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Mainstream, VOL LX No 24, New Delhi, June 4, 2022

Between Euphoria and Scepticism: Revisiting the Kudumbashree Experiment of Kerala | Jos Chathukulam and Manasi Joseph

Friday 3 June 2022, by Jos Chathukulam, Manasi Joseph

Abstract    

Kerala’s Kudumbashree is celebrating its silver jubilee in 2022. While Kudumbashree has made significant contributions in terms of empowering women and reducing poverty, there have been criticisms that it has failed to evolve as a powerful critical alternative development model with gender perspectives to address strategic gender needs even after 25 years.                                         

Introduction

Kudumbashree, a Made in Kerala initiative, that is synonymous with women empowerment and poverty alleviation, turned 25, on May 17, 2022 [1]. The much-feted Kudumbashree was launched in the backdrop of the 1996 People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) [2] of the Left Democratic Front (LDF). In 1997, a three-member task force was constituted [3] to examine the feasibility of establishing a mission for poverty eradication at state level in the context of 1996 PPC and it recommended setting up of a State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) to eradicate absolute poverty from Kerala. In 1999, SPEM started functioning under local self-government department (LSGD) and it eventually came to be known as Kudumbashree or Kudumbashree Mission. The Kudumbashree, one of the largest women self-help group (SHG) network in India, has around 45.9 lakh members. The Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs), also known as Ayalkootams at the primary level, Area Development Societies (ADSs) at the ward level, and Community Development Societies (CDSs) at the local government level are the three tiers of Kudumbashree community networks in Kerala. At present, there are 3, 06, 551 NHGs, 19,470 ADSs and 1070 CDSs. In addition to that, in 2021, the Kudumbashree launched auxiliary groups for the social and economic empowerment of young women aged 18-40 years and to offer income-generating opportunities to educated women, to give them a platform for making social interventions as well as financial development of their families and it has over 3, 02,595 members as of now (The Hindu, October 22, 2021).

A Brief History of Kudumbashree

Meanwhile, before delving into the Kudumbashree in detail, it is equally important to look into the evolution of one of the largest women self-help group network in India. The beginnings of the Kudumbashree we see today can be traced back to Ayalkootams. The Ayalkootams is a Malayalam word for neigbourhood meetings. The origins of Ayalkootams lies in an experiment led by D Pankajakshan Kurup, a Gandhian teacher, in Kanjippadam village in Alappuzha district. This Ayalkootams like Kudumbashree, had a three tired structure. They are Tharakootam (consisting of 10 to 15 neighboring homes and they meet every day in the courtyard of one of their houses), at the second tier there was Ayalkootam made of 5 Tharakootams and at the third level there was Gramakootams or the Village Assemblies. Kurup’s initiatives inspired many Ayalkoottams or Neighbourhood Groups in other villages in Kerala. In 1986, Kerala government formed NHGs for the implementation of Government of India’s Poverty Alleviation program for the urban poor. Community Based Nutrition Programme in Alappuzha (‘Alappuzha Model’) started in 1991 and in Malappuram (‘Malappuram Model’) in 1994 also inspired the Kudumbashree programme. The experiences received from the women-centred participatory development projects in the early 1990s (Community Based Nutrition Programme in Alappuzha and Malappuram) inspired the Government of Kerala to initiate Kudumbashree in 1998 (Kadiyala, 2004). The Alleppey Methodology of Poverty Assessment by Srilatha and Gopinathan was also instrumental in the developing the poverty alleviation component in Kudumbashree as well as in promoting the activities of the self-help groups, as a survival strategy of women to address poverty in a village panchayat (Chathukulam, 2003).

The Changing Role of Kudumbashree: From Microcredit Neighbourhood Groups to Crisis Managers to Entrepreneurs to Political Leaders

While in the initial days, the Kudumbashree focused on thrift and credit activities, over the years, it was instrumental in bringing women confined within the four walls of their household to the mainstream society (Oommen, 2007 and Devika and Thampi, 2007). They have been part and parcel in terms of grassroots planning for employment generation, poverty reduction and women empowerment. The large-scale mobilisation of women in community activities is itself a testimony of the impact the Kudumbashree has made in the Kerala society. Today Kudumbashree has evolved into a network that is closely connected to more than half of the families in the state and is in a position to understand the felt needs of the community. It is this connect that members of Kudumbashree have with common people that prompted the government to entrust the agency with the implementation development schemes and programmes of the government and LDF government has taken maximum advantage of this grassroot network for social as well as political means and ends (Williams et al., 2011). In the last 25 years, Kudumbashreemembers have offered their expertise in various fields including micro-enterprises, collectives, agricultural services, rural development, palliative care and compassion initiatives and empowerment of women and marginalized.

