Brief report of the meeting of Madi Sharma, EU Chair, representing the EESC delegation to SEWA, Ahmedabad, India = November 2006

Jan 21 2007
Following the meeting of the Round Table in Vienna in April 2006, where Mme Koller, Mme Gauci and Mme Sharma were invited to participate in an exploratory visit to SEWA , it was agreed by EESC that Mme Sharma would visit the organisation and report back prior to the next EU-India Round Table meeting.
The italics and underlined comments are areas I feel where we may be able to support.

20th November  - Tour of Delhi looking at the City and how it’s infrastructure and new Metro system were nearing completion. Steps were being made to strengthen the road and transport networks in readiness for the 2010 Asian Games. This also included removing cows from the streets and many of the shanty towns, and their workers to the suburbs of the City. …. But the roads still appeared chaotic and very busy, with the new Metro system so successful, that it too was full. Access to personal finance and increase in wages has resulted in the middle class now owing 2 cars per family, shopping in the new designer malls and the younger generations buying apartments on the edge of the City and becoming independent. Obesity looks like it may become a problem amongst the affluent generation.


I followed this with a meeting with the global operations director of TATA India’s largest company, and a visit to an SME producing jeans for export ….to Thailand and Malaysia, but hoping to get into Europe. His major concern was  with the threat of China and its growth as a competitor.


20th November   - I flew to Ahmedabad early in the morning. The first noticeable change is the range of low cost airlines now in India, and the amount of foreigners on internal travel within India…most not tourists but obviously on business. (The international airport is separate from the national airport).


Following a prayer meeting with the women of SEWA ( prayer being an essential part of any Indian´s day,) I meet the “sisters” of SEWA and was talked through a brief of the organisation. I thought I was visiting an NGO of women. Actually it is a `"Trade Union", but not in the same sense as Europe, this was a trade union of 800,000 female sole traders, which has a goal of 2.5 million members!!  - It is a collective that had come together to support each other and protect themselves. It was such an amazing organisation, this is how they broke it down for me to understand it …each was a visit to meet fantastic people implementing simple solutions to affect thousands of lives for the better. I say 'simple' solutions but I learnt that getting some of the initiatives off the ground had been a real struggle but everyone for working together for an end goal.

The brief overview :

SEWA is 35 years old, started in 1972, inspired by Ghandi.

It is a Trade Union supporting 800,000 self employed women, spanning 8 States of India.

The women it supports are poor, but very economically active, yet their contribution goes unrecognised by society. They are the craft workers, street cleaners, vegetable sellers, contract workers and self employed.

93% of the Indian economy is the informal sector, 94% of that sector is women without a voice or visibility.

SEWA has organised the women into a collective voice and this has increased their bargining power.

SEWA looks at 5 major issues for its members:

  • capacity building - from the original 20 has grown to 800,000 members …resulting in a movement!! It actively encourages leadership from all classes with 80% of its leaders being from the working class. Training and support are given throughout.
  • Increasing skills sets across banking, craft production, organising women, insurance and health.
  • Competing with globalisation ( there is a decline in employment, particularly women’s work), craft production allows for exports, with skilling for diversification to be employable.
  • Marketing of product range which includes crafts, insurances and Ayuvedic products. The financial services offered by SEWA include savings, pensions, loans and insurance. Today it has working capital of $20million
  • Social security is essential in providing a “Better Tomorrow”, so health, education, childcare and housing are concerns on which SEWA focuses.


The SEWA Bank :

The objective of the bank is to help women build assets, which in turn creates self confidence. It gives them a safe place from which they can take credit and save their money as well as learn financial management skills.


Women within each village, dedicated agents who work with SEWA for no financial reward, collect money from other women at the doorstep, generally 10Rs/ - ( 0.2€) a week. Many of these women are economically active but illiterate and photos and thumbprints are taken as identification for withdrawals. This money is used to pay insurance premiums against sickness, natural disasters ( earthquakes, flooding)  and death. Additional amounts are encouraged for savings so that a credit history can be built up to support working capital, and home improvement loans …..this may include adding running water, or electricity to the home.


