Livelihood Security – SEWA’s Approach

Reema Nanavaty*


Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA ) is not merely an organisation, but a powerful movement to empower women through the creation of sustainable livelihoods. Read on...

SEWA’s approach to rural organizing is area specific and demand driven or need based. The members are organized around a common issue or need of the communities/ members. SEWA designs the programme by strategically linking with existing Government programmes or schemes, thus organizing village level primary groups/ co-operatives of workers, and district level federations of workers/ producers.

This process of rural organizing leads to building local workers' organizations and generates alternative employment opportunities.

Currently, SEWA has a membership of 1,80,209 members in 11 districts of Gujarat. The members have been organized into 605 producer groups/ co-operatives, 3000 savings and credit groups, and 20 village Watershed Associations. The above primary village organizations have federated into eight district federations/ associations.

It is essential to understand why SEWA has, in the first place, initiated livelihood security programmes. It was observed that, amongst SEWA’s rural members, the labour was surplus but less employment opportunities. The first and foremost need of members was finding alternative employment. SEWA thought of initiating area-specific economic activities, based on local skill base and resources. Many of these activities were land-based: poultry farming, nursery-raising, animal husbandry, salt farming, gum collection, vegetable cultivation, watershed activities, dairy development and fodder production as well as mushroom cultivation. Different types of craft such as applique work, beading, mirrorwork, Ari work, Pako embroidery, Rabari embroidery, etc. were also encouraged. Village level primary groups of producers, which then federated into district level associations initiated these livelihood security activites. Once the economic activities were established and stabilized, SEWA provided supportive services such as banking (savings and credit programme) and capacity building, both at the technical and managerial levels, to its members.

However, for the past three years, Gujarat has been severely affected by natural disasters. The earthquake of 2001 only exacerbated the effects of the crippling drought that played havoc with the lives of people of this region. The poor workers of informal sector were pushed deeper into the clutches of poverty. Many of them were forced to migrate to semi-urban and urban areas. SEWA members demanded work rather than only relief, during the drought and earthquake and showed their eagerness to earn their own livelihood through their skills and initiatives. In order to reduce risk and vulnerability of its members, SEWA initiated disaster mitigation measures through livelihood security.

SEWA’s interventions – rebuilding of livelihoods

During the drought of 2000, SEWA implemented several innovative programmes as part of the drought relief activity. As drought proofing measures, SEWA took different approaches. In Kutch, craft activity was tried out as a means of livelihood, while in Surendranagar, salt activity proved to be the livelihood providing activity. In Banaskantha, entire regional development was taken up, including crafts, salt and fodder. The work in various areas of artisan support programme, forestry programme, masonry training programme and rainwater harvesting work generated around 2.75 lakh man days of work for around 10,000 families. Just when SEWA was consolidating its drought proofing efforts, Gujarat experienced the worst ever earthquake. SEWA immediately initiated the economic rehabilitation programme for the earthquake affected members and their families. Some of the major economic and social interventions of SEWA to restore livelihoods of its members, with people’s participation are highlighted below. These interventions have consolidated community solidarity, provided alternative employment and have contributed to children’s education and women empowerment.

Livelihood Security Fund

The three worst affected districts of Kutch, Surendranagar and Patan have, in the last decade, experienced floods, epidemic of malaria, two successive cyclones, two successive droughts, and an earthquake. SEWA, based on its past ten years of experience in building regional development programmes in these disaster prone areas, designed a livelihood security strategy for disaster preparedness and mitigation. SEWA decided to set up a "Livelihood Security Task Force", comprising representatives from the Government of India, NGOs and experts in the areas of disaster mitigation and rehabilitation. Based on this plan, a "Livelihood Security Fund" would be made operational. This would act as a vulnerability and risk reduction measure for poor communities and provide livelihood security through sustained economic programmes, based on local skills and resources. The Fund would be treated as a "Revolving Fund or Working Capital" for each district, towards the production of craft, salt and fodder goods.

Craft as Livelihood Security Programme

More than 15,000 artisan families live in the districts of Kutch, Patan and Surendranagar. SEWA initiated craft production for immediate relief to artisans. Temporary shelters were provided and each artisan family was provided with a craft bag with necessary raw material for one week. Every week, spearhead teams collected the finished goods and provided a new craft bag for the next week. Artisans were given spot payments of Rs. 40 per day. The revenue generated was to the tune of 42 crores.