Role of Kudumbashree in Poverty Alleviation in Kerala

When Kudumbashree was launched in 1998, one of the primary goals was poverty alleviation within 10 years that is by 2008. The Kudumbashree has succeeded in eliminating poverty from Kerala to a large extent. Prior to the launch of PPC and Kudumbashree, the poverty ratio of rural and urban Kerala was 25.76 per cent and 24.59 per cent respectively. In 2011-12, according to Rangarajan Committee on Poverty Estimation, the poverty ratio in Kerala had declined to 7.3 per cent (rural) and 5.3 per cent (urban) respectively (Ray and Sinha, 2014). According to the National Multidimensional Poverty Index, 2021, only 0.71% of the population in Kerala are multidimensionally poor, the lowest in the country, according to the baseline report of the National Multidimensional Poverty Index published by NITI Aayog. All these evidences point towards the fact that Kudumbashree has succeeded in bringing down the poverty rate over the years.

Kudumbashree Members as Crisis Managers

Kudumbashree members came forward to assist the flood affected families in the great floods of 2018 and 2019. During rescue and relief operations, Kudumbashree members extended exemplary assistance in all possible ways including providing temporary shelter for affected people, gathering food and other materials for relief camps, counselling to give mental strength and courage to children and families and packing of ‘take home kits’ in places ravaged by flood. Kudumbashree members also participated in cleaning activities all over the flood affected areas. 4, 04,949 volunteers of Kudumbashree had participated in the cleaning campaign. A total of 1,99,994 houses and house premises, 12,132 streets and roads, public offices/ places were cleaned during the cleaning drive (Paliath, 2018). When the pandemic induced lockdown was imposed in Kerala, the Kudumbashree members served as frontline workers and addressed the major challenges in terms of food security. The budget hotels of Kudumbashree and the community kitchens across the state played a crucial role in ensuring that no one went hungry in the midst of a deadly pandemic. The Kudumbashree members jointly worked with the local governments in setting up community kitchens across the state for providing food to guest workers (migrant workers addressed as guest workers in the state), destitute and needy on time. The Kudumbashree members also came to the rescue when the state was experiencing a shortage in hygiene products including sanitizers and masks as well as personal protective equipment. They were also actively involved in monitoring the health and well-being of the elderly people and those placed under quarantine. From all these, it is evident that the Kudumbashree which was born out of 1996 PPC has evolved into a mechanism and reckoning force not only to empower women but also the state at large. Kudumbashree has played a crucial role in increasing the social and political mobility of women in public life. If one looks at from the point of ‘broad basing concept’ (Nadkarni, 1997) agencies like Kudumbashree has helped women from marginalised social groups to enter into the social, political, and economic mainstream and progressively derive the same advantages from society as the groups already part of it.

Meanwhile there have been criticism that although women’s participation has increased both in absolute terms and as a share of the total participants, it has not been translated into influence in plan-related decision-making and this has paved the way for the concept of panchayat feminism and it has been established that a “non-challenging "panchayat feminism" has emerged in Kerala at the Panchayat level (Moolakkattu and Chathukulam, 2007, Nair and Moolakkattu, 2014). There has also been criticism that the SHGs organized under Kudumbashree fulfill tasks that render the Women Cooperative Societies (WSCs) redundant from the perspective of women empowerment (Nair and Moolakattu, 2015). Similarly, the Women’s Component Plan (WCP) at the local government level was introduced in the Ninth five-year plan wherein 10 per cent of the plan outlays for all departments had to be earmarked for women-specific projects. However, a close introspection of the plan funds shows that either funds allocated is not sufficient or even if funds allocated are sufficient, it remains under-utilized.

Politicization of Kudumbashree 

Interestingly, Kudumbashree, though envisioned as apolitical, it is by and large a political entity and a political asset for LDF. The Kudumbashree can be termed as ‘Made in Kerala’ model but it is the brain child of LDF and since its inception it enjoyed the support of left-oriented organisations and the argument that Kudumbashree is not affiliated to any political party does not hold any ground. That is why even when United Democratic Front (UDF) was ruling the state, Kudumbashree could not shed its image as a pro-left agency. The hegemony of LDF in PPC and Kudumbashree has helped the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - CPI (M) in mobilizing and wooing people from all walks of life and helped in the distribution of political patronage. Political mobilization and patronage within Kudumbashree got further strengthened when political parties, mainly LDF started to field Kudumbashree membersin local government elections [4]. As women in Kudumbashree are closely connected to the community they live in, they remain highly popular in those circles which can in a way translate into votes. A total of 7071 members of various Kudumbashree units in the state won the local government elections held in 2020. That is 32.30 per cent of the 21,854 members, who were elected to panchayats, municipalities, and corporations. In 2015 local government elections, 7,367 Kudumbashree members won elections. In 2010 local elections, 4000 Kudumbashree members got elected while in 2005 only 848 members got elected. The members of Kudumbashree contesting in local government elections have in a way helped the LDF to capture the local governments and cement its influence at the grassroots level. The local governments are now being converted into the functional arms of the LDF government. People in a way now see the local governments as mere implementation agency which carries out the diktats and welfare measures of the state government.