Many women are home workers and therefore the house is crucial to productivity and income.


Formal banks will not entertain servicing clients of very low incomes or low castes, particularly when the amounts are so small. But added together these amounts from the volume of people add up to significant figures. SEWA is now working with several of the larger banks who have identified that SEWA have a service they should be part of.


The SEWA Insurance :

SEWA’s members are seen as a bad risk by banks and collecting revenues and justifying claims is an almost impossibility. But SEWA has upwards of 50,000 members paying insurance premiums, for themselves and their families. Due to Indian laws throughout the history of SEWA this has meant that SEWA has been unable to act alone and has had to link with specialised insurance providers, where the SEWA staff collect the premiums and justify the claim and the bank manages the whole policy. This resulted in 6000 claims with a payout of 1 crore( 1000,000 Rs/-)


More recently, health coverage has been split from household insurance. With over 200,000 members administration is causing issues for SEWA. During the 2001 floods SEWA struggled to service all its clients. SEWA is aware that unless it increases its number of premium paying members and decreases its claim its model will not be self sustaining. It is currently in the process of linking with approved hospitals and doctors to pay them direct to avoid false claims.  Their aim is to become 100% cashless payouts by 2007.


Just outside of Ahmedabad we visited an EU-funded hospital the following day. In complete contrast to Safrajung in Delhi ( see later)  the hospital was deserted. Most frustrating was that this was a relatively new building, less than 2 years old, and the paint was already peeling from the walls. We were told that Phillips equipment was still sitting in its boxes unopened.


There were many questions I could have asked, but I know that if SEWA were given occupancy of the building they would provide an excellent service to the surrounding population and the hospital would be full !!      


The SEWA Media Centre :

For me this was fantastic and completely unexpected, SEWA have their own video production company. They make a huge range of DVD’s, CD’s and audio visual aides, all produced in house to promote themselves and their members, not lobbiest materials, but documentaries they supply to the BBC  and international media companies, plus for their own presentation purposes. Some of the materials from the SEWA Media Centre have resulted in identity cards for workers, laws for home based workers and representation of organised workers.


Martha Stewart ( USA) funded the first pieces of equipment and I think that with some of the Media and Culture EU funding available we could link EU students with SEWA on exchange programmes. The facility was in a very small room but amazing and the women were so proud of their work which was of outstanding quality.


The SEWA Training Centre :

Leadership development, Training, including train the trainer, Communication skills including a regular radio slot for which they are now trying to get their own radio licence, and Research were all programmes ran from the training centre. Literacy and IT programmes, with certification and an exam  were also provided to support members.


The research was some of the most up to date in India regarding the informal sectors as they were one of the only organisations to use a variety of methodologies including door to door and focus groups, with case studies. They could have a direct impact with policy makers as they are a truly grass roots organisation, and a voice of civil society.

One example was that of midwives working with SEWA , they were given identity cards by Government to show the recognition of their skill. With SEWA they received training and knowledge and Government now paid them for delivering the babies in the villages. ( Although this was still an issue )


The SEWA Board Meeting.

As a guest of SEWA I was invited to join part of the Board meeting. We sat in a circle on mats on the floor and did a “round-robin” where I learned why each of the women were involved with SEWA. Such amazing women, no airs and graces, no ego’s, just people who knew they wanted to make a difference. 3 snippets from the women, (forgive me as I cannot remember the names)

  • the lady was leading on health initiatives, and was visiting villages and their peoples in their homes. Through regular visits, and supportive practices, her and her team had eliminated TB within an area by 98 percent, obviously they were now spreading this practice wider and working on preventions and cures for Malaria and HIV/ Aids. The Gates Foundation are visiting the project later this year.
  • The second lady I had the fortune to spend the next day with also. An unmarried woman due to her severe disability of what I assumed to be curvature of the spine. Because she could never marry she had joined SEWA to collect the monies and quickly became a local “leader”. Many refused to have her in their house due to her illness and caste, but her personality was so warm and her determination so great that she succeeded in her mission and is a role model for others.
  • The third lady told me of the Ayuvedic products SEWA is developing, hopefully for export sales once accreditation is approved. On the internal market, and still only on a small scale they made sales of 73 lakh ( 1 lakh = 100,000 Rs/- ) with a profit of 4 lakh Rs/- .


