Educating Leaders for Social Development: Lessons from SEWA

A look at the experience of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) in creating leaders from among the less-educated women who are involved in various occupations in the informal sector.


It seems obvious that domain-specific education is required by leaders in their fields. If the purpose is to create leaders for business development, then training or nurturing a set of well- educated people would be adequate. However, that is not the case in the area of social development. This is especially so for societies like ours. A large majority of people in the country are poor and vulnerable and in India, poverty and underdevelopment are correlated with social groups. A high percentage of people from the so-called lower castes’ are below the poverty line.

The majority of adults in India have not completed school education and the percentage of people without school education is higher among the underprivileged social groups. The fact that the children belonging to certain sections benefit from education need not motivate parents and children belonging to other sections to use schooling well. In other words, the prevailing social fragmentation works against the expected benefits through demonstration.

People belonging to the lower castes (they are also the under-class) are less likely to get jobs in the formal sector in India (especially in private or corporate firms which do not follow the reservation policy) due to their under achievements in education. Thus, they may not benefit from the growing economy of India, which is driven primarily by the service sector. The economic deprivation, especially the lack of access to paid employment in the formal/​organized sector, is high among women belonging to almost all social groups. Gender (and caste1) norms work against the education and employment of girls in the country.

For all these reasons, the development of India requires economic and social empowerment of the poor and other marginalized social groups, including women. These groups include small peasants, Dalits, tribals, urban poor, and there is a need for different kinds of actions for their development. They should be in a position to assert their rights, including their political rights, in the public domain. This requires their social mobilization and active participation in politics, which, in turn, requires capable leaders from within these vulnerable (social and economic) groups. Such leaders are needed not only so they can assert their rights but also to conceive and manage development projects to address their challenges in education, healthcare, livelihood and so on. When these projects are conceived and managed by outsiders, the internal aspirations of the people that these are meant to serve may not be reflected adequately. In other words, their empowerment cannot be brought about by leaders from the educated sections, who (due to the nature of the Indian society) are somewhat distant from the majority which requires such empowerment.

It may be argued that a person need not be educated to be a leader of social and political mobilization. He or she can acquire knowledge through experience. This may not be fully incorrect while considering the multiplicity of challenges that the underprivileged groups face; the different dimensions that this empowerment entails; and, the speed at which such empowerment should take place if India wants to get out of its severe underdevelopment within a reasonable time. Hence, it is necessary to visualize the nature of education for creating informed leaders from socially and economically marginalized groups from India.

However, it is difficult to conceive education for this purpose within the framework of a conventional university. A university is expected to train people who have completed school education. The ability to transact in English is also important in the reputed universities in India since it is the formal medium of instruction in higher education; teachers of universities are taught and trained in it, and; most of the learning materials are also in English. It is inconceivable for a university to admit students who have not completed schooling well2 into its degree programs. Well-known universities that get more applications than they have seats may refuse to admit students who do not meet the general expectations in terms of marks or learning. We have not come across many universities and institutes of higher education conducting training programs for those who have not completed schooling3. It is in this context that we need to look at alternative (and informal) forms of education provided by other organizations. This article looks at the experience of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) in creating leaders from among the less-educated women who are involved in various occupations in the informal sector.

The article is based on discussions with the key actors including the elected leaders of the organisation. There were an initial meeting and detailed discussion with Ela Bhatt, the Founder General Secretary of the organisation. It is this discussion that has encouraged us to look into the leadership education process of SEWA. Ramanath (co-author) interacted with SEWA’s school for women managers, Manager Ni School (SMS), observed some of their training programs and designed and delivered a program on soft and facilitation skills. Both authors spent two days at SEWA and had discussions with a set of organic leaders and professionals (and consultants) employed by the organisation. They attended the Executive Committee meeting of the organisation, which was followed by a detailed interaction with the elected members of the governing body. They could also observe the manner in which these leaders interact with the members of the organisation in some of their work settings.

SEWA – An Introduction

A number of writings on this organization are already available and details of the organization which was registered in 1972 are available here. So briefly, the organization grew out of the Textile Labour Association (TLA), a pioneering trade union of textile workers4 founded by Anasuya Sarabhai and Gandhiji, headquartered in Ahmedabad. Ela Bhatt, who played a pioneering role in the founding of SEWA, joined the TLA (founded in 1955). Being trained in Law (LLB), she was appointed as a junior lawyer in the Legal Wing of TLA and in that capacity, she pled cases for the textile workers. When the textile mills started closing down, Ela Bhatt saw the women engaged in informal’ economic activities while running their families. Realizing that such a workforce was not covered by any protective labour legislation and because poor women are poorer than poor men, she decided to unionise these informal’/self-employed women workers. This was the beginning of her exposure to the problems of the informal sector workers (who constituted 89% of the total workforce of India in 1972). They were invisible, voiceless and lacking in accepting the validity of their work despite their huge contribution towards the GDP and national income.

