Many women have said to me that earlier we were afraid, but now we are not," says Renana Jhabvala. "I think that is the most worthwhile thing about what we do." Jhabvala, 64, a Padma Shri awardee, is President of SEWA Bharat, the federation of SEWA units across India. SEWA is, of course, the globally renowned trade union of women in the informal sector, the Self-employed Women's Association, set up by the redoubtable Ela Ramesh Bhatt in Ahmedabad in 1972, whose foremost lieutenant, with her since 1978, has been Jhabvala.
SEWA is now active across 14 Indian states with around 1.9 million members, several sister outfits, its own cooperative bank, Shri Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank, and skill development units. Delhi-born Jhabvala joined it soon after her visit to its Ahmedabad office while pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University. She was the prime mover behind the spread of SEWA. Among her recent achievements is the setting up of a housing finance company, which provides housing loans to women in the informal sector, the Sewa Grih Rin Ltd.