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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 6, January 26, 2013 - Republic Day Special

Women Self-Help Groups from Home Courtyard to State Secretariat


Saturday 2 February 2013


Women’s movements in Kerala reflect the value system, demands and methods of agitations of different strands of feminism. Socialist feminism is not dominant in spite of the lofty membership in the women’s wing of the CPI-M. The debates related to third generation feminism and its subversive politics are principally confined to women intellectuals and celebrities. At present, it resembles a powerful intellectual consortium. Its influence in fairly advanced vernacular literature, academic writings and research is a matter of fact. But its capacity to mobilise women for a massive agitation is limited. Compared to them, the objectives of the first generation of feminism have some ground support.

In the post-decentralisation period, perco-lation of procedural democracy to the grassroots, women’s reservation in elections and gender inclusive welfare programmes have enhanced the procedural incorporation of women into the public space, political institutions and demo-cratic struggles.1 The public (male) cynicism about women’s entry into politics has gradually faded. The decision of the previous Left Govern-ment (2006-11) to increase women’s reservation to 50 per cent in local bodies gave indications of the gender-class combination emerging in local politics. Yet, women’s presence in politics and their appropriate share in the welfare fund had never been the effect of massive women’s agitations. As a category of political citizens, they had a very passive relationship with the welfare state.2 In addition to this, a large majority of women organisations stand independent of political parties, which is the reason for both their strength and weakness. Even though feminist intellectuals wish to avoid double membership in women’s organisation and political parties, it is quite unlikely in Kerala where party-wise political polarisation is so deep and the political party system and civil society are interlocked in many ways.

Against this background, this article looks at the ‘day-and-night agitation’ (rapakal samaram) organised by the women self-help groups (SHGs) associated with Kudumbashree (officially known as the State Poverty Eradication Mission)3 in front of the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram during the first week of October. The agitation was led by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and supported by the CPI-M. On the 9th day of the agitation, the United Democratic Front (UDF) Government had to sign an agreement in favour of their demands.4 This event brings to the attention the specificity of women’s empowerment in Kerala; its articu-lation in the form of gender-cum-class demand; the gender-effects of decentralised development; and the relationship between the political Left and women’s movements.

Women in Kudumbashree:
Institutionalisation of Participatory Action

KUDUMBASHREE was launched in 1998 as a community network that would work in tandem with Local Self-Government Institutions (LSGIs) for poverty eradication and women’s empowerment. It is a joint programme of the Government of Kerala and NABARD, formally registered under the Travancore-Kochi Literary, Scientific and Charitable Societies Act (1955). The Governing Body is chaired by the State Minister of LSG assisted by a Director at the State level. There is a field officer in every district.

Self-help groups of Kudumbashree in villages and municipalities are organised into Neigh-bourhood Groups (NHG) that send represen-tatives to the ward level Area Development Societies (ADS). The ADS sends its represen-tatives to the Community Development Society (CDS). Today, there are 1,94,000 NHGs, 17,000 ADSs and 1061 CDSs in the State. The total membership of this self-help group network is about 40 lakhs. It has proved helpful to bring women to the Grama Sabhas. The CDS has a significant role in development activities ranging from socio-economic surveys and enterprise development to community management and social audit. [Kudumbashree 2011] All the villages and municipalities have a number of its units. Originally started as microfinance-led financial security model, very soon it became a comprehensive model of local economic develop-ment and participatory mechanism for women’s empowerment.5 Jagratha Samiti—a vigilance group against women’s oppression—is a part of the network. It is found to be effective in bringing such matters for discussion and collective action by women.
The Kudumbashree network is the strongest and well-organised institutional group among various local level collectives that emerged in the post-decentralisation period. Its linkage with state power, participatory and democratic way of decision-making, and qualities such as voluntarism and self-mobilisation helped it to become the most developed institution of government action diffused in community based mobilisation. The private companies and entre-preneurs were permitted to join the Kudum-bashree units at the mediation of LSGIs. The economic assessment of the Kudumbashree network gives us mixed result. But its effectiveness to mobilise poor women by providing them a shared community space in their home courtyard is noteworthy.

