SEWA has 720,000 members in India.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The largest and most innovative women’s rights and development organization in India claims government officials in Gujarat state are out to destroy it because it is becoming powerful.

Leaders of the Self Employed Women’s Association, known as SEWA, say the fundamentalist Hindu government of Gujarat in northwest India began raising charges of incompetence and financial irregularities 15 months ago, after SEWA rejected demands for bribes and kickbacks and for an end to services to Muslims.

In a Dec. 26 written response to questions, the Gujarat government called SEWA’s account "baseless" and "part of its pre-emptive strategy to sidestep the main issues and divert attention of public and media from its poor performance and financial irregularities."

With 720,000 members, nearly all impoverished rural women, SEWA has been doggedly non-partisan since its founding in 1972, when activist Ela R. Bhatt helped organize Ahmedabad female cart-pullers into a trade union. It adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s goals of nonviolent struggle for rights and development, accepting women from every social level, Bhatt said in an interview.

Nancy Barry, president of Women’s World Banking, a global network of microfinance institutions and banks based in New York, said SEWA was renowned for including Muslims, Hindus and minorities in its programs.

"The Muslim community is almost by definition poor in India," she said. "But SEWA’s mission is not politics; it’s social change."

SEWA, now an estimated 40 percent Muslim and minorities in a country where Hinduism is the predominant religion, first used tiny membership fees to set up training, microfinancing and loans, self-education groups and handicraft production and sales. As it grew, it provided members with insurance, health care, child care and legal aid.

SEWA members in seven Indian states now earn income providing these services and train one another in more than 100 cooperative ventures. Support from international foundations and multilateral agencies is channeled to SEWA through contracts with India’s central and state governments like Gujarat’s.

Nationalists Sought More Aid for Hindus

One of those contracts, called Jeevika, was a $23.9 million effort to help some 40,000 families regain their livelihoods in 400 Gujarat villages affected by the 2001 earthquake. In October 2004, however, three years into the seven-year project, new officials in the state government, controlled by the Sangh Parivar wing of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, began demanding that the project devote more resources to local Hindus.

Bhatt said they also wanted more resources channeled to themselves.

"They told us, ‘You are only working for the Muslims; you cannot go on this way,’" she recalled. Other SEWA officials said commission members demanded bribes, spending at Hindu businesses, as well as gifts and trips for themselves on pain of causing trouble for SEWA. "It is because we now have a little power and they do not want any power centers outside their party," Bhatt said.

SEWA rejected the pressures, Bhatt said, and in early 2005, government-dominated media began running anonymous allegations that SEWA had misappropriated Jeevika funds and diverted money to Bhatt’s family. Little effort was made to get SEWA’s side of the story, which included detailed rebuttals and several favorable audits.

Groups that have worked with SEWA in the past praised its operations.

Harold Rosen, director of grassroots business development at the International Finance Corporation, which in 2004 gave SEWA a $250,000 grant to upgrade its products and improve its access to global markets, said the IFC was "confident that high ethical standards are maintained" and that SEWA projects "have a significant impact on large numbers of poor women."

"SEWA has a phenomenal track record," said Venkatesh Raghavendra, director for Global Partnerships for Asia at the Ashoka Foundation, a nonprofit group in Arlington, Va., that spotlights innovative work in the developing world. "They do great work. They are not incompetent . . . their numbers speak for themselves."

A U.S. State Department spokesperson described SEWA as "highly respected" and "effective" but declined to comment on the dispute.

Books Examined

SEWA has developed underground systems to collect rainwater

Last April, Gujarat’s Rural Development Commission sent a special auditor to examine SEWA’s books. He behaved rudely, Bhatt said, and demanded illegal re-entries. "We realized he was not asked to do an audit but to recover an amount and pass it on to the government," said Reema Nanavaty, a SEWA board member and Bhatt’s daughter-in-law.

Funding for Jeevika stopped arriving, Nanavaty said, a claim the Gujarat statement said was false. It also called unfounded SEWA’s claim that 14,000 SEWA members and their families involved in the project were left without any income.

Bhatt said those members had helped 12,000 families in 120 villages in the earthquake zone during Jeevika’s three active years, more than a third of the target group. "There was tremendous economic loss," Bhatt said. "People who were constructing a rainwater-collection structure had to stop, and then the rains came and they lost their season’s water."

In arid Gujarat, that meant serious trouble. "Many families began to migrate in search of work," Nanavaty said. "They had to borrow from moneylenders."

Dispute Over Funding

On Sept. 13, SEWA held a news conference, calling for an independent audit and protesting its innocence. SEWA said half the pending Jeevika funding arrived two days later; the Gujarat government says it was sent routinely on Sept. 1.

SEWA's small loan programs have helped women set up businesses; this woman is a vegetable vendor.

"SEWA, instead of rectifying the situation, started a smear campaign against the state government," the Gujarat statement said.

Barry said the government’s charges were "preposterous
. . . with zero validity." SEWA, she said, is "not an efficiency machine, but it does its projects well with total integrity" and is "a shining model of the deepest kind of commitment to low-income women and their families."

SEWA also alleged that the government officials have not kept commitments to further disbursals or meetings. "We had no communication with them," said Bhatt. "They began harassing our other work as well."

In October, SEWA staged a protest march of 3,000 women and canceled its remaining projects with the Gujarat government. Further audits and possible legal action are in the works on both sides.

Bhatt sees SEWA’s situation as common to any group of India’s disadvantaged poor who become independent voices.

"When rural women come together in their own economic organization, this means they become independent," she said. In Gujarat, "now the message is since you are not with us, you are against us . . . The tragedy is that Jeevika is finished. And poor women are the ones who are suffering."

Joanne Omang is a writer and former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.

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