"Neighbourhood Groups have to evolve into genuine instruments of women empowerment on the one hand and critical players in local level planning and development on the other. We need another people's plan campaign; and Kudumbashree NHGs should spearhead it".
- Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac, Minister for Finance, Government of Kerala (Thomas Isaac was the chairman of the three member Task Force that recommended Kudumbashree's formation)
A question that has been raised about Kudumbashree from within and outside, time and again, has been whether it has shifted its focus from poverty eradication. There are people who felt that Kudumbashree has shifted its focus to women’s empowerment; some thought that it amounted to diluting its original mandate. If one goes by the programmes and strategy, a shift towards women’s empowerment has been visible since 2008. However, whether this has led to a shift away from the focus on poverty is debatable.
Debates of this kind cannot escape going to the very definition of the terms that are in question. So, more than a shift away from poverty, one could observe that Kudumbashree Mission has redefined poverty somewhere midway through its journey. The Kudumbashree leadership under Sarada Muraleedharan seemed to have had a very different definition of poverty, fighting of which necessitated concrete actions in empowerment. Empowerment here meant much more than economic empowerment; the definition became political; and therefore strategies were about addressing political empowerment as well.
"Kudumbashree has to maintain its focus on poverty eradication. It is an essential requirement to ensure that the poor benefits. Also to keep a check on the effectiveness of programmes. According to me, empowerment without material resources is meaningless"
- S.M. Vijayanand, Chief Secretary, Government of Kerala (S.M. Vijayanand was a member of the three member Task Force that recommended Kudumbashree's formation. He was also the Secretary, Local Self Government, Government of Kerala at the time of formation of Kudumbashree)
But wasn’t there a political content in the early definition of poverty too? It would be fair to say that the initial approach and strategies too addressed some of the pertinent issues relating to women’s status and agency in a highly patriarchal society. Kudumbashree NHGs were not modelled around the SHGs that were promoted across the world during the late eighties and nineties. NHGs were conceived as collectives of women from a neighbourhood, and were contextualised in the decentralisation of powers to local governments and the People’s Plan Campaign. The NHG structure was visualised with a defined relationship with the strong local governments that were evolving in the State’s development milieu.
The myriad reforms that were initiated around 2008 had their roots deep in Kudumbashree community institution’s role as women’s agency. In a way, Kudumbashree started talking politics. The way ‘common bylaws’ were drawn up making elections replace nominations to the community structure signified this shift in the most definite way. It could be said that the 2008 bylaws have been a statement that the Kudumbashree Mission made to the community institutional structure on the one hand and to the society at large on the other.
Gender Self-Learning Programme (GSLP) denoted another milestone in this direction. Pustakayathra, the journey of books, where women wrote their stories, made them into books, and travelled with those books across the State took this message to a different level. Rights and entitlements were the new buzzwords; women empowerment was demystified for poor women to understand them in relation to their day to day lived experiences.
"Creating and developing democratic citizen space should be the focus for Kudumbashree. There has to be progressive reduction in the dependence on government. Kudumbashree has to devise new ways of addressing vulnerabilities"
- Sarada Muraleedharan, former Executive Director, Kudumbashree
Several of Kudumbashree programmes and the strategies that drove them were put under the empowerment lens for rigorous scrutiny during this stage. Take Ashraya for instance. Even as Ashraya continued as a flagship programme, Kudumbashree raised questions that sounded political to the core. Is looking after the destitute a women’s responsibility? Were women being pushed into socially defined gendered spaces where they gained acceptance in society as women doing what they were meant to do in patriarchal societies? Was the government washing its hands off from the responsibility of looking after the destitute people, instead pushing the hapless into the hands of poor women? Similar questions could be raised about the BUDS school and BRC programmes.
The rationale behind taking up the urban schemes was also questioned within the organisation. Urban programmes were in fact thrust up on the Mission rather than in taking them up. Why was it that Kudumbashree CDSs had to take up the urban programmes? What was the connection of programmes such as IHSDP and BSUP to Kudumbashree? Was Kudumbashree being used as a parallel channel to overcome the systemic limitations of a municipal administration ridden with trade unionism and corruption? Was Kudumbashree capable of delivering on such projects? What was the logic in pushing projects involving significant construction components onto Kudumbashree? How were these women expected to deliver on all these?
"It is important for Kudumbashree to evolve a method and strategy for convergence of resources and services in all available areas. Ashraya is a project of sheer convergence which yielded results. In the changing times convergence is very significant especially when Kudumbashree is handling vast number of programmes as compared with the beginning. For example, convergence with national skill development programme, agricultural skill development programme etc".