LDF and UDF: Perceiving the Difference

EVEN though the UDF Government (1991-96) was instrumental in implementing the 73rd and 74th Amendments in Kerala, the participatory mode for decentralisation (widely known as People’s Plan Campaign) was the contribution of the LDF rule (1996-2001). The government introduced institutional reforms and financial devolution to supplement the efforts for empo-werment of the weaker sections. In fact, the objective was to pair development with democratisation. Kudumbashree provided institutional support for the mobilisation of poor women. The structure and administration of Kudumbashree showed a sense of balance between community initiative and state support.

The UDF rule (2001-06) reversed the process of decentralisation; abandoned the campaign mode; and re-bureaucratised development. Heavy cutback in the total Plan outlay obstructed the resource devolution. The result: the partici-pation in Grama Sabhas declined. However, Kudumbashree continued as a forum for collective entrepreneurship and micro-finance. Since ‘self-help’ became a catch-phrase in the neoliberal discourse of development, the Congress-led UDF Government did not dismantle it altogether. However, there was little effort to strengthen it as a platform for mobilisation of women for empowerment. Interestingly, the government found this as useful to disburse welfare services and to conduct field surveys at less administrative cost. The government presented Kudumbashree as a successful example of ‘targeted development’ to obtain financial aid from the Centre.

The LDF, mainly the CPI-M, perceived the significance of the SHG networks better and earlier than their counterparts.6 With the increase in reservation, women became a category of political citizens. Before deciding women candidates, political parties had to consider their experience in Kudumbashree. The LDF Government (2006-11) took steps to expand and strengthen the women SHGs by means of financial devolution and introduction of new statutes.7 Thomas Isaac, the Finance Minister, introduced his last Budget describing it as a ‘Gender Budget’. Kudumbashree achieved unprecedented results in such a favourable administrative, political and financial environment.

The government initially fixed the Budget allocation for Kudumbashree at Rs 50 crores, and charged only four per cent interest on govern-ment loans to SHGs. In the ‘Gender Budget’ the amount was enhanced to Rs 100 crores. Most important was its selection as the nodal agency for implementation of the Centrally sponsored National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). [At the end of the LDF rule] Kudumbashree became the most familiar and legitimate community network in local governance having its units in 98 per cent of wards. [Devika 2012] Members of Kudumbashree represent local government next to the elected representatives before the people.8

Janasree versus Kudumbashree:
Immediate Cause of Agitation

THE present UDF Government debilitated the institutional capacity and drained the financial resources of Kudumbashree. It increased the interest rate on government loans from four to 12 per cent; indefinitely postponed the promises of ‘Gender Budget’; and relocated its expert administrative staff. Above all, the government issued an order to permit Kudumbashree members to take double membership, mainly in the Congress sponsored NGO—Janasree.

A section of Congress leaders started a Janasree Sustainable Development Mission in 2008 to offset Kudumbashree. The negative verdict against the LDF in the 2010 Panchayat election and the change in the State Government in 2011 gave them the opportunity to nurture this party-sponsored NGO. But its membership grew up to only 10 lakhs in spite of the government order for double membership. In a strategic move, the Congress MPs with the help of a memorandum signed by the UDF’s Block Panchayat Presidents appealed to the Central Government to replace Kudumbashree with Janasree as the nodal agency of the NRLM. The Central Government did not yield, because Janasree had no track record comparable to Kudumbashree. In its reply, it described Kudumbashree as a model SHG for other States [The Hindu, Thiruvananthapuram, March 21, 2012] When its attempt to purchase membership of poor women with attractive financial offers through borrowed money from Central Govern-ment, public sector banks and NABARD failed, the State Government provided money for Janasree. Its hastily designed projects were approved and sanctioned Rs 14.9 crores under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY). The Opposition criticised it as an act of political manoeuvre of decentralised governance, and an attempt to siphon off public funds to a party-sponsored NGO. In its newly formed microfinance wing named as ‘Janasree Microfin’ a person who had been booked in corruption cases related to microfinance was appointed as the Director.