Members of SEWA include agricultural workers, self-employed artisans, waste-pickers, street vendors, and construction workers. Currently, it has enrolled more than 1.5 million workers as members. Each member pays an annual fee of Rs 10, which is an important source of finance for the running of the organization. SEWA takes up the issues of these workers through adversarial actions, either by enabling these workers to exercise their voice through collective strength or by seeking legal remedies or judicial interventions based on the guarantees given in the Constitution of India. The organization has struggled to ensure that the workers get the minimum wage prescribed by law. However, the organization also works with employers and government officials to improve the living conditions of these workers. There are collaboration’ with the employers and government officials for purposes such as rehabilitating street vendors or designing social security benefits for various categories of workers.

The leaders of the organization believe that there is a need to combine trade union activism and cooperative ownership of enterprises. Hence, in addition to the trade union actions, SEWA encourages workers to form membership-based producer- or service-providing organisations. These organisations are involved in the production and supply of various types of products or services. For example, SEWA has organized cloth-making cooperatives and organizes waste-pickers to make stationery that is sold to different types of consumers, including corporate firms.
SEWA is led by representatives who are elected by its members. It also employs professionals for management and technical or specialized services. The founding General Secretary of the organization, Ela Bhatt is well recognized for her work in and outside India. She has also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1977. The organization draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, but it is not affiliated to or connected with any political party.

As noted earlier, the objective of the article is not to look at the different activities of the SEWA. Instead, we focus on its education process to create leaders from these relatively less educated women workers who are employed in the informal sector. Needless to mention that almost all of the first-generation workers have only a few years of education and some of them may be illiterate. However, there is a need to create leaders from among them for two purposes. First, as a member-based organization with elected leadership, it requires leaders at different levels for collective bargaining or to work with different stakeholders to improve the life of its members. Secondly, it requires manager-cum-leaders for its cooperative enterprises. The performance of this managerial role requires qualities which are somewhat similar to those of managers in private enterprises (like management of labour; procurement of raw materials; marketing of products; accounting and so on) but it has to be carried out within a framework in which the ownership is vested with the members who could also be the workers of the same enterprise.

There are two, three ways by which leaders are created or educated within the organization. First is through the experience of working on the ground. For example, a waste-picker and who has become a member of the Executive Council shared how she became a leader with this example: In a conflict on price between a waste-picker and a trader (who buys these materials for recycling), where the trader tries to reduce the price, citing some reasons, the waste-picker may take the help of a co-worker to negotiate with the trader. Through argument or persuasion or bargaining, if the co-worker is able to help the waste-picker, other waste-pickers may start using the help of this co-worker. She would be noted for her relatively higher ability (to deal with, say, traders), sincerity and willingness to spend time and effort for the other workers. She may then emerge organically as a leader and be elected to a leadership role through elections.

Though there is an education’ in this organic process of building leadership, it is hidden. To some extent, this is the way in which political (and sometimes, social) leaders emerge from the less-educated sections of the society. However, all political parties need not intentionally provide an (ideological) education to its cadres and potential leaders. Moreover, political and social leaders need not perform the roles of managers as required in the case of SEWA leaders.

SEWA as an organization wants its leaders to have a certain ideological orientation and capabilities to perform their roles effectively. That is imparted through two kinds of education processes. One, the regular meetings and interactions, especially with its founder Ela Bhatt and the other, training by internal and external experts. Jyoti Ben, General Secretary of the organization, shares this about one such training in the early days by Ela Ben. Ela Ben would show the women some pictures, beginning with one on the distribution of the number of men and women in society which could be nearly equal; the next about the total work burden wherein the part of women is higher; the last one of the resources controlled and there the part by the women was minuscule. This is a sophisticated way of communicating the prevailing gender discrimination to these grassroots leaders who have minimal levels of formal education but enough experience of the discrimination that exists in their families and communities. This kind of education is important for the potential leaders of SEWA given its focus on women workers who face challenges within and outside their families (including the work environment) due to the severe gender discrimination that exists in India.

