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An Angel for Delhi's Street Vendors

By Michael Serrill Leela runs a very small business. Her merchandising routine goes back generations among the street vendors who sit in the chaotic used-clothing market in a poor neighborhood of western New Delhi. Leela uses her little bit of reserved capital to buy tin pots and plastic containers from local shops. Then she loads the pots on a cart and takes them to middle-class Delhi neighborhoods, where she goes door-to-door trading the cookware for used clothing.

She goes home with the clothes -- bundles of them are stuffed in corners of her cramped two-room house -- washes and repairs them, then spends six days a week selling them in the market. When she runs out of clothing to sell, she goes pot-shopping again. For her trouble, she earns 40 to 70 rupees a day, less than $2.

PRECARIOUS LIVES. In addition to the constant struggle to make ends meet, Leela and the 8,000 other women who work in the Delhi market must cope with many other problems. Sometimes police harass them, especially when they try to sell outside the confines of the legal clothing market. "They beat us and demand bribes from us," says Leela.

These women, many of whom can barely read, have trouble applying for required permits and licenses. A major illness or other family crisis may mean spending all their savings, selling their houses, or borrowing from moneylenders at usurious rates. Every family fears having to join the tens of thousands of Delhi residents -- not to mention the millions nationwide -- who sleep in the streets or in plastic-sheet tents at the sides of the roads.

But for the last two years, the Delhi women have had an ally: the Self-Employed Women's Assn. (SEWA). Some 2,000 of them have joined SEWA, a nationwide organization devoted to making female entrepreneurs' lives a little easier and more secure. It provides women like Leela with loans, a savings vehicle, and the power of its numbers in confrontations with official authority. Founded in 1972, SEWA has a nationwide membership of 700,000, some 500,000 of them in the western state of Gujarat, where it started. In the last few years, SEWA has engaged in a national recruitment drive and now has a presence in seven Indian states.

MIDWIVES AND RECYCLERS. According to SEWA National Coordinator Renana Jhabvala, the organization regards itself as both a trade union and a cooperative. Members pay annual dues of five rupees, around 11 cents. SEWA provides a range of services, including training in general financial and business management as well as occupation-specific skills. The group also makes credit available through local affiliates and operates three cooperative banks. The SEWA bank in Gujarat boasts $21 million in capital -- all in savings from members -- and lends out $4.7 million a year.

That the SEWA bank has managed to accumulate such assets seems miraculous given the tiny amounts the majority of its members earn. Many are so-called ragpickers, who take plastic and metal trash from the gutters and try to sell it for recycling. SEWA has helped some ragpickers turn this meager profession into a real business. Under a contract with SEWA, government offices in the city of Ahmedabad now turn bins of office-paper trash over to the ragpickers, who use machines -- many of them paid for with SEWA loans -- to convert the paper into envelopes that they then sell.

One particularly valuable SEWA accomplishment: a program for midwives. Most poor women still use midwives for childbirth, says Jhabvala, "but the service is little valued. The midwives are paid very little, or are paid in barter." SEWA has provided training for hundreds of midwives, who now provide prenatal care and broader health care and advice. As a result, the midwives can now earn as much as $3.50 per patient for their services, not a princely sum, but enough to give them more financial security.

ILLEGAL SELLING. For the clothing sellers of Delhi, SEWA provides a repository for their savings -- not yet a full-fledged bank -- credit services, and an umbrella insurance policy that provides them with some life, health, and liability protection. But SEWA has not yet succeeded in giving the women what they most want: a new Sunday market.

For more than 100 years, the merchants from the clothing market, plus thousands of others from the Delhi region, gathered every Sunday behind the Red Fort, a 17th-century Mughal fortress in the center of the city, to sell all kinds of wares. Three years ago the city closed down the market, saying it needed the grounds for other municipal projects. But officials provided no new location for the vendors to gather. As a result, the sellers sit illegally along the streets in the vicinity of the Red Fort.

In a meeting with American editors in India for the Johns Hopkins University International Reporting Project, a group of clothing vendors alleged that police constantly uproot and harass them as the vendors try to sell their clothing. SEWA leaders have joined in the effort to find them a new plot of land, but no one can guarantee a positive outcome.

IVY LEAGUE COMPATRIOT. For its members and administrators, SEWA serves as a spiritual movement as well as a self-help group. Jhabvala describes it as "Gandhian," organized and operated according to the principles of the Mahatma. That means dedication to helping the most underprivileged Indians, particularly women, who often serve as the main breadwinners in the poorest households. Gandhi also believed in swadeshi, which Jhabvala translates as the doctrine of using whatever is in proximity to produce a living for oneself. Thus the ragpickers and their envelopes.

Jhabvala herself exemplifies Gandhian self-sacrifice. She has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard and a master's in economics from Yale. Rather than pursuing an academic, government, or business career after finishing school in 1977, she returned to India, joined SEWA, and never left. "I decided I wanted to do something useful for India," she says. As the ragpickers, midwives, and clothing sellers can attest, she surely has. Serrill is a senior editor for the international editions of BusinessWeek. He recently traveled to India as a fellow with the Johns Hopkins University International Reporting Project

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