To the public, no information is available about the resource mobilisation, the stake-holders and functioning of Janasree. Its non-transparent outlook bred suspicion and gave strength to criticism that it is a private/party NGO of the Congress. Kudumbashree had the advantage of larger membership than Janasree, longer historical record, familiarity with the local public, institutionalised linkage with LSGIs, and decentralised and participatory operations. The Congress in Kerala had been several times accused of corruption for the personal gain of party leaders. Its NGO could also follow suit. [Devika 2012] On the other side, Kudumbashree is free of such allegations. There are multiple channels of social audit and greater chance for state vigilance in its operations. To the public, it was easy to appreciate Kudumbashree as a state-people interface, while Janasree remains a private limited company sponsored by a few leaders of a political party.

In the case of Kudumbashree, at the macro-level, the state is the patron; at the middle level bureaucrats ensure its coordination; and at the micro level, it is solely under the control of the NHG, ADS and CDS properly wedded with the LSGIs. All the political parties can involve in its activities; build up rapport through their representatives in LSGIs; and they can also recruit women party members into its three-tier structure. Although the opportunity was equal, the CPI-M has multiple advantages, namely, its principal commitment to decentralised development and people’s mobilisation; active women cadres capable of leading Kudumbashree units;9 and the generous support from the LDF Government.

Mode of Agitation: Self-Help and Party’s Help

THE settings of decentralisation in Kerala did not leave the floor exclusively for the NGOs. There was scope for collaboration between NGOs and political parties. Party-led political mobilisation is familiar to the weaker sections as it happened much before NGO-led mobilisation. The political Left has contributed to this. By decentralisation the CPI-M meant deepening and institutionalisa-tion of the process of mobilisation and democratisation. Scholars [for example, Heller 2005] remark that the CPI-M through decentra-lisation aimed at embedding class struggles in mass mobilisation. While the critics abused it as ideological deviation and class compromise, the admirers appreciated it as a strategy to interconnect class and non-class.

The legal framework envisages local governance in Kerala as part of party-democracy. With the commencement of decentralisation, non-class identities of various sorts gained significance in the development agenda of the State. This brought their empowerment question into the party-polarised struggles for popular support and power. In terms of programmatic agenda, due to little hesitation to financially support the welfare programmes and its long history of involvement in people’s mobilisation, the CPI-M could outweigh other political parties in the party-wise competition. It has two contestants in this field—the Opposition political parties; and the identity based and issue
based non-governmental groupings and their intellectuals.

In the Kudumbashree agitation, the CPI-M took up the specific combination of class and non-class identity of the economically backward women. The agitation did not face any major criticism from the independent women’s move-ments, though none of them declared support to it. After the agitation they complained that the AIDWA at the directive of the CPI-M hijacked Kudumbashree. [For example, Devika 2012] Kudumbashree, which brings means of livelihood, credit and meeting space, has become a household name for the poor women. Any move to debilitate Kudumbashree was realised by the women as an attempt to dismantle their base of associational life, participation and livelihood.

The CPI-M and AIDWA played the midwifery role for the agitation. Basically, the women who joined self-help groups were voters of different political parties. Compared to other women’s organisations, the AIDWA was very active in providing them the space for unionisation. Except this, there was no indication to say that the CPI-M captured Kudumbashree in clandestine ways for its own political gains. Its participatory nature is a bulwark against such an attempt. In fact, the agitation is noted for self-help and party-help in sensible proportion. The CPI-M was not in the driver’s seat. The AIDWA, which formed the Kudumbashree Protection Forum, fielded women at the leadership role. Thomas Isaac, the patron of the Forum, was an active organiser of women SHGs in Alappuzha district which preceded the foundation of Kudumbashree.

