Unit 3 Destination Discussion - India

Advance reading: Members of the group should read the Introduction and Chapter One of We Are Poor But So Many: The Story of Self-Employed Women in India, by Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).

Listen to one or more of your members read the following from p. 47 of In Spite of the Gods (from the reading assigned for Unit I):

“Less than 10 percent of India’s dauntingly large labor force is employed in the formal economy, which Indians call the “organized sector”. That means that fewer than 40 million people, out of a total of 470 million workers, have job security in any meaningful sense…The rest, in more senses than one, are in the “unorganized economy.” They are milking the family cow; making up the seasonal armies of mobile casual farmworkers; running small shops or street-side stalls; making incense sticks and bidis; driving rickshaws, working as maids, gardeners, and night watchmen; and bashing metal as mechanics in small town repair shops.”

  • When you think about the 90% of the Indian workforce employed in the informal sector, what implications come to mind — whether positive or negative — for the lives of these people?

Listen together as a member of your group reads this quote from the introduction to We Are Poor But So Many  (pp. 9-10):

“I wanted to organize the women workers in a union so that they could enjoy the same benefits that organized labor received. In the process, I came to a simple realization — a union is about coming together. Women did not need to come together against anyone, they just needed to come together for themselves. By forming a union — a bond — they affirmed their status as workers, and as a result of coming together, they had a voice…To lump such a vast workforce into categories viewed as ‘marginal, informal, unorganized, peripheral, atypical or the black market seemed absurd to me. Marginal and peripheral to what? I asked. The mainstream was shrinking and the margins were getting wider!”

  • As you read the introduction and first chapter about the founding and early days of SEWA, what surprised you? What constitutes new insight or learning for you about the role of women in the informal sector of India?
  • From what you have learned so far, what appear to be the biggest challenges to SEWA in its earliest days?
  • What other questions have arisen for you in your reading and study so far?


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