- T.K. Jose, former Executive Director, Kudumbashree
Of course, raising questions does not mean Kudumbashree could stay away from any of these. Ashraya as a programme aimed at inclusion of the most vulnerable people who even lack capacities to claim their basic entitlements, helped Kudumbashree members emerge as champions of social action at the local level. While the efforts that the women had to put in were humungous, Ashraya placed them as natural leaders of the poor in Gram Panchayats. The BUDS school initiative has also been instrumental in Kudumbashree women gaining definite status as leaders with a cause at the local level.
In hindsight, it is fair to say that Kudumbashree women have been a corrective force in the effective identification and rehabilitation of the destitute across the State. Ashraya has been a landmark project, the numerous government orders placed in respective contexts testify the sensitivity that the bureaucracy as well as the top political leadership of the State had maintained in making it effective. Still, there had been the criticism that Ashraya had been misinterpreted by local governments as a mere housing scheme; there had also been reports of ineligible candidates creeping into the list through political patronage. On the whole, Kudumbashree has been able to keep a check on such tendencies.
In many ways 2008 thus was a landmark year for Kudumbashree; the year when the organisation seemed to have taken a definite turn towards an empowerment route. Still, it is unfair to state, as some sources like to do, that the Kudumbashree saga began in 2008. Since its launch to 2008, Kudumbashree had made significant strides in poverty eradication and women empowerment. Most of its programmes, including Samagra, had been initiated well before 2008. The network had reached State level coverage as early as 2002. Micro enterprise promotion has been a strategy that has been adopted since early days. The Mission had meticulously crafted monitoring and reporting systems. It had a culture of promoting and driving innovations right from the early years.
Questions have now been raised about the role and relevance of Kudumbashree Mission. As the community structure does not extend beyond local government level, district, regional, and State level leadership of Kudumbashree has been vested with the Mission. It would be unfair to overlook the contributions that several committed personnel at different levels in the State Mission and the District Missions made to make Kudumbashree what it is today. There are officers in the State government who in spite of their departmental positions are identified broadly as ‘Kudumbashree persons’.
Critics apart, criticism on the role and relevance of the Mission has come up from the discerning and the well-meaning sections that have always stood in support of Kudumbashree. Academics who had decided against publishing the results of their years of hard work just because they thought the findings might harm Kudumbashree have gone on record stating that the Mission has deviated from its objectives and compromised on its core values. As questions are being raised by those among the thousands in the State who always supported Kudumbashree, one cannot but examine the facts behind it.
A major strength that Kudumbashree had from its early years has been the quality of its personnel. Kudumbashree stood ground against criticisms and attacks over several years leveraging on the capacities and credibility of its personnel. However, there has been reason to believe that these have eroded to a large extent over the years. There has been changes in the human resource strategy of the Mission at different points in the past. This has led to changes in the nature and capacities of the personnel that joined Kudumbashree in different phases.
The first round of recruitment to Kudumbashree Mission, during the early phase, had been through a search-cum-screening process. There was an interview committee to select candidates. However, efforts were made to identify persons with established reputation as honest and committed officers, who were asked to apply to the positions. The interview committee headed by senior administrators and political leaders picked up the personnel through this process.
During 2001-2006, the government went for deputation of persons to the Mission based on applications; however, this was also regulated through a recruitment process involving compulsory field stay and exposure programmes specified by the Mission’s leadership. This too worked well as people who came in without a real interest in Kudumbashree dropped out, unable to withstand the rigour of the process. Thus the process ensured that reasonably good people with the right intentions got into the Mission. In spite of these, a few people without the right capacities and orientation did get in and this subsequently led to problems.
After the government change in 2006, the new administration gave an upper hand to their service organisation in the recruitment to the Mission. This could have been a recipe for disaster; but the Mission still managed broadly to get the appropriate people as the service organisation heeded to the Mission’s leadership to propose committed and honest officers. Even then, it has to be said that the human resource policy was already getting diluted; making it dependent on people rather than systems and processes.
It was the next wave of recruitments that saw a total reversal of the human resource policy. Selection was done mostly based on political affiliations; qualifications and quality considerations were seriously compromised. A closer look at the credentials of the people in key positions during this period and a comparison with those who occupied those positions in the past reveal a grim picture. Some extremely unfit people got into the Mission and functioned for a long period without any understanding of the goals and objectives of Kudumbashree. Suffice it to say that the earlier the Mission corrects these anomalies, the better.
Kudumbashree Mission, even though set up under the Department of Local Self-Government, has been conceived as a supra-departmental entity. The Mission faced resistance and isolation from the Rural Development Department (RDD) of the State government from the early days. RDD is the department that had been the main agency for the implementation of centrally sponsored as well as State-supported rural development programmes. Therefore, RDD viewed Kudumbashree as an entity that threatened the very existence of the department.
