Re-building our lives

SEWA Relief Team

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COMMUNAL violence has held Gujarat in its grip for more than two months now. The magnitude, intensity, geographic spread and tremendous suffering it has wrought on the state’s citizens, mainly working people, is difficult to comprehend, let alone quantify.

After the 1969 communal riots, our state has unfortunately been witness to several instances of violence: in 1985, 1986, 1992-1993 and 1999. Localized communal incidents, in addition to these longer outbreaks, have occurred sporadically over the last 20 years in North Gujarat, the tribal belt, and Bharuch district in South Gujarat. Every time it is the workers of the informal economy – those who eke out a living on daily wages or from self-employment – who are the hardest hit. Unlike the formal economy with its chambers of commerce who are able to calculate economic costs of communal violence, the exact costs and burden of riots and violence are difficult to determine. This is because the number of informal workers and the multiple economic activities that they are engaged in are, at the best of times, difficult to quantify.

The Self-Employed Women’s Association, SEWA, is a labour union of informal women workers. Registered in Ahmedabad in 1972, the city has always been its base, though in the past five years two-thirds of its membership consists of rural workers. 103,520 women have been organized in Ahmedabad city. They are from 40 wards, all working class neighbourhoods of the city.

Most of our members in Ahmedabad are manual labourers – construction workers, cleaners, headloaders, rag pickers, workers in small factories and foundries, street vendors of fruit, vegetables and old clothes and piece-rated home-based workers – bidi and agarbatti rollers, garment workers, kite makers, toy and bangle makers and others.

They work for eight to ten hours a day earning between Rs 20 to 70. Generally, the home-based workers and manual labourers, except for construction workers, earn on the lower end of this scale while street vendors earn on the higher end.

In a situation of protracted economic recession in Ahmedabad, brought on initially by the closure of the textile mills, our members are the main source of income for their families. Thousands of their menfolk are unemployed or barely scrape together a living as labourers or vendors.

In the rural areas, it is Anand, Kheda, Vadodara, Mehsana, Ahmedabad and Sabarkantha districts where our members were the most affected. Our members in the villages of these districts are mainly agricultural labourers and small farmers. When widespread communal violence erupted from 28 February 2002, they were the first to be affected.

In Ahmedabad the violence occurred mainly in working class areas – the walled city and the eastern areas. In the western part of town, the more affluent and middle class area, there was violence – looting, arson and even killings on the day of the bandh (28 February) and for two or three days thereafter. But the extended periods of curfew and violence mainly affected the working class areas.

In the villages, the pattern and toll of violence has been brought out in several reports, and we will not analyse them here. Our estimates, however, are that about 80,000 SEWA members and their families – with at least 40,000 in Ahmedabad city – have been affected by the recent communal violence.

Apart from the terrible loss of human life, injury, damage and total destruction of homes and property, people’s livelihoods have been seve-rely affected. For over a month, our members have been unable to go out to work. Home-based workers are neither getting raw materials regularly, nor is anyone coming to collect their finished goods. Factories, shops, warehouses and godowns have been burnt to the ground, affecting the entire work chain, mainly supported by informal workers. In fact, our own studies with the Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR) show that 77% of the Ahmedabad economy is accounted for by the informal sector.

Baluben is a food vendor. She used to sell eatables in the walled city area. ‘I recently borrowed from SEWA Bank to buy a refrigerator to sell cold drinks during the summer. Look what has happened to my refrigerator, my vending cart and my home. Everything was gutted. I will have to rebuild from scratch, both my home and my means of livelihood.’ Fatima is a garment stitcher who along with her two daughters used to stitch petticoats for a trader. She has lost both her sewing machines and her home. Taking refuge in a relief camp Fatima says, ‘By Gods’ grace, we survived. We will work hard and rebuild our livelihoods.’

Like Baluben and Fatimaben, thousands of workers’ economic lives have been severely affected. Our surveys of the affected neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad – Gomtipur, Rakhiyal, Saraspur, Kalupur, Odhav, Naroda and more – show the huge extent of losses. If one were to classify these, a pattern emerges:

1. All self-employed and other informal workers are economically affected because they could not work and earn for at least 20 days, and in many cases, for over a month. Street vendors could not sell in the city’s market nor could they move from one area to another, as they usually do. Hence, they lost daily income and also suffered losses from rotting vegetables because they remained unsold.

Further, the large wholesale markets at Kalupur and Jamalpur were under curfew, and so remained closed for several days. Fresh stocks of produce from rural areas could not reach the city either. Thus, with both supply and sale severely affected, feeding their families became a critical issue.



