The Kudumbashree Story

Community Network

Civil Society Models

Several models of community organisation that evolved in Kerala in different historical cotexts had contributed to the Kudumbashree idea. These include a novel movement in Alappuzha led by a Gandhian, in which the term 'Ayalkoottam' seems to have been first coined, neighbourhood groups that the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, the People's Science Movement had experimented with for local level planning during the 1990s, and the Self-Help Group models promoted by Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). 

While examining these initiatives that contributed to the Kudumbashree idea, it is also important to understand the traditional models of community organisation in Kerala that predate all these. There are people who argue that some of the traditional neighbourhood models set the context for the formation of Ayalkoottams later. Interestingly, a few of these traditional models or their variants still exist in certain regions of the State. 

"Having been involved in the traditional 'Kurikalyanam' helped the people of Malappuram to look at the new neighbourhood model as something familiar to their cultural context. Then, one needs to understand the fact that this was Malappuram that we are talking about. It is a place with a history of social cohesion and openness to new ideas. Voluntarism comes so naturally to the people of Malappuram. This is not to negate the contributions of the Alappuzha Model. They had been the pioneers in this. It is also important to note the overall context. Mohammad Younis was already experimenting with micro finance in Bangladesh'.

- Rajeev Sadanandan IAS, the then District Collector of Malappuram, referring to the experience of the Malappuram CDS Model. 

The Gandhian Ayalkoottam movement of Alappuzha, however, stand out as a first step in the story of the modern neighbourhood groups. 

Ayalkoottam Movement in Alappuzha

‘Neighbourhood’ Group is a literal translation of Ayalkoottam in Malayalam, Kerala’s local language. There was an experiment by the same name in Alappuzha in the 1970s. Initiated by a Gandhian community worker D Pankajaksha Kurup, the experiment took place in Kanjippadam village near Ambalappuzha in Alappuzha district.

The experiment was pivoted on the concept of voluntary sharing of resources by villagers. This was evident from the very slogan of the movement, which was ‘Undallo; Kondupokam’, a rough translation of which would mean ‘There is enough; Take it’.

  • Around 15 households in a neighbourhood formed an Ayalkoottam (Neighbourhood Group) or Tharakkoottam
  • Several Ayalkoottams formed Gramakkoottam (Village Level Group)

Community taking ownership of its affairs at the local level was the key feature of the programme. The concept that was promoted was of a money-less economy, of a borderless world, of a self-governing society.

An Alternative in Neighbourhood Movement - The 'Parishad Model'

Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) have been in existence in many countries; most of them being small territorial grouping that maintain social relationships and might have developed a common consciousness or identity. They were not conceived or designed to have any political or developmental function. In that case, Pankajaksha Kurup’s Kanjippadam model stood out as one with a political and developmental vision, which was fundamentally Gandhian.

During early 1990s, Kerala Sastra SahityaParishad (KSSP), the people’s science movement, through its collaboration with the Centre for Development Studies for the project called Panchayat Level Development Planning (PLDP), took a cue from the Kanjippadam model and experimented with it from a different perspective.

KSSP conceived neighbourhood groups as basic socio-political as well as developmental units of the society to enable:

  • Participatory and face to face democracy, enabling each citizen to participate in the day to day management of the society
  • A substantial reduction in the cost of management resulting from increased participation and consequent transparency
  • Increased political participation of the individual citizens in the choice of their representatives, easy recall of erring ones, and almost zero cost election from Members of Panchayats to Members of Parliament
  • Equal participation of women in all spheres

KSSP’s NHG pilots were tested in Kalliassery Grama Panchayat in Kannur district in 1993. Subsequently, as part of PLDP, NHGs were formed in Mayyil in Kannur, Onchium in Kozhikode, Madakkathara in Thrissur, Kumarakom in Kottayam, and Mezhuveli in Pathanamthitta district. The experience and learnings varied across these Grama Panchayats and the few others where NHGs were formed outside the purview of PLDP.

A total of 347 NHGs were formed in PLDP panchayats during 1997-2000. The KSSP mode neighbourhood groups were to work in tandem with Panchayat Development Societies. The community organisation did not have a structured design like the CDS system. The KSSP model’s strength was in NHGs participating in local level resource mapping and planning exercises systematically.