All the women as well as being Board members work within the villages, collecting the insurance premiums and savings, dispensing medicines and advice and selling products. All the “sisters” who work in SEWA are truly amazing people, with one common goal of helping the other women around them, whether SEWA members or not.


I would like to see if in the future it would be possible to arrange exchange visits for some of SEWA’s members.


SEWA Trade :       

SEWA is based in the Gujarat, West India, an area known for its flooding and earthquakes. 3/4 of the area is rural. The women have their own design of craft work sewing known as Kutch and Banascraft. It is very intricate and delicate work. Traditionally they have been paid low prices or traded their work for food and goods. The young people do not want to continue this low paid existence and have moved to the cities for work. SEWA is trying to stop this migration by promoting the crafts and skills of the women, promoting their products at exhibitions nationally and internationally, linking to fair trade organisations, retailing and on-line shops. Due to globalisation this is a difficult objective to achieve but in order to succeed the women are determined that they want trade not aid to support their businesses and livelihoods.


They are now seeking expertise from retailers ( not consultants) on how to enter the EU markets , how to manage production and distribution. Additionally they are looking for customer feedback on their products to get the quality and style to EU tastes.


I think we can help here by organising exhibitions in various places across Europe, starting with EESC and the EU Parliament and Commission buildings.


 22 November 2006  -Home Visits to the Villages :

We started by joining the village midwife for a cup of tea… Madi in her 4” heels walking through mud and jumping across a small stream! The midwife had had a home improvement loan and now had a very solid, one room house with a lean to next to it. We sat on the rope beds outside and she told me her life story and how she became the village midwife ….basically it was hereditary, passed on from her mother in law, as she was now doing with her daughter in law. An amazing woman who could not read or write but was now keeping immaculate records of all the births, and unfortunately infant deaths. She was so proud of her identity card that proved she was a “somebody”. SEWA explained that they train her on the key issues relating to midwifery, and on keeping the records. The midwife also sold the SEWA insurances, collected the savings, and dispensed the medicines. In fact almost every woman we met was carrying a little plastic box with medicines in. The tea arrived which was served on a saucer and very sweet.


As guests of the village a second jug of tea sent by the villagers was then given to us, followed by a visit from the state midwife. She was a young, fully trained midwife, in uniform who did not live in the village but who had heard of our visit and quickly came to give her story. She was obviously educated and earned substantially more than the village midwife. I learnt following a discussion in Gujarati that the village midwife was not being paid by the State for the babies she had delivered ( 25Rs/- per baby  (0. 50€)), and that this was becoming a big problem. The State midwives could not possibly get to all the villages for deliveries and whilst the State was trying to encourage hospital births to reduce infant mortality, it was also not always feasible for the women to get to hospital.


We then had a tour of the village, where flood damage was still evident from many years previous. The health visitor talked me through her work. We passed a woman in the village who was trying to claim when it was not possible, but following a conversation with the SEWA sisters took out another policy for her family!! The rice was coming in off the fields, pure Basmati Rice. The farmer was paid 8Rs/- for 20 kg , something we are charged 2000 Rs/- for in the UK!! On the way out the village we visited the school , it had recently had some Government grant funding and had a fantastic atmosphere with the students singing and laughing with trainee teachers.


Lunch was with another health visitor in her home in a different village. Her sons worked in the rafters of the house with sewing machines whilst we talked about her work. The houses were all basic, made of the cow pat mud blocks, but all the cooking pots were shiny and the people hospitable and friendly…and all the women so proud of the work they were doing and truly dedicated.