Salt Farming

Salt pans in the deserts had been damaged by the earthquake, thus affecting salt crystalisation. Salt farmers had incurred heavy losses. Entire saltpans had to be rebuilt as early as possible. It was estimated that salt farmers would need a working capital of Rs. 30,000 per farmer so that they could level the land, rebuild salt pans, brine wells, install pump sets and prepare the pans for evaporation and crystallisation. SEWA geared up to help salt farmers restart salt farming activities and they were able to reap at least one salt harvest by May 2001.


Approximately 60,000 houses were damaged by the earthquake. SEWA, with the inputs of expert organisations such as the Disaster Mitigation Institute and the People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, designed monsoon, cyclone and earthquake resistant houses of 11 ft X 20 ft dimension. The cost of each dwelling unit was Rs. 55,000, out of which 70% was a grant to the family. SEWA involved communities in the reconstruction. The approach was to have owner driven housing reconstruction programmes. This would also generate local employment. SEWA initiated a two month technical training programme in masonry and construction work. Trainees were provided a stipend of Rs. 40 per day. Local communities were also trained in developing appropriate building materials, such as micro concrete roofing tiles.

Reviving Agriculture

This included levelling of land and revival of bore wells. The small and marginal farmers would be provided with scientific agricultural kits containing improved variety of seeds, tools and equipment, prepared in collaboration with the Rural Technology Institute, Gujarat and the Gujarat Agriculture University.

Reviving and Regenerating Water Resources

SEWA’s water campaign team mobilised local communities and technical training to local people in the revival of bore wells, the construction and deepening of ponds and the construction of roof rain water harvesting structures. Most of the water harvesting structures were reconstructed before the onset of summer.

Insurance services

SEWA insurance insured at least 50,000 women in the three affected districts. Spearhead teams of local women leaders in all districts were consolidated. These women promoted insurance services in their villages and served as a link between their communities and SEWA insurance, helping the insured with claim applications and procedures. Small trainings were also organised in the villages to promote and encourage women to seek insurance coverage. The concept of insurance was elucidated.

Amongst other livelihood building activities, SEWA initiated non-formal schools for the education of children. It introduced "Aakashganga" and earthquake preparedness trainings for children. Decline in nutrition status followed the earthquake. SEWA set up low cost mobile ration shops managed by women. Earnings of women through crafts and training stipends were partially given in kind – i.e. foodgrains and other food items in "Shakti Packets", SEWA’s ongoing food security programme. SEWA thus tried to build up and maintain acceptable nutritional levels. Monitoriting and promotion of health was also undertaken by SEWA members in villages. Forty women obtained intensive primary health care training. Spearhead teams of barefoot doctors were built up, to provide primary care and health information.

The table below gives a brief summary of SEWA's major economic interventions and revenue generated therein.

Implementation strategy

The entire effort of livelihood building by SEWA was collaborative and participatory. This implicated grassroots, member based organisations, technical support organisations and resource agencies. The implementation of its livelihood security measures was undertaken through village level micro planning and district-wise implementation by district level associations (the Kutch Craft Association, the Banaskantha DWCRA Association, the Surendranagar Mahila and Balvikas Mandal). Technical support organisations such as SEWA Bank, Mahila Housing Trust, SEWA Academy, Disaster Mitigation Institute, SEWA-AMA Centre and Resource Organisations, notably the People’s Science Institute, The Gujarat Institute of Development Research and NCAER, Dastakar and NIFT were also mobilised. The entire institutional arrangement and implementation strategy constituted SEWA’s integrated approach towards developing a model of sustainable development with disaster mitigation and livelihood building as its goal.

The SEWA Movement

The SEWA movement is committed to mainstreaming of the people’s sector. It is a movement for economic freedom of poor self-employed women so that they may enter the economic mainstream and markets by organising their strength. It does this through sponsoring membership-based organisations at local, state, national and international levels – self-help groups, co-operatives, mandals, etc. There are about 1300 such small village or mohalla level organisations, 85 co-operatives and 11 district federations. q


* General Secretary

Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)

Opp. Lok Manya Tilak Baug

Bhadra, Ahmedabad – 380 001

Phone No: 0091-79-5506446 5506477, 5506441

Fax No: 0091-79-5506446

E-mail :


Activities Members Revenue
(in Indian Rupees)
Activities Number Revenue
(in Indian Rupees)
Craft as a livelihood security programme 16,200 42 crores Fodder Bank - to strengthen animal husbandry 12,000 cattle 18 crores
Salt Farming 3000 82.5 crores Forestry activities 3700 2.2 crores
Gum collection 3000 1.5 crores Water Conservation 6000 3 crores


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