The State government took a decision to merge the Rural Development Department with the Local Administration Department to form the Department of Local Self-Government, following the launch of the People’s Plan Campaign. This was viewed as a major set back by the core staff of RDD. Along with this, new programmes in poverty eradication were getting implemented on a mission mode by Kudumbashree; this further alienated the staff of RDD.
The new dispensation that came to power in 2001 reversed the decision of the merger of the departments and created Rural Development Department again. The processes started from here led to intensification of rivalry between Kudumbashree and RDD. RDD had women’s groups already in the field and they questioned the relevance of Kudumbashree forming NHGs. Kudumbashree’s approach was different; they went on a mission mode forming NHGs across the State through massive mobilisation in three phases. RDD on the other hand, had been forming women’s groups in a programme mode with annual targets.
The new government in 2006 again merged the departments to the Department of Local Self Government (LSGD). In 2010, the Government of India declared Kudumbashree as the State Rural Livelihood Mission (SRLM) under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM). NRLM being a restructured form of SGSY, which was so far implemented by the RDD, the department raised a claim to be SRLM.
The State government worked out a formula to engage the staff of RDD in NRLM even while Kudumbashree continued in its role as SRLM. Staff of the original RDD formed a cadre with specialised skills, experience, and orientation for rural development and poverty eradication programmes. The State government’s proposal was to utilise this pool of human resources by drawing in experienced RDD staff as Assistant District Mission Coordinators (ADMCs) in all the 14 districts and appointing a Joint Commissioner of RDD at the State level for SRLM.
RDD did not accept this proposal; instead, the department withdrew the Village Extension Officers (VEOs) who were till then the Member Secretaries of Kudumbashree CDSs. This did some damage, as the Assistant Secretaries of Gram Panchayats who replaced VEOs as Member Secretaries of CDSs lacked the development orientation and experience that VEOs had.
In hindsight, it is evident that it was a losing battle for everyone. On the one hand, RDD lost an opportunity to capitalise on its excellent staff base to emerge as a key player in a nationally important programme like NRLM. On the other, Kudumbashree lost from the withdrawal of VEOs as Member Secretaries; they also lost an opportunity to utilise the services of such a large experienced pool of human resources. Had RDD and Kudumbashree worked together, the programme would have been able to advance much further than what it is today.
While RDD took an inimical approach, there were departments that supported and collaborated with Kudumbashree. Department of Agriculture, Department of Animal Husbandry, and Health Department were examples. Interestingly, Kudumbashree never enjoyed a good rapport with the Department of Social Justice, which too saw it as a competitor, if one goes by the experience of relationship between the two entities. In fact, what later became Social Security Mission was a budget line and programme that the State government had approved for Kudumbashree. Ironically, out of typographic error, the allocation led to the creation of a new mission, which saw Kudumbashree as a competitor.
Looking back, one would wonder, why such hostilities existed between these departments. The same persons have headed both RDD and Kudumbashree at least twice in the history of Kudumbashree. For almost half of the Mission’s life so far, both were under the same department, headed by the same officer. Still the rivalry never ended; and RDD could never reconcile with the very existence of Kudumbashree. On exploring the reasons behind this, it is the nature of the service organisations of employees of government departments that provides a probable explanation to this.
There had been attempts to kill Kudumbashree at different points in time; there had been organised attacks from political parties and leaders to thwart it or discredit it. Early attempts to destroy Kudumbashree were seen just after the formation itself. Among the early opponents of Kudumbashree were some of the prominent presidents of Gram Panchayats and Chairpersons of Municipalities. A section of them went and represented to the government that the Mission was against the spirit of decentralisation and had to be brought under the control of the local governments.
Another serious attempt was seen immediately after the change in government in 2001. A section of leaders from the ruling Front organised ‘Kudumbasangamam’, conceived as an alternative to Kudumbashree. Later, the same group of leaders set up a new organisation along the lines of Kudumbashree and called it Janashree. They said Kudumbashree was a CPI(M) outfit, and posed Janashree as a sustainable development mission for all the people, in the process creating it as an arm of the State unit of the Indian National Congress (I).
Janashree soon started staking claim for an equal space as that of Kudumbashree, that too with the backing of a section of the ruling party. This, however, did not work, as the then Chief Minister threw his weight behind Kudumbashree, even though after a period of reluctance and indecision. The attempt to thwart the Mission was repeated with the change in the Ministry midway through the term of that government. This attempt failed as the new Chief Minister also offered reluctant support to the Mission.
