Activist Ela Bhatt to speak at Congress

Activist Ela Bhatt will join the cadre of speakers at Congress this year, and set the stage for discussions on Committing to our Cooperative Identity.

Born in 1933, Ela Bhatt, or Elaben, as she is called, is widely recognised as Padmabhushan Ela R. Bhatt, a Gandhian. She is always clad in khadi and is widely recognised as one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development. Known as the “gentle revolutionary”, she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers. 

In 1972, Elaben founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union that has around two million members. She set up SEWA Cooperative Bank in 1974 which today has three million women members. She was nominated by the President to be a member of the Indian Parliament Rajya sabha and subsequently member of the Indian Planning Commission. 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). 

She has also served as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation for a decade and has been recognised in India and internationally for her work. Among those honours and awards are:

  • The Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
  • The Right Livelihood Award for Changing the Human Environment
  • Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, two of India’s highest civilian honours
  • George Meany-Lane Kirkland Labour Rights Award, AFL-CIO, US
  • Légion d’honneur, France. 
  • Madrid Creatividad Award
  • CGAE Human Rights Award, Spain
  • Indira Gandhi International Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development
  • The Freedom from Want Medal by Roosevelt Institute of Netherlands

In addition, she has received honorary Doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Natal, McMaster, M.S. Baroda and other universities.  

Elaben has been a member of the Council of The Elders formed by Nelson Mandela since 2007. She was Director for the Central Board of the Reserve Bank of India.  She is the writer of “We Are Poor but So Many” (OUP, NY, 2006), “Anubandh – Building Hundred-Mile Communities” (Navajivan Trust 2016), and most recently, “Women, Work and Peace” (Navajivan, 2020). 

She is Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith University, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1920, and Chair of Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram. Elaben is currently working on the idea of building an economy of nurturance. She has a daughter, Ami, a son, Mihir, and four grandchildren. Elaben regularly learns Indian classical music.