The Banyan Tree A film by Delphine de Blic and VIDEO SEWA Written by Ananda Lakshmy and Delphine de Blic Produced by Bridget Pickering / Fireworx Media
Introduction 25% of the world’s poor live in India. 70% of the world’s poor are Women. In India, 96% of all female workers are in the informal sector of the economy. These women struggle desperately in poverty.
VIDEO SEWA is the result of a video workshop held in 1984 by Martha Stuart, a pioneer in making video accessible. It was attended by a group of twenty women ; poor, illiterate and from the working class. VIDEO SEWA broke the myth that sophisticated technology can only be used Through the creation of a Trade Union and Coopera- by people educated in the formal system. Using video as tives for women workers in the informal economy, a tool for development communication, VIDEO SEWA has and by being the first person and organization to create over the years, produced films on a vast range of issues a Micro- Finance Bank, Ela Bhatt has had a leading role related to gender, health, societal attitudes, literacy, inin redefining the position of women in India which goes come generation, employment, wage negotiations, trade facilitation, trade union movement, legal intervention, adbeyond the usual cliches of poverty. vocacy for policy change, eco-generation, dairy and nurToday, SEWA has a membership of 1 300 000 women sery farming, housing, banking and saving services etc. working in the informal economy. These women have a variety of livelihoods: agricultural labour, dairy and catt- Video Sewa has thus over the past twenty years docule care, weaving, selling vegetables and fruits, recycling mented through the lens and gaze of poor women the liwaste, cleaning the streets, making agarbattis, embroide- ves and experiences of themselves. ry and quilting, collecting gum from trees, making salt, health care, child care, insurance etc. By becoming members of SEWA, the women have realized the value of what they do, their labour and the value of collective bargaining. For almost 40 years, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an organisation founded in 1972 by Ela Bhatt in Ahmedabad, adresses the real and uncomfortable question of poverty in India.
Her answers to poverty? Full employment and self-reliance. Capacity building. Capital formation. Social security. In others words : Trade Unions, Cooperatives and Micro finance for women at the grassroots. Using the footage shot over the last 30 years by the women of SEWA, «The Banyan Tree » proposes to answer these two questions :
In a small village in Gujarat, two Indian women talk in the shade of a giant Banyan tree. As the sun goes down and the conversation under the tree flows effortlessly, old video images appear, projected on a sheet stretched How can and do women get out of poverty? How do those born in poverty look at themselves and their condition? in the branches. These two women are friends : Ananda Lakshmy and Ela Bhatt. Growing up in the early years of the Independence of India through the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi, the two women have walked on parallel paths, and have shared an active concern to alleviate poverty. The story of Ela Bhatt as activist and organiser is drawn out in this dialogue by the incisive and perceptive questions of her academic friend. Between the lights and shadows of this scene, unfolds the extraordinary story of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the organisation founded in 1972 by Ela Bhatt. This film depicts and chronicles the struggle of Ela Bhatt to create SEWA.
Anxious not to influence/control the point of view of those we want to talk about, freed from the paternalistic attitude adopted by outside observers, yet attentive to details that a too hurried observer would use to find definitive and easy answers, «The Banyan Tree» invites the viewer to a frontal and uncompromising encounter with Indian women who struggle for a way out of poverty. SEWA is like The Banyan Tree, whose aerial roots hang to the ground, take fresh root in the soil and give rise to new branches in a continuing organic expansion.
Who is Ela Bhatt ? Born in 1933 to a middle class, well-educated family, Ela Bhatt has spent her life fighting for the rights and welfare of India’s ‘invisible’ workers. Her grandparents worked with Mahatma Gandhi in the non-violent struggle for Indian Independence from the British. Deeply influenced by Gandhi, Ela has followed his ideals all her life. She has pioneered the idea that people themselves, no matter how poor or uneducated, are able to solve their own problems if they organize together to do so. To help provide this, she founded SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. Called «one of the best - - if not the best - - grassroots programmes for women on the planet», SEWA proved so successful that it has become a model for micro-finance programs in other parts of the world.
Being poor, a woman and self-employed by Ela Bhatt
« To be poor is to be vulnerable. The condition of being poor, of being self-employed, and of being a woman are all distinct yet interrelated states of vulnerability. Poverty makes one become a chronic victim of forces beyond one’s control. With every misfortune, problems compound, leaving one increasingly powerless and setting in motion, a spiral descent into starker poverty. Only work, a steady source of income, and asset ownership can break one’s fall. » Among the poor, every woman works. For the working poor, most work is seasonal, irregular and intermittent. For that reason, the poor are constantly in need of the services of local money lenders. Every time they go to the money lender, they lose : land, house, cattle, jewelry, work tools, ration cards. The only thing the woman owns is her own body, but because of hard labour, she is often weak and fatigued from overwork, inadequate food and poor nutrition and poor health. Each situation seems to contribute and exascerbate the ability of a woman to survive. In the villages, most women fetch water from a communal well or pond, but because of social taboos, members of castes (dalits) are excluded. They have to walk long distances to fetch water. Getting enough water for the household and the cattle is a strenuous and a time-consuming activity in rural India. How does a women rise up from this situation, how can she change her circumstance and start to take control of seemingly uncontrollable elements around her. Photos from SEWA’s videos
Treatment / Intention One of the first films I saw in my life was « Mother India ». I will never forget it. For years, I fell asleep with images of a woman screaming and fighting. My awakening to the cinema was made with this film. It was not by coincidence given the history of my Belgian mother who left everything behind at age 28 to live in India and establish a humanitarian association. Every day of her life, my mother stands in front of a mirror and marks her forehead with a red dot, the sign of the Indian woman she has become. One of my first films, La Trace Vermillon, partly shot in India, had this theme : how to be a mother and an activist ? Her deep commitment has profoundly influenced my life and India has become my second home. Since my mother has been an activist in India for almost 50 years, the issues of poverty in India are intrinsic knowledge to me. My mother has met women like Indira Gandhi to Mother Theresa. I was bathed from my childhood in Indian feminism and the fight against poverty, the cast system and agrarian reform. One of my closest friends is Ananda Lakshmi. Born in a high cast family, Ananda dedicated her whole life to social activism, child development and education in India. Today she is more than 80 years old and continues to work.