Similarly, rag pickers, cleaners and construction workers could not walk the streets or stand at the naka waiting for work at construction sites. As for head loaders of the main cloth market, they literally saw their source of livelihood go up in smoke, as the wholesale shops to which they have been linked for generations were completely gutted.

For home-based workers – bidi, agarbatti, kite makers and others – as mentioned earlier, the supplies of raw materials stopped. With most contractors living in curfew areas or having fled to safety, there was no one to supply them raw materials or collect their finished goods.

2. Thousand of workers lost their homes which are also their work-places. Most of the destroyed or damaged homes had been set alight and being small, close together and often containing inflammable work equipment and material, burned quickly. As we surveyed row upon row of burnt homes, the human tragedy unfolded before our eyes. No matter which community one speaks of, years of hard labour, careful saving for a few household items – the proud purchase of a ceiling fan, a TV set or work equipment like sewing machines – to enhance income and productivity were gone. As worker after worker put it: ‘We are back to zero again or even worse. Years of hard work have been wiped out.’



In Banasnagar of the Dani Limda area, we saw the rag pickers’ carefully collected materials in cinders. Even a balwadi for the children was not spared. In Panna Estate, a sprawling industrial complex, half-burnt tendu leaves and piles of tobacco for bidis in a gutted shelter indicated the owner’s occupation. In Saraspur, we saw mangled remains of sewing machines along with burnt onions and garlic and charred laris or push carts.

At Akbarnagar, the scene was surreal, to say the least. Hundreds of huts of plastic toy makers and recyclers (pasti workers) were razed to the ground. The fire had been so severe that even the ground, the grass and the trees nearby, were beyond recognition.

At a pavement settlement outside the Bapunagar General Hospital known as ‘D-20’ (it is an ESIC hospital and numbered accordingly), ten to fifteen dwellings were open to the sky. Many of the occupants made plastic toys and we could see multi-coloured, melted plastic everywhere.

In sum, the toll on the work lives of Ahmedabad’s poorest of workers has been of a magnitude not experienced so far. The impact on the economic life in villages is still being calculated. But our estimate is that the economic loss to the informal workers of the city, in terms of income and work tools lost, amount to at least Rs 179 crore.

In the face of this huge human crisis, the question that we confronted at SEWA was how we could help our members rebuild and restore their livelihoods in the long term. Our immediate response was to provide relief, foodgrains and medical care in the relief camps. We had learnt from the last disaster, the earthquake, that women’s priority was work. So here too, starting from the relief camps, we began to help women with their livelihoods.

Time and again, our members have told us that once they start to work and earn, it gives them hope for the future and helps in re-building their lives. ‘Without work, our minds keep going back to all we have just gone through – the fear, the sadness, the insecurity. At least this way we are working for our children’s future. It is the only way we can survive.’



These words are repeated across castes and communities, as all informal workers know that their livelihood is the lifeline to survival. Our work at the camps prompted us to restore or set-up the following livelihoods immediately – bidi and agarbatti rolling, sewing, mattress making (light mattresses called godhris), and paper-bag (lifafa) making. An in-house ‘rozgar team’ was set up to provide immediate work of at least Rs 40 per day per member.

The first economic activities to get organised were bidi and agarbatti rolling. Over the years, having organised thousands of these workers, we had built up a rapport with merchants and contractors. They were ready to provide work even at the relief camps, but as the contractors were unavailable or unwilling to supply work at the camps, they turned to SEWA. We became the link between the merchants and the workers, and women were back at work rolling bidis or agarbattis.

Next we provided sewing machines at all relief camps. In shifts, women began to sew – mainly salwar kameezes at present, earning Rs 12 per set. They were given cut-pieces prepared by a local cutter, often from the relief camp itself. In this way, the garment workers began to earn again. Some began selling salwar-kameezes to others at the camps, since most inmates had fled with only the clothes on their back.



Making paper bags has proved to be a popular activity at all five camps. We now see that even older children and men have joined in this work. Since the space required to make bags is small, it is convenient for women to do this work. The members are provided with old magazines and gum, and given a day’s training to prepare the bags. These bags are then sold to merchants and shopkeepers. SEWA’s Health Cooperative has also bought paper bags for use in its chain of medicine shops, thus promoting solidarity between workers.

Finally, members have started to make mattresses at the camps. These ‘godhris’ are prepared from old sarees and bits of scrap cloth available in the market. The women are given a kit containing a saree and scrap cloth pieces in a fixed proportion, along with needles and thread to sew the mattress. This work has started in all the five camps.

A woman can earn Rs 36 a day if she sews three mattresses daily, which is easily doable. The godhris are mainly bought by camp inmates.


