Interview: Reema Nanavaty on SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association of India), energy transitions, and women’s empowerment

IUKDPF’s Supriya Roychoudhury speaks with Reema Nanavaty who leads the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the single largest women worker’s trade union in India. After joining SEWA in 1984, Reema Nanavaty was elected as its General Secretary in 1999. Her focus has been to provide full-employment and self-reliance to SEWA’s 1.7 million members. For her distinguished service of thirty years, she was awarded the Padma Shri (India’s fourth highest civilian award) by the Government of India in 2013. In this interview, she emphasises the need to build a new “economy of nurturance”, shares with us SEWA’s catalytic role in making women more self-reliant in the renewable energy space, and highlights ways in which women-to-women learning and women’s leadership can advance just energy transitions.

SR: Let me begin by asking you about SEWA’s most celebrated initiatives on empowering rural women through renewable energy interventions. We are particularly interested in Hariyali, your green livelihoods campaign, and your work with the salt pan workers in Gujarat. Could you walk us through these initiatives?

Reema Nanavaty


RM: Thank you so much for inviting SEWA to share some of our experiences. I think this will give voice and visibility to the work of the informal sector women workers. Very often, people think of women in a general way, but not of women workers in the informal sector. So I think from that perspective, we are really very delighted to share our experiences. To what you just asked, we at SEWA have always focused on the economic security of its members. When women have work and income security, it brings economic security. And when women are economically secured, it helps them deal with many other social issues and vulnerabilities.

When the 2008-2009 global financial crisis hit, India felt that its financial institutions were not that badly affected. But what was the reality of our members? We conducted a study across different trade groups and the glaring reality that emerged was that incomes definitely reduced by up to 60-70 percent. And from the meagre incomes these women were earning, at least 35-40 per cent was being spent on accessing their energy needs (this was both for domestic use as well as for their livelihoods). It made SEWA realise that this is a major need for its members. How do you make all livelihoods green? How do you ensure that women have access to clean and green energy? We also saw that members of SEWA were repeatedly facing climate shocks. As a union of the informal sector workers, we asked ourselves: how do we work on climate mitigation to reduce the climate footprint? We realised that, collectively, SEWA would be able to make a large contribution to this. These were the two main objectives with which we started the Hariyali campaign.

SEWA has never believed in giving free support, as it is unsustainable. We want to design an energy supply chain that is owned and managed by women so that women don’t just remain the recipients of the energy initiatives, products, or tools, but are also the producers, users, managers, and distributors of energy. We saw that there were three major areas where women needed immediate access to energy. One was cooking. We all know that in a country like ours, most of the cooking is done using wood-fired stoves, charcoal or cow dung stoves. We wanted women to be able access clean cookstoves. We also wanted to ensure that they had access to electricity to carry out their livelihoods. We wanted to reduce the drudgery of SEWA’s members, so we designed a whole programme where women and their households had access to clean cookstoves and light. We also began to explore solar rooftops. This meant that women no longer had just one small light in a room. They also had a fan, a tube light, and they could use one other gadget inside their home.

The other major area where SEWA members were involved was in the saltpan areas of Gujarat. Families live in the desert for 8-9 months. They use a diesel pump to extract the brine. This brine is then allowed to concentrate. Until recently, the bulk of their expenditure was on diesel to operate these pumps. And so we asked ourselves: what could be an alternative? As a pilot, we procured ten solar pumps and saw that the consumption of diesel oil went down by almost 60-70 per cent. Whereas earlier the salt pan workers were working almost as bonded labourers, now they had a net income of 40-50 thousand rupees by the end of the season. It enabled them to repay the loans they had taken.

Salt pans in the Little Rann of Kachchh, Gujarat (Photo courtesy: SEWA)

During the offseason (the monsoon), when the desert flooded and the salt pan workers returned to their villages, the panels were stored inside warehouses. Even though they were not being used, the salt pan workers had to continue paying instalments for their loan. So we decided to set up a solar park: the energy produced was sold to the grid and the income generated was used to pay back the loan. This is the first ever solar park which is totally owned by these poor women: it’s a women-owned and women-managed solar park. We also set up a power purchasing agreement with the Gujarat Energy Corporation: they will be purchasing at the rate of 4.3 Rupees per unit of power generated. This is a very viable proposition as it brings income to the salt pan workers even during the off season and helps them meet their food security and their children’s education needs.

We have also been engaged in the agriculture space. 54 per cent of SEWA’s members are smallholder farmers. The concept of farm top energy in agriculture farms is becoming increasingly important. How do you ensure that every farm creates solar energy? So that it isn’t just their irrigation pumps that are being powered through solar, but other instruments and tools too – tractors, threshes, hulls. The excess energy generated in these farms can then be sold to the market. This brings resilience to farmers. If, for whatever reason – excessive rains, a cyclone, or a drought – your crop fails, you are still able to generate a small income.

SR: What were the kinds of factors – institutional, financial, socio-cultural – that enabled these initiatives to take off?