SEWA has also instituted more formal forms of training for its members and leaders. This is attempted through the SEWA Academy and SMS. The SEWA Academy focusses on training in organisational or mobilizational aspects. Every member goes through a two-day training program, and through this program members learn to identify themselves as workers and come to understand the structure of SEWA and their role within the organization’. Then, there is a basic and an advanced leadership training. The former is another two-day training to create potential leaders at the grassroots level. The objective is to make these women understand the organization, its values and Gandhian philosophy, as well as to build their capacity and capabilities as leaders’. Those who go through the basic program well and those who demonstrated their leadership qualities on the ground are selected for an advanced leadership training, which goes into the details of the different activities of the organization and the challenges encountered in those domains. Among those who have taken the advanced training, a subset is nurtured as trainers to take these training programs to the various levels of the organization. There are training programs focusing on specific aspects too, such as rural associations or cooperatives which facilitate the leadership of income-generating activities by groups of women; the creation of grassroots researchers involved in the collection and compilation of data and information on ground in a systematic manner5; and for communication through writing, photography and videos.

The SMS focusses on imparting managerial skills to those leaders who have to perform such tasks in small enterprises. There are two levels of training. At the initial level, it creates a set of master trainers and who then train hundreds of women leaders on the ground. Master trainers also have a similar background and experience in such enterprises. A close look at the comprehensive list of 30 plus programs offered at the school indicate that the trainings can be divided into three parts:

i. Managing and leading self (effective communication, business plan preparation, skills in negotiation, managing conflicts, time, developing network, financial management, use of ICT, presentation skills).

ii. Managing and leading others (understanding community-based organization management, leadership styles, building teams, motivating and empowering teams, driving change management).

iii. Understanding and managing domain (understanding credit procedures in a group, understanding stakeholders in rural marketing, micro-enterprises in the areas of competition, product promotion, pricing, maintaining books, benchmarking).

Training is provided as part of the Community Learning and Business Resource Centre (CLBRC) established by SEWA at the village level. SEWA members play an important role in this process by asserting the demand for specific training programs. Over time, SMS has started training members of other organisations from India and abroad.

Observations on the functioning of Executive Committee

We attended one Executive Committee Meeting of SEWA and interacted with its members. The Executive Committee included a woman who was a construction worker, another who made and sold incense sticks, a landless agricultural worker, the daughter-in-law of a beedi-roller, those who have lived and worked among waste pickers, and so on. The president of SEWA has been an agricultural worker and a small peasant. According to Ela Bhatt, amongst the 25 elected members of the Executive Committee, only 2 are white-bloused’ women – one legal expert and one Accountant. Approximately one-third of the total members are Dalits, one-third Muslims and the rest are from the lower class/​caste. Though there are exceptions, almost all are poor. All of them continue to be in their regular occupations as the membership in the Executive Council does not give them a remuneration.

Most of these members, as expected, have completed only a few years of schooling. It is their life situation that has made them work in the informal sector, and the sensitivity and the willingness to do something about the exploitation that they have seen around has encouraged them to be part of SEWA. Almost all of them have faced severe difficulties at home, with husbands and communities attempting to restrict their mobility and ridicule their activism. Physical assaults at home were not unusual. Some of them come from communities or religious backgrounds which do not sanction the unaccompanied movement of women outside their homes. One of them told us how she would wait for her husband to go to work and then set out to meet her fellow workers. They seemed to have overcome all these barriers.

These women have acquired the qualities of social leaders. One of them described what made her a leader among the waste-pickers – truthfulness, simplicity, and the capability to address some of their problems. Another member saw her key strengths as the ability to listen, understand problems and her strong belief in collective strength. The President – an agricultural worker cum small peasant – was very remarkable. The way she guided the discussions in the meeting reflected maturity, confidence and a thoughtful mind. Ramanth notes that she has internalized the ways of a board meeting of a corporate. She allowed each member to respond without interrupting and she spoke at the end. She was assertive but never tried to hog the limelight. (She was also keen to know and understand the reason for our interaction with the members.)

There was a certain cohesiveness and accountability in the deliberations of the Executive Committee. The delay in certain payments by one of the members was taken up seriously by the others and they strongly encouraged her to follow the deadline agreed upon. There was also a stock-taking of the achievements regarding the planned increase in membership in different departments and geographical localities. Each member representing a constituency is expected to be accountable for the achievements of the organization in the constituency on 11 indicators (of the welfare of workers):

  1. Employment
  2. Income
  3. Nutritious food
  4. Healthcare
  5. Childcare
  6. Housing
  7. Assets
  8. Organized strength
  9. Leadership
  10. Self-reliance
  11. Education

We also observed high levels of reflectiveness in the members when they started narrating their personal stories. Though there are a few highly educated professionals in SEWA who help in the running of the organization, the less educated elected members have acquired a non-submissive working relationship with them. This could be the reflection of empowerment through the experience in, and the internal education process of, SEWA. The Executive Committee members are conscious of the transformative process that they have gone through. For example, a member from Kutch, which is quite distant from Ahmedabad where the headquarters of SEWA are located, talked about how the trainings provided by SEWA transformed her into believing that she can do anything.

