change. Instead, they grow chilies, a cash crop that gives them more money.

But they can't survive on chilies, so they're forced to buy imported grain.

The modern spin on this is, of course, the 100-mile diet, which Bhatt recently learned about after noticing farmers' markets springing up around her sister's home in Hamilton, Ont.

Within a reasonable distance of everyone's home, Bhatt believes, people's five basic needs should be met -- food (including potable water), clothes, shelter, primary education and primary health care.

For that to happen, people must have work, which Bhatt describes as a human need. Through work, people come together, learn and gain strength in their numbers.

She's asked SEWA members what freedom means to them and most often the answer is "when we have over-full hands with work."

Work gives women security and confidence. It means clean clothes and a chance at literacy. Work helps women transcend the barriers of gender, caste and religion because they have friends and affiliations outside their families and communities.

"That," says Bhatt, "is freedom."

Still, she notes that half of the world's people have no access to clean water and 900 million go to bed hungry every night.

"I plead for gentler economics. How can we live in a world where people go to bed hungry? It is just another way of killing people with the consent of society."

A cynic -- as opposed to an optimist like Bhatt -- might conclude that things are getting worse.

SEWA members have seen an increase in the number of female abductions and women forced to become surrogate mothers.

There are increasing numbers of the desperately poor, who for a few rupees are willing to become lab animals, taking injections of who-knows-what in the name of research.

Children are abducted for organ harvesting and are found dead in ditches a few days later.

Progress is slow, Bhatt admits. But communities grow and change at their own pace. India's poor are not getting poorer, she says, and never has there been a time when they have been so ready to have their aspirations met.

And that's reason enough for hope.


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