The groundwork and technical details of the agitation are the most striking. There were 2500 permanent volunteers from different Kudum-bashree units permanently stationed in front of the State Secretariat for the indefinite strike. They sat in groups representing different districts. Crowds of women from SHGs from different districts came to the city and participated in demonstrations on a daily basis. Their number increased day by day. When the organisers declared that the agitation would spread across the towns and district headquarters, the government yielded for negotiation. The media, which initially ignored it, later understood the consistency of the agitation and gave it headline news. Many a women-led demonstration against price hike in various places, and a number of strikes organised by the nurses (mainly women) working in private hospitals for better wage-service conditions in Kerala prepared the mood for the Kudumbashree agitation.

The celebration of the 14th anniversary of Kudumbashree in Cochin just a week before the agitation was an occasion for its members to assemble and share their common problems.10 Emotional unity for the agitation followed this event. Its novel ways of protest resembled the methods of new social movements. Before the public who gathered at the venue of sit-in-strike (either to share support or due to ‘male curiosity’), the women volunteers were presenting songs, drama and dance forms in small groups, and some of them opened small stalls to sell handicrafts and honey made by their Kudumbashree units.

In State politics, the CPI-M was seeking a new arena of struggle. The group-specific targeted development through LSGIs and the increased reservation for women indicated the possibility of gender voting. In this agitation, the party and women intellectuals did not form two fighting camps. The legitimacy for Kudumbashree in women/feminist circles went in favour of the agitation and became a risk for the government. The women participants of the agitation, who considered Kudumbashree as a means for their financial security and credit needs and admired the shared community space it provided, hardly pursued the post-modern feminist imagination about women’s emancipation and empowerment. They viewed the efforts of the government to reduce financial assistance and diversion of projects to Janasree as a threat to their livelihood. Most probably, it was the expression of ‘class feminism’.

The agitation was mobilising poor (class) women (non-class). The hiatus between class and non-class was so thin and easy for a synthesis. Such an agitation was necessitated by the realisation of the impacts and reasons for the Left’s major failure in the Panchayat election 2010. In spite of plenty of welfare projects to its credit, the CPI-M did not gain political support. So it was necessary to unionise women SHGs with the help of the AIDWA. The CPI-M in Kerala has been trying to expand its multi-class coalition to counterweight both its adversaries in the party system and in civil society.11 Through the agitation the CPI-M warned the government, which has a thin majority in the Assembly, that any step to reverse the welfare policies initiated by the previous LDF Government would be a political risk.


DECENTRALISATION and participatory development were the recent attempts of the political Left to protect, mobilise and empower the weaker sections of class and non-class varieties. The Kudumbashree agitation proves this point well. The AIDWA’s State unit, often ridiculed by its critics as the ‘pet children’ of ‘patriarchal
CPI -M’, had a very decisive role in this agitation. They hardly pursue third generation feminism. They mobilised women based on the demands of the first generation feminism to a great extent, and second generation feminism to a lesser extent.

The agitation was an appropriate reply to those critics who identified decentralisation with de-politicisation of development and ideological deviation from class struggle. The agitation signalled mainstreaming of gender-class combi-nation of demands to the State’s attention. It was a political struggle born out of mutual under-standing between a Left political party and the poor women through multiple ways of interactions in the light of the participatory model of democracy and development.

The agitation brings to our attention two parallel processes of women empowerment initiatives in Kerala—first, with the active invol-vement of the AIDWA and CPI-M; and the second, at the leadership of autonomous NGOs and feminist intellectuals. Some working alliances or a dialogic relationship between the two would have helped the task of empowering women with improved strength and legitimacy.12


1. It is beyond doubt that they are not integrated as fully empowered, autonomous and free-choosing groups. Patriarchal norms and practices of traditional society have not been completely removed. These re-emerge in modern forms. Moreover, liberal individualism is not the norm that dominates politics, economy and social relations in contemporary Kerala.

2. It places women movements in contrast to the caste and class movements for redistribution and represen-tation.

3. Literally in Malayalam “Kudumbashree” means “opulence/prosperity of family”. ( It may be displeasing to very radical feminists.)

4. Their demands include: reinstate Kudumbashree as the nodal agency for the NRLM; reduce interest rate on loans to four per cent; writing off the due for housing loans under Bhavanashree; implement the increase in Budget allotment to Kudumbashree; cancel the allotment of project given to Janasree under the RKVY etc.

