Debates on Kudumbashree are part of Kerala's development discourse, and more so when it concerns issues of gender and development of the marginalised communities.
Looking back from 2016, with the advantage of hindsight, Kudumbashree appears a programme that could be an easy target as well as considered object for criticism, both political and academic. There are enough reasons to believe so if one looks at its genesis and the history spread over a decade and a half.
Kudumbashree is the leading poverty eradication programme of the State government. It was born in the midst of the development debate set free by the now famous People’s Campaign for the Ninth Five Year Plan. Its strategies were centred on building up of community based organisations of poor women.
While focusing on poverty and poor families, it adopted a set of criteria different from the commonly used official ‘poverty line’. While women from any family, irrespective of their economic status, were allowed to join, a ‘nine point criteria’ was adopted for deciding on the eligibility to avail subsidies under schemes.
The mission also did not go the ‘SHG way’ which was the predominant organisational form of those days; instead, it insisted on women in the groups being from the same neighbourhood.
Its community development strategy involved federating women’s groups several years before that became a national strategy.
And above all these, Kudumbashree has always been driven by highly motivated people, both from within government and independent professionals. As seen when such pools of handpicked people join together to push a programme, Kudumbashree almost always was driven by a fervent passion.
The programme must have had a deep impact on those who drove it and those who became part of it. This is evident from the stories both documented and recalled.
“There was not so much of an opposition to or criticism of Kudumbashree in the formative years”, testifies T.K. Jose IAS who headed the mission from its early days till 2006. “Mostly because nobody took us seriously those days. Responses to our work were of three types. Some people were outright pessimistic. Some showed sceptic indifference. A third category thought the programme was impractical and therefore neglected it”.
It is a story of great successes and significant failures; and the way it evolved, there could not have been an alternative route perhaps. Such a passionate story that touched so many hearts cannot escape its own share of criticisms.
This section looks at the analytical criticisms – the different strands of it – that came up over the years.
Neglect, ironically seems to have helped Kudumbashree in its early years. Otherwise it would not have been possible to have such a non-controversial sail through those years that were marked by fiery political debates on decentralisation, development, and neo-liberal policies. Given the high level of politicisation of the masses, any large scale programme to evolve without controversies would have been unlikely.
“The main criticism that we faced during 2006-07 was from the feminist academics. Kudumbashree’s approach was criticised as being ‘status-quoist’”, says Sarada Muraleedharan who headed Kudumbashree from 2006 till 2012. Kudumbashree was criticised for not addressing the gender dimension.
Started as a poverty eradication mission, while passing through the second half of the second decade of its existence, there had been questions raised about its focus and content as well.
“Kudumbashree has had a shift in focus from poverty eradication to women empowerment over the years”, said S.M. Vijayanand, whose association with the idea of Kudumbashree started from being a member of the committee that proposed the programme, and continued over years when he was in charge of Local Self Government Department and the Department of Planning and Economic Affairs.
“My personal opinion is that Kudumbashree should keep its focus on poverty. When you have your eye on poverty, and your concern is its eradication, gains of the weaker sections will be monitored. This may not happen if the focus shifts to empowerment. My view is that empowerment is empty without material resources”.
The Discourses on Kudumbashree
A close look at the discourses on Kudumbashree reveals a few streams, even though they are mixed in many cases. One stream has been the 'feminist-academic' critique. The other streams too maintained certain central themes. For instance, a common criticism on Kudumbashree has been that it did not cover the tribal and coastal communities, considered as two outliers of the Kerala development experience, as much as needed. There has been criticisms on shifting away from the poverty focus; and of course, there have been observers who argued for an empowerment focus too. Another line of argument has been one considered dismissive of the entire Kudumbashree experience; that it has been part of a larger neo-liberal agenda wherein government withdraws from its critical functions and leaves them to the market.
This section explores the critical discourses on Kudumbashree.