Economic Activities at Five Relief Camps Where SEWA is Working


No. of Women

Bidi rolling


Agarbatti rolling


Garment sewing


Paper bag making


Mattress making





This restoration of work at the camps is a beginning. SEWA is planning to develop a Livelihood Security Fund for the affected families where working capital, work tools and equipment is available in kits to women. We will also help workers by linking them to markets and marketing outlets for their products.

While SEWA’s thrust has always been on employment, we realize that without social security services – healthcare, childcare, insurance, shelter and education – economic self-reliance is not possible. In fact, we see social security as being integral to work and livelihood security. Therefore, we began our social security service provision from the relief camps themselves.



Between 80 to 200 children are taken care of at five childcare centres, one in each camp. The children express their feelings by drawing and singing. Four year old Imtiyaz, on his first day at the childcare centre, drew a sword and a gun. Now he draws children playing and a flag-hoisting ceremony. Six year old Salman now draws birds and flowers. Earlier he drew a mosque in the middle of burning houses. The school-going children have been given textbooks and take daily lessons for three hours. In one camp, the children have been temporarily enrolled in the nearby municipal school.

SEWA has collaborated with the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) of the Government of Gujarat. The childcare centres in these five camps are recognised by the government. The food supply for the children is provided by the ICDS. SEWA, through its catering cooperative, Trupti, prepares food such as sukhdi (mixture of Indiamix flour, jaggery and ghee) and ladoos on alternate days and distributes these to the children.

The SEWA promoted local health cooperative and the SEWA Health Team, provides daily healthcare services and coordinates with the municipal corporation and the government health services. Mobile health vans conduct routine check-ups at all the camps as also provide medicines. Our team facilitates and coordinates with the vans and other government and private facilities. The health cooperative arranges referral services.

Every week a gynaecologist, a paediatrician and an ophthalmologist carry out check-ups. Patients on longer term treatment for tuberculosis or thalassemia are taken to their respective hospitals so that their treatment is continued.


Relief Camp

No. of Patients

Aman Chowk, Bapunagar


Anand Flat, Bapunagar


Kisan Society, Danilimda


Bakarshah’s Roza, Saraspur


Bombay Housing, Saraspur





SEWA organisers at the camp involve camp residents and local committees in cleaning the campsites every day. They also guide them on proper disposal of garbage and left-over food. Proper cleaning of toilets and mobile and temporary toilets has been organised, including spraying of disinfectant.



The literacy team from the SEWA Academy conducts classes for young boys and girls and also adults on their request. Two hour classes are conducted daily. There are different timings for different age groups. The young girls at the camps, in the age group of 7 to 14 years, have started learning Gujarati. So also preschool lessons introducing alphabets and numbers. Close to 120 girls attend literacy classes in three camps.

The housing damage assessment and needs assessment for reconstruction of 15,250 houses has been completed, with support and inputs from KSA Design Planning Services (KSADPS). A detailed report with plans and sketches and cost estimates for reconstruction is ready. SEWA is linking up with the government to design the housing compensation package based on this assessment.

SEWA Insurance covers about 30,000 of our urban members. We estimate that about 6000 will submit claims in the coming weeks. Already 500 claims for asset loss (homes, household goods and work tools) have been received. Unfortunately, life insurance claims of three members who were killed during the violence have also been received.



Our insurance team is engaged in damage assessments surveys. It has linked up with the National Insurance Company which has requested SEWA to process claims and promised to make payouts speedily.

We realize that there is a long way to go before our members feel secure and hopeful for the future. Firmly committed to the path of sarva dharma sambhava, as Gandhiji taught us, our executive committee met recently to reaffirm our commitment to peace, non-violence, and living and working together for the economic well-being of all, especially rebuilding the poorest of workers. We have called our livelihood-cum-social security work Shantipath.

At one childcare centre run by SEWA, a little girl stood up, eyes shining, and sang:

‘Oh my watan, my motherland,

let us work to create heaven on earth,

here in our land.’

We may not quite be able to reach that ideal, but are determined to work peacefully and constructively for the social security of the poorest of our country’s workers, those in the informal economy.


Economic Impact of Communal Violence on Informal Workers of Ahmedabad

City – some estimates (40 days worth of losses calculated between 28 February

and 8 April 2002)


Daily wage

No. of workers

% affected

Economic losses (in crores of rupees)


Home-based workers





Workers in small units





Small business and restaurants

Street vendors





Small restaurants





Construction workers





Transport workers

Auto-rickshaw drivers & handcart pullers





Service providers

Cleaners, headloaders, domestic workers