5. Devika and Thampi remarks: “[the] history of Kerala since mid-20th century is characterised by changing ‘regimes of empowerment’. The first type was characterised by the obvious commitment of the state to welfare and the willingness and efforts of the political society to negotiate the interests and demands of the organised poor against the state power. The second type which is of recent emergence in the context of liberalisation and changes in political society, is characterised by the weakening of the state’s commitment to welfare and increasing support to private capital and the decline in the political society which has stripped of its linkages with masses. The state and political parties perceive women empowerment within the second type of empowerment regime.” [Devika and Thampi 2007: 43] However, the authors hardly see the difference between the CPI-M and its opponents in pursuing the second type of empowerment regime, in policy content, purpose and procedures.

6. While maintaining criticism about the AIDWA’s subordination to ‘patriarchal CPI (M)’ in ‘high politics’ on women’s issues, scholars approve that it organises BPL women in the Kudumbashree SHG network. [Devika and Thampi 2012: 6]

7. The gravity of state finance (either by direct funding or through negotiation with public sector banks and local credit co-operatives) over private/self-finance during the LDF rule is the reason why the micro-finance model remains sustainable and free of credit traps in Kerala.

8. Two popular Malayalam movies were released based on the life of women in Kudumbashree as the theme.

9. Devika [2012:17] points out that the agitation gives a feeling that the AIDWA worker and Kudumbashree member are one and the same; and it should be avoided for ‘real’ empowerment of women.

10. At the function, recollecting her beginning as a social worker Jayalekshmi (Minister for Tribal Welfare) said that her earlier engagement in Kudumbashree gave her the courage to become a political leader. She added: “It was the emergence of Kudumbashree that enabled many women to start a bank account and gave them the courage to perform in various organisations.” [The Times of India, Kochi, September 29, 2012].

11. In civil society, the late 1990s witnessed a surge in anti-CPI-M critics claiming support of various fractions of ‘voiceless political society’. Factionalism inside the party affected the ability of the CPI-M to effectively encounter this. The same was the main reason for not being able to make use of local governance and decentralisation to expand its support base adequately.

12. The sensational and anti-Left mainstream vernacular newspapers, journals and television news channels hardly provide space for such a constructive dialogue.

Devika, J. (2012): “The Developmental Tyranny of the Buffoonery” (Malayalam), Mathrubhumi Weekly, November 4-10, pp. 16-20.
Devika, J. and Binitha V. Thampi (2012): New Lamps for Old: Gender Paradoxes of Political Decentralisation in Kerala, New Delhi: Zubaan.
Devika, J. and Binitha V. Thampi (2007): “Between ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Liberation’: The Kudumbashree Initiative in Kerala”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 14(1), pp. 33-60.
Hassan, M.M. (2012): “Why Opposition to Janasree?” (Malayalam), Mathrubhumi Daily, October 4.
Heller, Patrick (2005): “Reinventing Public Power in the Age of Globalisation: The Transformation of Movement Politics in Kerala”, in Raka Ray and M.F. Katzenstein, Social Movement in India: Poverty, Power and Politics, Rowman and Littlefield: New York, pp. 79-106.
Kudumbashree (2011): Annual Administration Report—2009-2010, State Poverty Eradication Mission, Thiruvananthapuram.
Nidheesh, K.B. (2009): “Study on the Changing Process of Kerala Women through Kudumbashree in Kerala”, International NGO Journal, 4 (8), pp. 352-61.
Pat, A.K. (2005), “Kudumbashree: A Poverty Eradication Mission in Kerala”, Economic and Political Weekly, November 26, pp. 4989-91.
Sreemathi, P.K. (2012): “Don’t Spare These Thugs” (Malayalam), Deshabhimani Daily, October 6.
Seema, T.N. (2012): “The Struggle for Survival” (Malayalam), Deshabhimani Daily, October 2.
Dr Biju B.L. is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, University of Hyderabad and Abhilash Kumar K.G. is a Research Scholar in Political Science, University of Kerala.
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