It is therefore not extraordinary that Ela Bhatt, this humble woman, this huge personality, opened her door to me. From the first moment of our encounter, Ela trusted me as a friend and despite having rejected the camera in the past, she has accepted the idea of a portrait. My mother, Anand and Ela are my « Mothers India ». Each in their own way has fought for a solution to poverty but their primary observation is the same : Among the poor, each woman works. As Ela Bhatt says «I realized that although eighty percent of women in India are economically active, they are outside the purview of legislation. Personally, I don’t think there can be any greater injustice to anybody in the world than to have one’s work contribution negated… Who is the backbone of any economy in the country? It’s the poor! Yet they are not recorded as workers in the national census. They are described as nonworkers!» Ela’s speech is not abstract. She always shares a specific example: « Home-based workers are the least visible of all. In the textile industry, contractors give the women cloth pieces which are already cut out to form parts of a garment. The women sew the garments together at home and return them to the contractor. The women have to work fast and for long hours, because they are paid by the piece. Often, young daughters help with the sewing after school. The contractor would pay whatever he wished, often an extremely low rate of 4-5 rupees per day. The women, because they were unorganized, had no way to demand higher rates. » Ela recognized that these women could be helped only through organizing together as a large group. To meet that need, she founded SEWA in 1972 to organize for better pay and working conditions. SEWA helped workers at the lowest level of society become empowered to take control of their lives.
It was a long and challenging struggle to get the self employed recognized as “labour”. Traditionally, women had been left out of all the benefits of the trade union movement, since they were not working in a factory. Hearing Ela talk about this process of getting non-formal women’s work into the mainstream is to come upon a contemporary saga of persistence and courage. When the government finally gave formal recognition to self-employed women’s work, Ela Bhatt had a quiet celebration! One of the most visible signs of the success of her work is women’s banking. Women needed to save even from their meagre earnings, but no bank would admit them, as they were without assets and were largely illeterate. In the mid-seventies, Mahila SEWA Bank was set up. Ela created procedures for women to have an account. When they talk about all the glitches in the early days and some of the inadvertent comical effects, they have a good laugh at their own expense. The growth in the number of women using the bank and the sum of their total assets has been exponential. It is also a matter of pride to SEWA members that this bank has the best return rate (of loans) in the entire country. Now the SEWA bank is located next to the Banque Nationale du Paris in the centre of the commercial district in Ahmedabad. Ela Bhatt was the first person to pioneer the micro finance concept, before the Nobellized Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. To make this portrait is essential to acknowledge this revolutionary vision.
Photos from SEWA’s videos
The Banyan Tree Âť
The film is structured around the discussion of Ananda and Ela under the giant Banyan tree. The archive footage of SEWA will be projected behind them on a sheet stretched between tree branches. This setting is both a historical biography and a diary. is purely cinematographic and poetic. The faces and gestures are lit in Historical biography, because it tells the story of a historic and exem- chiaroscuro. We are recording not only what they say but what happens plary Indian great personality, Ela Bhatt, and the creation of SEWA, a on their faces. How they move, they speak, their silence, the difficulty of pioneer association in the fight against poverty. Biography also excep- saying certain words, certain phrases. All this make a portrait. tional in that Ela Bhatt very rarely accepts the presence of the camera. Therefore on one side there is a strong cinematographic staging, a sceDiary, because most of the images from this film will be composed of ar- nography. On the other, poetic and political with archival footage. The chival footage from among the hundreds of hours shot by the women of intensity of the gaze of the women on themselves revises our vision SEWA themselves for 30 years. This document of images represents an of poverty. What and how are these women watching? The specificity intimate video diary of the Self-Employed Women, their story by them- of the video image sometimes of poor quality (the frame, the pixel, the selves. Using their own filmed images in a film that talks about poverty electronic snow), the work of the frame and camera movements make is a powerful gesture. When I first went to Ahmedabad for a location these documents beautiful and moving. The editing of these archives, scouting and met Ela Bhatt, I felt uncomfortable with my camera in hand. very rhythmic, will evoke a musical score. There are images and moments that I couldnâ€™t shoot. Not censorship, but about more about decency. ÂŤ
How do those born in poverty look at themselves? For me this question and the use of the images of these women, is the spine of the movie I want to make.