As noted earlier, the leaders of SEWA carry out the roles of mobilization of workers and manage the cooperative enterprises. We saw a stationery production unit of SEWA with about 30 workers. The manager of this unit was a waste-picker and she refused to go to school due to the participation in the work. Over time, she started becoming part of SEWA and leading the waste-pickers, and later took up the managerial role in this unit. She was emphatic about her skills. She knew how to carry out every task in the production unit well, but spent time on procuring materials, dealing with clients and ensuring on-time delivery of products. This is also an outcome of a learning environment which enables these workers to acquire newer skills as part of their work and of the organic education process.

We explored the possibility of conflicts between leaders and the ways of conflict resolution followed by SEWA. According to its professional members, the organization encourages direct one-to-one conversations to resolve conflicts whenever these arise. It is not unusual to see conflicts between members/​leaders who have emerged from the grassroots and professionals who are well educated (for example, the former may not be able to understand the need to pay higher’ salaries to professionals hired by the organization). Through the internal education process to create leaders, SEWA ensures a smooth leadership transition process, which is a major challenge faced by several other organisations.

SEWA, through its trade union activism, is interested in going beyond the financial gains of its members. It is also concerned about the gender discrimination that prevails in society and carries out training programs to empower girls (for example, to recognize and resist sexual harassments). It is also interested in the education of the children of its members. It provides trainings to impart skills to the daughters of the members. It strives to create a humane society. During the Gujarat riots, SEWA members reached out to the riot-affected people irrespective of their religion. We could also see community centres where people belonging to different religions interact and carry out activities which are of common interest.

Needless to mention that the internal education process of SEWA has to match the requirements and capabilities of its members: rich experience on the ground but limited achievements in terms of formal education. However, it is clear that through an appropriate education process, SEWA could create hundreds of leaders from its members whose number goes beyond a million. While considering the tasks that these leaders have to perform, it is clear that they require a high level of preparedness and hence, the education’ that they get for this purpose can be called a form of higher education’. What SEWA attempts is very interesting – providing a higher level of education to a set of people who are not considered qualified enough to receive such an education.

The experience of SEWA demonstrates that it is possible to provide appropriate leadership education to people with limited levels of formal education. The under-achievements in school or undergraduate education need not be a challenge in the creation of leaders from the under-class and other deprived sections.

What are the important aspects of this type of education for the less-educated section of Indian society? There are important lessons that can be learned from the experience of SEWA. First, there is a need to select persons with a certain orientation, willingness and openness to learn. A lack of openness can be seen in people irrespective of the caste, gender, class or educational levels. Secondly, such an education should be aimed at people who are willing to devote their time to address the issues of underdevelopment in society. There could be a small section from the middle class who may be willing to do so out of their benevolence. However, there are many others who would be willing to do so since it is in their own interest. Activists among workers in the informal sector or mobilisers from the deprived communities are examples of this kind. Thirdly, the providers of higher education need to have a high level of preparedness to meet this social need.

It would be ideal if the experience of organisations such as SEWA is combined with the resources and capabilities of universities or institutes of higher education to scale up the education process for the creation of leaders from the under-class who can address the pressing social issues that are faced by our country.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University

Ramanath Lakshminarayan is visiting faculty at the Azim Premji University. He trains senior government educational functionaries in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and the North-Eastern states in developing leadership and personal effectiveness competencies. He has been a part of key government initiatives, such as Mid-Day Meals and Technology Assisted Learning Project. He leads the Azim Premji University team in developing and delivering a curriculum for senior officials of the Bangalore Municipal Corporation and is part of the team that works with NGOs in educational and development sectors in the area of personal effectiveness. Before joining the university, he worked with Wipro for 25 years.

  1. There are indications that the aversion to intra-caste marriages makes even the upper-caste parents restrict the mobility of their daughters, preventing them from taking up jobs where these are available, even when these girls have received the benefit of education.↩︎

  2. When we visit NGOs operating in tribal areas, we see many youngsters from tribal communities working there as mobilisers or animators. However, they are not qualified enough (in terms of the knowledge of English or educational scores in schools or undergraduate programs) to get into higher education even in the Azim Premji University which is interested in addressing the deprivation faced by under-privileged groups in India.↩︎

  3. Some of the training programs in Institute of Rural Management in Anand (IRMA) could be of this kind, but it is a different kind of institute for higher education.↩︎

  4. However, the relationship between TLA and SEWA were severed in the 1980s. This is also reflective of the possible conflict between the interest of workers in the formal sector represented by the TLA, and workers of the unorganized or informal sectors. In general, workers of the informal sector are likely to be very poor, and hence, there could be a class difference too between these two sets of workers.↩︎

  5. The help of such researchers is sought by international organizations, such as the International Labour Organization.↩︎