The Committee on Decentralisation of Powers headed by Dr S.B. Sen, appreciated the potential of NHGs and recommended it as useful informal structure in Panchayat Raj. This idea was incorporated into the Panchayat Raj Act (amended in 1999) as well as into the guidelines of the People’s Plan Campaign.

The NGO Stream

Compared to other states of India, growth and spread of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) had been limited in Kerala. Within this limited space, two distinct streams of NGOs had been working on various issues and with different communities.

  • Different congregations of Christian churches had been facilitating community development and had formed community groups. Subsequently many churches formed their own NGOs, mainly involved in charity related activities. These NGOs later diversified their portfolio into income generating activities and micro credit. In the all India context of NABARD promoted SHG Bank Linkage programme, several of these NGOs promoted SHGs and linked them with banks. 
  • NGOs other than those promoted by religious groups had also been working in certain specific areas and with some of the vulnerable communities. Many of them worked with donor promoted schemes. Unlike other states, these NGOs did not work on a large scale in government programmes due to various reasons. However, many of them joined the SHG Bank Linkage bandwagon and promoted SHG networks in significant scales.

The learnings from the experiences of these NGOs have also contributed to the Kudumbashree idea in some form or the other. Some of the SHG networks remained and worked in parallel and in competition to the Kudumbashree NHGs when they were promoted. Most of such networks, however, eventually became part of the Kudumbashree network.

Traditional Community Organisations

Even though the CDS system evolved from the Alappuzha and Malappuram models in the 1990s, the concept of neighbourhood groups has a history of its own in Kerala. Most of these organisational forms were based on the principle of collective action for offering social support and help to the vulnerable sections of the society. While these had a neighbourhood orientation, and naturally so, many had different modes of saving and lending inbuilt into their design.

Some of the examples of such pioneering social organisations, which, perhaps contributed directly or otherwise to the evolution of the neighbourhood group based community organisation of the 1990s are listed below.

  • Kurikkalyanam or Tea Party of North Kerala 
  • Sunday thrift schemes of Kumarakom
  • Rice based chit scheme of Southern Kerala
  • Paddy savings and lending scheme of Onattukara
  • Coconut based thrift and lending scheme of Alappuzha

Kurikkalyanam of North Kerala

These were tea parties organised by families to mobilise funds for certain events such as marriages. The family conducting the tea party would invite all the families in the neighbourhood to the party by sending letters and through public displays and announcements. The tea parties, or high tea, used to be called Kurikkalyanam, Theyilasalkaram (literally meaning Tea Party), or Payattu.

Every family invited for the event would participate and contribute some money; the fund thus generated would be used by the family for organising the event. This informal fund raising mechanism used to be a reliable system for many families for meeting the necessary expenses for organising events.

In some places, at the tea party itself lots used to be drawn to decide who would hold the next tea party. The lot was known as kuri in local parlance and the name of the event comes out of this system. In other places, the next event would be decided by the needs of the families.

Sunday Thrift Schemes of Kumarakom

This is the system where women from neighbouring households would meet every Sunday and do some financial transactions. Every woman would bring a certain amount, which would be pooled together by the ten or so members of the group. A needy member could seek and get a loan with the approval of the group; the loan amount limited to the total amount pooled on a given Sunday.

Once a woman gets a loan, she keeps bringing her saving, but would not be entitled to another loan till the cycle has been completed with every woman getting a chance to claim a loan.

The group would usually have a single woman acting as the coordinator, money keeper, and accountant; all informally. The close relationship that developed among the women of these groups used to be extremely helpful during tough times.

Rice Thrift Scheme of Southern Kerala

The systems involved women members bringing a small quantity of rice to weekly meetings. At the meeting, after regular discussions, the rice that each woman had brought would be pooled together. The needy woman in the group could take the rice home, with permission from the group. This worked as a kind of assurance against absolute poverty and hunger for the group of families involved.

The system could work only as a strictly neighbourhood mechanism. For one, each woman should be bringing the same, or at least similar type of rice; otherwise, once mixed the rice would become difficult to use. Then, the beauty of the system was in the fact that the needy family could access the week’s collection. In addition, these families in most cases also had the option of reporting to the group in case there was food shortage at home. In such cases, a ‘rice advance’ could be organised from other households.

Partner women in the groups used to be equals in all respects. However, in most of the cases, there would be one or two women (out of the group of ten or so) who would organise the activities of the group including fixing of meetings. Over the years, the affinity developed within the groups used to be helpful to the members in times of crisis.