Our final visit was to a woman who’s son had been murdered. She was paying insurance premiums so as Mirai and the SEWA leaders of the Village were in the area they went to pay their respects. In the corner was the young widow. It was a sad end to the day, but this is where the value of even small premium payouts will help a family that may otherwise be facing not only the loss of a loved one but also financial pressure.


Exhausted, we left, calling in at the deserted hospital. Mirai and I had a very quick debrief of the last 2 days events and I hope to move forward on some of the suggestions.


The first being to get other members of EESC to have the experience I had. SEWA truly is civil society all in one organisations.  


NIFT - National Institute of Fashion and Technology is a best practice example in India of a fabulous design college. SEWA are working with NIFT, and our Mr N N Vohra ( EU-India co-chair) told me he sat on the Board until recently.


It was an amazing institution light and breezy and the students active in a variety of skills. Many will go on to be leading fashion designers globally as India is becoming recognised for its designs on an international stage.


I am sponsoring one of the students to do work experience in London in the summer 07 with a designer. If there are any people with connections to fashion houses this sort of cooperation would assist the students greatly.


23rd November -  Visit to Safrajung Hospital, Delhi – state hospital. The visit was arranged at short notice so a quick tour of the hospital site was made. I cannot describe the numbers of people waiting in corridors, the lack of beds, seating facilities or consultation rooms. However, whilst many people were obviously suffering, they were prepared to wait to see the doctor. Safrajung has recently become a teaching hospital and the doctors were saying they were short staffed and waiting for the new intake of medical students. The nurses and doctors showed real dedication, but with so many people to see and so few resources they were clearly under pressure.


Visit to a local doctor’s clinic serving the community of Ashok Vihar – private service. Patients sit and wait to see a doctor but there is little privacy, often with 1-2 patients seeing the same doctor at one time, with 1 standing in the doorway…but no-one seems to mind.  Prescriptions are scribbled on pieces of paper as are the doctor’s notes, which the patients then keep for reference. In this clinic the charges varied according to the financial means of the client, around 50Rs/- ( 1€) was the average for a 5 minute consultation. This clinic served both the poor and the wealthy within the community. The clinic was open 7 days a week with a morning and evening surgery…..however the patients visited the doctor at his home at all times of the day and night. He was explaining during the Dango fever he had not slept for over a week, going to the surgery during opening hours and the patient visits all the night.


Visit to a private hospital – Apollo, Delhi.

Medical tourism is rapidly on the increase in India, and the facilities within the Apollo hospital and other such hospitals show why. All the latest technology is available at a fraction of the price in Europe. Heart bypass surgery and laser eye treatment were common place these days for the Indian middle classes and tourists. The facilities lack the finesse of European standards however, if you were willing to pay, anything would be possible. Whilst there, with less than 2 hours notice, I had a cardiogram and an ECG check up both for 30€, for which I received personal one to one treatment and a complete report, in English, detailing the functioning of my heart and potential risks of which I should be aware. Like the state hospitals, I keep the medical records with me.


24th November

I had a late night call to ask if I wanted to go on location to a film shoot of a new Bollywood film in Delhi, but it was a 4am start and the days at SEWA had wrecked me, so I opted for lunch with Mr NN Vohra and a Minister from the Foreign Office to debrief on the trip. The Indian film industry is the biggest in the world and brings wealth and tourism to Europe during film shoots and following the film releases. Many areas of Europe now actively target Bollywood to attract the industry.


Mr Vohra pointed out there were other NGO and co-operative organisations similar to SEWA including Amul and Mother Dairy the milk co-operatives which were a very big success. It was decided that visits to either SEWA or Amul should be arranged so that member of the EU-India Round table could get a real experience. It was hoped that the next meeting in India would be in March and be focussed on visits to NGO’s so that more learning and understanding could take place,


There was also a key discussion from the Foreign Office on the strengths of an EU-India relationship and that we should also have a discussion on trade and investment, as India’s growth was bringing more investment opportunities for India to invest into Europe.



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