The Kudumbashree being a state sponsored initiative is subjected to excess political and bureaucratic control and have been converted into ‘party society’. The Kudumbashree also suffer from in-built deficit in terms of limited autonomy and restricted space for participatory oriented decision making and they are turning into instruments that place the marginalized in the ‘unfreedom’ category. Even if someone wants to free the Kudumbashree from the clutches of politicians and other vested interests, it is next to impossible. For instance, many professional and qualified graduates [5] from reputed institutions like Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) works with the Kudumbashree. However, the capability, and professionalism of these young and qualified graduates are often weakened and undermined due to the power and dominance of political hegemony over the Kudumbashree. Despite the positive contributions made by the Kudumbashree due to the political hegemony they are being homogenized and thus convergence between both the Kudumbashree and local governments especially Gram Panchayats are heading towards a stagnation mode or in other words both are being reduced as symbols of retarded development. Since its inception, Kudumbashree have faced attacks from political parties alleging that it was a pro-left agency of LDF and demanded depoliticization of the Kudumbashree. In 2001, when UDF came to power, a section of leaders came up with ‘Kudumbasangamam’ as an alternative to Kudumbashree. In 2011, when UDF once again came to power they came up with Janshree. However, the efforts to dismantle Kudumbashree failed and the political clout over Kudumbashree is increasing day by day and things are such like that to implement any programme, Kudumbashree is selected as an implementing agency for any state government schemes be it waste management to fighting stray dog menace in the state. All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), women’s organization owing allegiance to CPI (M) was also accused of forcing the Kudumbashree members and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) workers to participate in the Women’s Wall [6] (The Hindu, December 30, 2018).

LDF capturing Central Schemes including MGNREGS using Kudumbashree and Trade unions

The MGNREGS is a social security scheme launched by the Government of India in 2005. In Kerala, it was launched on a pilot basis in two districts, Palakkad and Wayanad, in 2006 (Chathukulam & Gireeshan, 2007). In Kerala, Gram Panchayats and Kudumbashree work closely together in the implementation of the MGNREGS. The convergence of MGNREGS and Kudumbashree under the umbrella of the Local Self Government is a rational one as they complement each other’s effort in poverty alleviation (Chathukulam and Thottunkel, 2010). The role of Kudumbashree is not limited to creating awareness about rights and entitlements under MGNREGS. The Neighbourhood Groups, Area Development Societies, and Community Development Society are the three tiers of Kudumbashree community network that have a crucial role in the implementation of the MGNREGS. For instance, ADSs at ward levels are entrusted with the task to mobilize labourers for registration under the scheme, preparation of annual plan for the scheme and to ensure provision of amenities at work sites under the scheme. Then, Mates in MGNREGS is selected from members of ADS. They also mobilize women in their community to demand employment and articulate their demands through NHG-ADS-CDS forums. While a majority of centre -sponsored- welfare programmes are implemented with the joint co-operation of states and local governments, it has often been used as an instrument for obtaining political patronage at local level as in the case of LDF in Kerala. The active participation of Kudumbashree, which is dubbed as a pro-left agency also tricked people at the grassroot level to believe LDF has a bigger role in MGNREGS.

