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The women from SEWA explain why collective action is important

SEWA shows how followers can become leaders

Sumangala, Ahmedabad

Published: Jun. 10, 2024
Updated: Jun. 13, 2024

THE ramshackle settlement of migrant workers along the Trikampura Patiya canal in south Ahmedabad was, unsurprisingly, a dismal sight. Black, dirty water stagnated in the canal, emitting a foul stench. Birds fluttered overhead, dipping their beaks in its foetid waters.

Along the canal, in makeshift sheds, lived about 220 families who had migrated from their villages in Dahod district of Gujarat. They had worked as agricultural labour back home but work was scarce and the money inadequate. Some had been marginal farmers with tiny, unviable plots of farmland.

They had brought their children with them. If the elders at home agreed to look after them, they went to the local school and studied till primary or secondary level. Those who completed Class 10 couldn’t afford to study further. 

The sheds had temporary walls made of discarded fibre or asbestos. A strip of small, makeshift bathrooms lined the bank of the canal. The walls were made of three tin sheets. A torn sari served as a door. The vasahat or settlement had no electricity or water source or a drainage system or even a street light. The sheds could barely accommodate two or three people but five to six members of a family lived in them.

Every morning the women would cook, pack food and head for the naka along with their men, waiting for contractors to arrive and pick them up for the day.

Into this bleak scenario, three women from SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association), Parvati, Kokila and Pravina, descended one morning and got down to work. In six months, they organized the women into a collective, got them basic facilities, identity cards and access to government services. 

Patience, persistence, empathy and trust are the traits that women from  SEWA need in abundance when they reach out to marginalized women with a helping hand.

“They go to the naka  and stand there. The contractor will pick up people according to his needs. The ones who don’t get work return and sit idle at home. They have to go inside the adjacent factory, about one km away, to fetch water. If the security guard is in a good mood, they will be allowed in. Otherwise they will return with empty cans,” explains Kokila.   

The women from SEWA spoke casually to the men sitting on charpoys holding mobiles in their hands and enquired about their work. Three women workers walked up to them. One had had a miscarriage so she couldn’t go out to work. The other two had returned from the naka empty-handed.    

The three women spoke about their struggles back home in the village. The upper-caste sarpanch allocated MGNREGA work to his own people. If they persisted in demanding work, the sarpanch would harass them. There wasn’t much choice but to migrate to the city. 

The women wanted basic amenities — housing, health, education for their children and safety at their worksites.   

Parvati, Pravina and Kokila listened patiently. They explained the need for collective effort and what they did at SEWA. Kokila identified two girls living in the settlement who had studied till Class 9. She assigned the task of collecting the names and details of the women workers to the young girl and a literate boy.

The three assured the women they would return that very evening and discuss further action when all the workers returned. 

“I grew up in a similar shed-type colony. There was no water, electricity or road,” says  Kokila. “One of the SEWA sisters visited us two or three times and listened to our problems. She asked who was literate and could write down the names and details of the women. I was studying in Class 8 so I volunteered. She assigned this task to me. I also collected the SEWA membership fee from the women. I did it all promptly. That is how my mother and the other women became SEWA members and we began working collectively to get facilities.”

Renana Jhabwala, then secretary of SEWA, got Kokila permission to attend SEWA meetings after school. She met Ela Bhatt too who affectionately shortened her name to  Koki. “We worked hard for almost six months and got water and electricity. The Ahmedabad Municipal Council (AMC) later constructed a proper road. After I completed Class 10, I joined SEWA and rose to become an agewan (leader). I worked with different trade committees. Whenever I see our sisters in the same situation as I was, I feel very strongly about helping them.” 

Parvati’s parents too were construction workers. “I understand how the contractors exploit us.  They make us work overtime and do not pay for it. There’s no guarantee of getting work at the naka. There is no compensation if an accident happens at the worksite. The women do not get any maternity benefits. These workers need to get identity cards from the labour department to be certified as construction labourers. They can then get insurance and other facilities. We at SEWA act as a bridge between the workers and the labour department’s welfare board.”   

Parvati and Kokila explained to the women that SEWA would help them get identity cards and other facilities from the labour department, and for that, they needed to become union members. They also explained all the benefits they would receive if they registered and got identity cards. The women had some queries which were answered. The young boy who had collected the details of more than 10 women  handed them over. The women workers were unanimous in saying that the AMC should provide tanker water once a day. They also requested solar lamps. 

SEWA's plan of action showed visible results in six months. Of the 220 families, 155 became SEWA members. SEWA negotiated with the Labour Welfare Board to get maternity benefits for the women. When four workers died of injuries after an accident at a construction site, SEWA helped their families get Rs 3 lakh each as compensation from the Labour Welfare Board.

The AMC agreed to instal a tap from which the women could collect water. And negotiations started with the welfare board to provide solar lamps as the AMC cannot set up a permanent connection to each shed.

A major achievement was that the Annapurna scheme, under which a meal is provided for Rs 10, was extended to the workers’ settlement in January 2024.  Now, before leaving for work, they go to the Annapurna booth in front of the vasahat and get a nutritious meal.

Parvati, Kokila and Pravina had been successful in mobilizing the workers. “All our women migrant workers should get basic amenities, welfare board benefits  and feel safe at the construction site. That’s all we want. It’s not much,” says Parvati, as she leaves for another worker settlement.


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