After the change in government in 2011, the new Front decided to split the Department of Local Self Government into three – Rural Development and Urban Affairs departments were thus formed in 2011. This led to a situation where the RDD under the new Minister again staking claim for the responsibility of SRLM. The new proposal was to make Kudumbashree one of the SRLMs providing space to other agencies such as Janashree. In the morning on the day this proposal was to be discussed with Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development, Government of India, the English daily ‘The Hindu’ carried a story by eminent journalist C. Gouridasan Nair, which reported a clandestine attempt by the State administration to push Kudumbashree into irrelevance.
Jairam Ramesh resisted the State’s proposal to have multiple agencies as SRLM. The State leadership of the political party leading the coalition government approached their central leadership for a favourable decision. However, they failed to push the agenda as their central leadership supported Jairam Ramesh and clarified that Kudumbashree was indeed an important women’s institution. Reportedly, it was Pustakayatra, the women’s journey with the books of their stories as Kudumbashree members that gained the institution the kind of support it got from the central leadership.
Just like any other institution of significance, Kudumbashree also had its own champions. Paloli Mohammad Kutty, the founder of Kudumbashree stood with it, fighting political capture and resisting attempts to destroy it. A.B. Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister who launched Kudumbashree in May 1998 wrote to the then Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission seeking a Rs 100 crore grant to the fledgling institution.
Dr T.M. Thomas Isaac, Chairman of the three member Task Force that recommended the formation of Kudumbashree supported it in subsequent years in different capacities. A.K. Antony saved Kudumbashree by converting ‘Kudumbasangamam’, the proposed alternative to Kudumbashree (which came up from his own Party in the State) into a project of Kudumbashree, which never really took off. If Oomman Chandy was a reluctant supporter during his first term as Chief Minister, he pushed Ashraya into a flagship project and supported Kudumbashree during his second term.
It was eminent scholar and activist John Kurien, who pointed out the two outliers of Kerala’s development in one of his papers while working at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS). The two outliers, according to John Kurien, were tribal communities and fisher folks. It is true about Kudumbashree also; with all its achievements in poverty eradication and women empowerment, Kudumbashree failed to a large extent in making inroads among the tribal communities and the fishing people.
In tribal areas, Kudumbashree formed groups with tribal people and settlers; naturally the settlers became the leaders of the community institution and tribal women were side-lined. Most of the tribal women eventually dropped out. A similar trend was seen along the coasts. For instance, there are more than 10,600 women fish vendors in Thiruvananthapuram district, who make a living by buying and selling fish. The organisational culture and mode of functioning of Kudumbashree community institutions are not suitable for such a working group of women.
Of late, Kudumbashree has been trying to correct its strategy in tribal areas with a pilot project in Attappady. In spite of several efforts, Kudumbashree continues to be weak among fishing communities. Kudumbashree’s state among the scattered households of scheduled caste communities also leaves much to be desired.
Thrift and credit operations are considered fundamental to the functioning of NHGs; Kudumbashree Mission has been promoting credit through various schemes and subsidies too. Still, the actual credit availed by the members of the network has been relatively low; significantly low when compared to the Velugu network of Andhra Pradesh. The Management Information System (MIS) of Velugu is also much superior to Kudumbashree’s system; it is capable of managing the information system of a credit portfolio 25 times that of Kudumbashree.
The flip side of the large credit portfolio and credit being the central issue with the community network could be the extent of politicisation seen in Andhra Pradesh over the interest rates at which banks lent to SHGs. In the run up to the 2003 State assembly elections, the incumbent Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu pressurised the banks to reduce the lending rate from 12% to 9%. In the competitive environment in which this happened, his opponent Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy promised loans to SHGs at 3%; the latter won the elections and became Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh; SHG credit has been considered as one of the drivers that pushed him ahead in the election campaign. Compared to this, credit or interest rate charged from NHGs has never become an election issue in Kerala.
This does not mean that Kudumbashree has not been used by political parties as easy area for mobilisation. There have been instances when Kudumbashree was used for advancing narrow political interests. A case in point was the Vilappil Sala agitation where Social Audit brought out the case of participants in the agitation against the waste processing plant having been paid under NREGS.
Results of the micro-enterprise route of livelihood promotion that Kudumbashree had been trying out since early days, continues mixed. Kudumbashree had tried several methods in supporting enterprises; this has reached the current pool of Micro Enterprise Consultants (MECs), who are well-trained management persons with capacities to nurture and mentor micro enterprises. Still, the success rates leave much to be desired. In addition, new strategies such as ‘Samagra’, visualised as enterprises addressing the entire value chain of commodities and services have few success stories to tell.
As the story continues, Kudumbashree surely needs to consolidate its strengths and work on its weaknesses. While the Mission would be the ideal agency to initiate a programme for this, there is also reason to believe that the very nature of the Mission needs a rethinking.