RN: For our clean energy and access to electricity initiative [under Hariyali], we took a loan from a private, commercial bank. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) provided us with a first loss guarantee. I am very happy to say that we have been able to pay back almost the entire loan amount. When the government introduced the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana to provide LPG connections to BPL households in the country, some of SEWA’s members helped rural women apply for LPG cylinders. They also helped in the servicing and maintenance of these cylinders. For the salt pan work, the women saltpan workers needed a big loan. But they didn’t have a collateral. Once again, the IFC helped us to structure a loan by introducing a first loss guarantee. And so, from initially procuring 10 pumps, we jumped to 200 pumps. After demonstrating impact, we approached the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to help us with subsidies: this was a huge investment for the saltpan workers and they needed support. The Government of India accepted our proposal. We were provided with almost 80 per cent of the pump costs as a subsidy. This was a major asset creation for the saltpan workers. Looking at the success of this initiative, the Bank of Baroda came forward and we signed an agreement with them. It allowed us to provide pumps to almost 15,000 saltpan workers. The Government of Gujarat then took over the Central government’s role in providing subsidies. Once the saltpan workers saw how useful these solar pumps were, some of them took a second pump as well, and eventually they didn’t have to use diesel at all. It became a completely clean harvest of salt: it’s organic salt that they produce.

SR: What opportunities exist for exporting some of SEWA’s best practices in energy inclusion to other parts of the Global South?

RN: Rather than constantly reinventing, there is scope for learning and sharing. This would also help in accelerating the pace at which women are ensured access to energy. Also, we have seen that women to women exchanges accelerate the pace of learning. If a woman farmer sees another woman farmer using clean or green energy to produce sesame, cotton or wheat, she is likely to think to herself: I could also try that. What we have been proposing at the UN High Level Dialogue on Energy is that there needs to be South-South collaboration on women-to-women learning. We are also interested in addressing the issue of how women might have easy access to affordable finance. We believe that, for this, a green livelihood fund is required. Such a fund will allow women to mobilise energy to fulfil other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well. As an enabler, energy can help women to address their health, nutrition, education, water, and food security needs. These are some of these approaches we should take to the South-South level as well. We had hoped to push for learning and sharing under the aegis of the SAARC, but this has been difficult.

SR: What kinds of policy commitments would you like to see come out of the forthcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 intergovernmental meeting?

RN: As a result of the COP meetings, every country came up with a National Action Plan. I think the time has come to bring those plans down to the village and family level and to make these plans women-centric. It is only then that these National Action Plans will get implemented. We also need to focus on women’s leadership. Within the energy sector, women are generally talked about in terms of their utility – as consumers of energy. But we are interested in how women-owned and women-led energy supply chains might thrive. The examples that I provided earlier, of the women-owned solar park, or the women-managed solar pumps in the salt pan areas, show how women can play a leading role in the production, management, and distribution of energy. Moving forward, we would also like to see how agro-processing could integrate clean energy – across all levels – and generate livelihoods under women’s leadership. What could be done to make the youth in rural areas seriously consider these livelihoods as attractive and meaningful options? The pandemic has shown us that reverse migration has become a real issue. We need to make sure that the youth don’t just migrate to the cities to take on very menial or casual jobs.

SR: In previous interviews, you have talked about an “economy of nurturance”. Could you unpack this idea a bit more: what might an ‘economy of nurturance’ look like in the energy space?

RN: The worst sufferers of this pandemic have been women. Therefore when we design post-Covid recovery and climate action plans, we need to ask: what are the kinds of economic pathways that women want? These pathways have to be more women-centric and more nurturing. We need to be building an economy of nurturance. To give you an example, we are currently piloting a programme to generate green villages and green households. What we do is prepare the entire village’s energy plans. These village energy plans are a consolidation of household level energy planning and budgeting. They give you a breakdown of how much a household’s energy need is, and within that, what the different energy needs are for women. They allow us to make decisions around how many households could shift to solar lighting or cooking methods or what the opportunities are for electric mobility. It allows us to explore and consider what innovative livelihood activities could be taken up such as backyard energy farming. At present, we are implementing pilots in four villages in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Once we have the data and analysis, we will push for policies that incentivise the village panchayats to make their villages green. Rather than investing only in infrastructure, one can also make investments in tree plantations. This will nurture the household, the village, as well as the economy.

SR: As you mentioned earlier, the pandemic was a disruptive time for low-income households, especially women. We observed an overall decline in female labour force participation. How did SEWA respond to these challenges and what role did digital technology play in meeting women’s livelihood needs?

RN: We believe that when you put technology in the hands of women, they know how best to use it to their advantage. When COVID hit the country, and everything came to a grinding halt, the livelihoods of our members also came to a halt. We couldn’t just sit back and watch. Right from the first day, we connected with our members. SEWA had already been using digital tools and technologies for enrolling and renewing membership of its members, for carrying out its agribusiness initiatives, for its saving and our credit programmes. So our members and leaders did have access to smartphones or tablets. During the pandemic, we started connecting with them through Google Meet or Zoom. We converted our trainings into e-modules. All of this was done in a very participatory manner. The master trainers who were based in the villages lent their voices for the voiceovers. They helped to prepare images for the PowerPoints used for e-modules. We helped to educate our members on social distancing and wearing masks. These were all new concepts for our members. We needed to ensure that households adopted these practices. So we would come up with stories, or songs, or skits to spread awareness. Our members also needed a livelihood alternatives during this time. We asked them to start stitching masks and selling these in the villages. Some women started making small food items and selling these in the villages. We also connected them to different markets online.

SR: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and valuable insights with us today.