For enhancing political patronage, mobilization of MGNREGS worker on trade union lines have been a developed as a practice by major political parties in the state. A large number of MGNREGS workers are now members of the ‘NREGS Workers Union’ which is affiliated to the CPI (M). It has been reported that nearly 60 per cent MGNREGS workers are members in the union. The workers were of the opinion that delay in payments was one of the reasons for workers to choose unions and they preferred CPI (M) backed unions considering the Party’s strong connect with working class and the role played by Kudumbashree. It has worked in favour of LDF to obtain political patronage and a platform for social and political mobilization. There have also been complaints that Kudumbashree members, who are also enrolled in MGNREGS are occasionally threatening the field engineers who come to take measurement of works undertaken under MGNREGS. They do this at the behest of the party unions and leaders to protect their vested interests.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Kudumbashree has made significant contributions in the progress and development of Kerala. One of the biggest contributions made by the Kudumbashree is the vibrant social capital formation among women. Prior to the formation of the Kudumbashree, the social capital among women was very weak in Kerala. Another major contribution that can be attributed to Kudumbashree is reduction in poverty levels in the state and various studies and surveys including the latest Multidimensional Poverty Index by NITI Aayog itself stand as a testimony for this. In addition to that, whenever Kerala plunged into a deep crisis, be it floods or the pandemic, Kudumbashree has been there with the state and its people, through thick and thin. When Kudumbashree was launched, initially as a microcredit neighbourhood group by the LDF government, it was not conceived as an agency independent of government but as an integral part of state and local government. In reality, Kudumbashree ‘is and was’ a state sponsored initiative and above all the political hegemony of LDF over the formation of the Kudumbashree made it into a marionette that act according to the commands of the patriarchal structure of the state regime. Those who speak great lengths about the Kudumbashree often forget the fact that it has failed to emerge as a powerful critical alternative development with gender perspectives to address strategic gender needs even after 25 years. There are also criticisms that Kudumbashree is functioning in a bureaucratic style. For instance, in the words of Suneeta Kadiyala “A declining spirit of volunteerism is already evident. As the programme expanded to the entire state, the Kudumbashree CBOs see this as a government programme, and therefore, feel entitled to remuneration. Many volunteers ....... complained about the work and lack of monetary compensation. Interestingly, they were not willing to give up their position after a two-year term” (Kadiyala, 2004). Even today the situation is the same as in 2004. Though Kudumbashree has resorted into entrepreneurship programs like Kudumbashree Mall, these ventures have not been that successful. There were reports that Mahila Mall by Kudumbashree, claimed to be Asia’s first mall with an all-women crew, was in a crisis as most of the 50-odd woman entrepreneurs who set up shops in the mall abandoned it (Raveendran, 2020). The Janakeeya Hotels run by Kudumbashree is also in debt due to inordinate delay in getting the subsidy from the state government. It is also to be noted that these Janakeeya Hotels served food to 2 lakh people daily across the state.

While on the one hand Kudumbashree stands as a champion for women empowerment, the alarming increases in atrocities against women including sexual assaults, mental harassment, rapes, dowry deaths and suicides especially among married women indicates that Kudumbashree has to come up with strong movements and decisions to eliminate these evils. The Kudumbashree has to emerge as a strong counter-culture force to eliminate the crimes and evils committed against women. The Kudumbashree should take re-birth to free itself from the clutches of political hegemony and patriarchal and male chauvinistic culture and only then it can survive in the years to come. If Kudumbashree cannot stand as a ray of hope for the women in crisis and rehabilitate them to acquire enlightened citizenship, then it would result in the death of Kudumbashree itself. Along with economic empowerment and political empowerment, there is the need for mental and cultural empowerment. Kerala has often been described as a ‘gender paradox’ and coming out of this ‘gender paradox’ is going to be a litmus test for the Kudumbashree in the coming years.

(Authors: Jos Chathukulam is former Professor, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair on Decentralisation, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru and currently the Director of Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala. Email address: joschathukulam[at]gmail.com; Manasi Joseph is a researcher with Centre for Rural Management (CRM), Kottayam, Kerala.)

References

  • Chathukulam, Jos. (2003). Poverty Reduction through Social Capital Formation: The Case of Women’s Self-Help Groups in Kerala, Man and Development, 25 (2), 67-90.
  • Chathukulam, Jos., & Gireesan, K. (2007). Impact Assessment of NREGS in Kerala: Evaluation of Systems and Process. Centre for Rural Management, Kottayam, Kerala
  • Chathukulam, Jos; & Thottunkel, A. K. (2010). The Sen in the Neo-Liberal Developmental Programmes of Kerala. International Journal of Rural Management, 6(2):161—192.
  • Devika, J. & Thampi, Binitha. (2007). Between ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Liberation’: The Kudumbashree Initiative in Kerala. Indian Journal of Gender Studies. 14. 33-60. 10.1177/097152150601400103.
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  • NITI Aayog (2021). National Multidimensional Poverty Index: Baseline Report, NITI Aayog.
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[1The Kerala government is conducting a year-long celebration in connection with the silver jubilee of Kudumbashree

[2People’s Plan Campaign (PPC) was one of the most extensive and efficient decentralization programme undertaken in India. It played a significant role in promoting local democracy, devolution of functions, funds and functionaries and decentralized planning in the state.

[3The three-member task force was chaired by Dr. T M Thomas Isaac. S M Vijayanand, the then secretary to Local Self Government Department (LSGD) and Dr. Prakash Bakshi, General Manager, National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development

[4In 1992, following the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, 33.33 per cent of all seats were reserved for women in Panchayati Raj Institutions. Initially political parties in the state found it difficult to convince women to contest in local government elections. However, with the emergence of Kudumbashree, the visibility of women increased and a number of women these days especially those who are part of Kudumbashree itself volunteer themselves to contest in elections with the party support.

[5The first author interacted with graduates from IRMA and TISS, who got placed in Kudumbashree as well as who have previously worked with the Kudumbashree and the inference was obtained by the author from the interaction that took place between them

[6Also known as ‘Vanitha Mathil’, it was orgainsed against the backdrop of the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala. The event took place on January 1, 2019. It was dubbed as a state-sponsored initiative to uphold gender equality.

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