Kerala's Kudumbasree: Women Power For Local Development
By Shwetha E. George
Kottayam (Women's Feature Service) - Vishnupriya, 45, was just another quiet homemaker in Nattakom Municipality of Kottayam district in Kerala, who feared public-speaking and had no idea of how to handle important financial transactions. Recalls the middle-aged woman, "I would go to the municipal meetings, sit in the last row, and hope that no one would notice me or ask questions." Today, however, when Vishnupriya walks into a packed hall, she first searches for an empty seat in the front row.
So what was it that transformed Vishnupriya so significantly? Says she, "Kudumbasree does that to you." Not just her but this initiative of the Kerala government to wipe out absolute poverty from the state through concerted community action under the leadership of local self governments, has empowered scores of women and enabled them to create identities for themselves outside their homes. It has also helped to buttress family incomes and even ensure social change.
Kudumbashree, one of the largest women-empowering projects in the country, has 37 lakh members and covers more than 50 per cent households in Kerala. It is built around three critical components - micro-credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment.
There is a definite organisational hierarchy followed under this programme. Each unit, called Kudumbashree Ayalkoottam or Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs), comprises more than 10-15 local women. These NHGs are federated democratically into the Area Development Society (ADS) at the Panchayat/Municipality Ward level and then into Community Development Society (CDS) at the Panchayat/Municipal level. Incidentally, most of the gram panchayats interventions in the areas of poverty reduction and women's development use the CDS network.
At the state level, the activities of the Kudumbashree mission are controlled by the mission head office at Thiruvananthapuram, while a District Mission team handles the work at the district. At the panchayat level, a charge officer is given the responsibility of the administration along with the CDS governing committee.
The Kudumbasree members are active in the political and development process at the local level. For instance, Vishnupriya regularly attends the ADS meetings that bring members of 12 Kudumbasree units together. It is held at the Municipal Councillor's residence once a month. She also attends municipality meetings.
Over the years, the main focus of Kudumbasree has been on vegetable farming and the marketing of hand- and home-made goods like masalas, detergents or clothes. Vishnupriya's unit comprises 20 members and has a bank balance of Rs 25,000. In Kudumbasree parlance, this money is called the 'thrift deposit' to which each member contributes anywhere between Rs 20 and Rs 50 every week. Their first 'linkage' loan of Rs 1,20,000 - it is mandatory for every unit to form a link with a bank by availing a loan - was paid back in 52 weeks.
"One of our members' daughter needed an operation, another one wanted to pay her child's high school tuition fees, and so on, so we all get together to make it happen," elaborates Vishnupriya. Once the process is set into motion, each member of the group becomes equally responsible for paying back the loan taken to fulfill these objectives.
Nandini B.K., 56, the president of the Aswathy unit in Nattakom, is also proud of the tailoring work that her unit has undertaken. They stitch nighties for the special sales held during Onam, the annual harvest festival in Kerala. As festival time draws near, the women split the work between five households and a few members decide on a mutually convenient time to meet in any one of these homes. Recently, they took a bank loan of Rs 10,000, which enabled them to source the material in bulk. This year during Onam they expect to sell at least a hundred nighties, which would give each member a neat profit of Rs 500. "This money would be our own," remarks Nandini happily.
The concept of Kudumbasree, as envisaged by the government, was to alleviate poverty, although according to Usha Sathyaprakash, chairperson of Kottayam South's Community Development Society (CDS) that administers the programme at the panchayat level, "poverty can only be alleviated and not wiped out through such self-help schemes."
Of course, communities derive benefits from many government schemes as they are being implemented at the grassroots through the collaborative efforts of the panchayat/municipality and Kudumbasree units. Says Sathyaprakash, "The panchayats helps to implement BPL schemes. Panchayat members or municipal councillors, who supervise these schemes, are the link between the state and the community, ensuring smooth implementation of funds, particularly for widows, the destitute and elderly."
In Nattakom municipality, this synergy has ensured that the Aasraya scheme for destitute women, widows, unwed mothers has improved the lives 51 women. There's the Jagrithi Samithi, which empowers women through training on legal rights and gender issues. Moreover, the panchayat/municipality, in coordination with the police women's cell, also helps enforce legal action when necessary.
Financial stability is ensured through the provision of bank loans. Group farming, which has 80 per cent female participation, too, has empowered household. In Nattakkom, a total of 127 acres is being used for farming, of which 123 acres are earmarked for paddy. The Kudumbasree units take a picture of their plot, attach the land receipt and submit it to the Jilla Mission office at the Kottayam Collectorate. The members show their yearly expenses and the office reimburses the amount just before harvest. Post-harvest and sale, the unit repays the Jilla Mission office and takes home the profit.
Sathyaprakash is all praise for the way in which Nattakkom's women have taken to the Kudumbasree concept. "We have around 321 units across 52 wards and not one has folded up since the inception of this programme in 2002," she says. But she adds that women at the lower rungs are unable to derive full benefit from the intervention because they are forced to focus on earning a living. This makes it impossible for them to be present at the weekly meetings and discharge the duties that are mandatory for a Kudumbasree worker. In contrast, middle-class homemakers do much better. Take Padma Prakash, 55, another Nattakkom resident. She has attended classes on gender studies, legal rights for women and sexual harassment, apart from the numerous General Occupational Training classes organised by the Jilla Mission.
So what is the profile of a typical Kudumbasree member? Many women are married to those who earn a steady income, whether as daily wagers or white collar workers. They have all studied up to the Higher Secondary level, and most have passed the State Matriculation Examination from a Malayalam-medium school. A handful could be Public Service Commission-certificate holders with a full-time clerical job in a government office.
It is the prospect of getting an easy loan that attracts many to join up. While as an individual a woman would have to negotiate a heap of paperwork, as a Kudumbasree representative she can walk out of a bank with a Rs 25,000 loan (the premium limit) once all her unit members provide written consent regarding the amount, its purpose and the procedures of paying it back.
Such is the empowering capacity of this programme that even a woman like Sathyaprakash, who once "knew nothing outside my kitchen", can coordinate any number of women working in the numerous Kudumbasree units in the vast Kottayam South zone. Says she, "I have great respect for this establishment, which has given me only positive energy."
She could be speaking for thousands of women, who step out every day from their homes to spend just one hour in working as part of a team and end up achieving a lifetime's worth of self-confidence and self-reliance.
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(©Women's Feature Service)