25 years of Kudumbashree: Pandemic flooding, how a women’s movement stepped in to steer social change

Every week, small groups of women meet in homes across Kerala, discussing everything from micro-credit schemes to organic farming and food processing. On May 17, Kudumbashree, Kerala’s flagship program for women empowerment and poverty eradication, turned 25 years old.

Launched in 1998 by the then CPI(M)-led government in Kerala as a follow-up to the People’s Plan Programme, an experiment in decentralizing powers to local governments with an emphasis on local-level planning, Kudumbashree, with a current staff of 45 lakh women in 3 lakh Neighborhood Groups (NHG), thrived no matter which government was in power – no small feat for a state whose politics are known to be deeply partisan.

In addition to serving as a permanent link between the population and the local self-government of the state, Kudumbashree has helped hundreds of women to leave their homes and make the transition into politics and social life.

After the state introduced a 33% reserve for women in local bodies at three levels, it was towards Kudumbashree members – usually outspoken and confident women with close ties to the neighborhood – that political parties turned to find potential candidates. By the time the reserve was raised to 50% in 2010, Kudumbashree had helped hundreds of women make the electoral leap.

Most female members of the state panchayat are from the Kudumbashree network, having been members of the program’s office of regional development corporations (ADS) or community development corporations (CDS) – the two levels of mission after the NHG which is the base unit. It is therefore no surprise that when Kudumbashree ADS and CDS elections were held across Kerala earlier this year, political parties lobbied enthusiastically to ensure their candidates were elected to the Presidency.

According to senior CPI(M) official and Minister of State for Local Self-Government, MV Govindan, “Kudumbashree has played the most important role in bringing the women of Kerala to the fore. In addition to contributing to economic growth and enterprise, female mission members have stepped up whenever needed – whether during the 2018 floods or the pandemic. Kudumbashree is the biggest social capital of Kerala,” the minister said.

Congress leader and former rural development minister KC Joseph, while agreeing that Kudumbashree has empowered women “in a big way”, says the mission’s 25th anniversary can be an opportunity to subject it to independent scrutiny so that the drawbacks can be identified.

Accusing CPI(M) of converting the Kudumbashree network into its food network, Joseph said, “Women members are forced to participate in CPI(M) events. Those who do not participate in festive events are neglected in the network. The ADS and CDS elections were politicized by the CPI(M) and there were attempts to usurp control of the mission at the local level,” he said.

Over the years, Kudumbashree Mission has undergone small changes in its structure.

Until last year, only one woman per family had become a member of the neighborhood group. That changed last year when the CPI(M) government removed the cap and formed “auxiliary units” under Kudumbashree, encouraging educated housewives between the ages of 18 and 40 to join neighborhood groups. So far, 19,000 auxiliary groups with 3 lakh members have been established in Kerala.

The Minister said: “In the 25th year of the program, we want to bring a new generation of women to the fore. Therefore, we have formed auxiliary groups for educated housewives and we will find jobs that match their qualifications,” he said.

Over the years, one of the main initiatives of the mission has been the microcredit program which has freed thousands of families from the clutches of local moneylenders. During the pandemic, Kerala banks provided Rs 1,917 crore as interest free credit to 25 lakh Kudumbashree members. Kudumbashree NHG in the state has a deposit of Rs 5,500 crore in Kerala banks.

The mission has also led female members to venture into organic farming, tourism, agribusiness, poultry, food processing and several micro-enterprises. The state mission has an e-commerce platform for marketing Kudumbashree products.

Earlier this year, Amrutham Nutrimix, a branded nutritional food mix produced and distributed by Kudumbashree for children in Anganwadi, won the Glenmark Nutrition Award for 2022, organized in partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme. No less than 241 units under Kudumbashree produce 18,000 metric tons of this nutritional food every year.

As part of Kerala’s ‘no hunger’ project, since 2020 Kudumbashree members have been running over a thousand ‘janakeya hotels’ or canteens in all local bodies which provide food at Rs 20 per plate.