Two lakh neighbourhood groups. Forty-two lakh members. Thirty-five thousand projects. An annual revenue of Rs 5,000 crore. No wonder Prime Minister Narendra Modi has time and again lauded the path-breaking role played by Kudumbashree in Kerala in women empowerment. As the chief minister of Gujarat, he had wanted a similar project to be taken up in his state. Modi was so impressed with Kudumbashree that he had sent a few officials from Gujarat to Kerala to learn more about Kudumbashree and implement it in Gujarat. Thus came Sakhi Mandals, a by-product of Kudumbashree, in Gujarat.
"The government will examine if Kudumbashree can be implemented across the country, uniformly, in one go"
- Union minister Ramkripal Yadav
A women-oriented community-based project of the government of Kerala, the Kudumbashree movement was launched in May 1998 by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Its objective then was to promote women’s freedom and managerial capabilities among them to increase productivity by forming self-help groups. Now, 18 years later, Kudumbashree is flourishing with around 35,000 projects under its belt and 42 lakh women members. Covering more than 50 per cent of the households in Kerala, Kudumbashree has made a total revenue of Rs 5,000 crore in the last financial year.
Next in the pipeline for Kudumbashree is the matrimonial business. The officials are confident of emerging the front-runner in the match-making trade as Kudumbashree has more than two lakh neighbourhood groups in the state to verify the profiles of prospective brides and bridegrooms.
Said Sindu Balan, community development society chairperson of Kudumbashree, Thrissur, "We have a committee in every panchayat to check the details for match-making. We give our clients correct details. There is no way a person can cheat you." The fee for matrimonial registration is Rs 500. After the marriage, Rs 5,000 will be charged as broker fee. On a trial run in Thrissur, this venture would be extended across the state based on the feedback from the people in Thrissur.
The Union government is mighty impressed with Kudumbashree.
Said Ramkripal Yadav, Union minister of state for rural development, to THE WEEK: “Kudumbashree projects in Kerala are doing phenomenally well. Prime Minister Modi has always given focus and priority to the socio-economic empowerment of women. He implemented various projects for the uplift of women in Gujarat while he was chief minister. The government of India will examine if Kudumbashree can be implemented across the country, uniformly, in one go.”
Thomas Isaac, minister of finance, Kerala, said to THE WEEK, "I am not surprised at what the Union minister told you. Kerala has always been the best in implementing social welfare schemes. We have a knack for it. The national rural livelihood mission of the Central government is largely drawn from the Kerala experience." Isaac is said to be one of the architects of Kudumbashree’s success. He said, "It is a matter of pride that we are witnessing such a successful mass movement of women in Kerala. I want Kudumbashree to grow wider and deeper. Wider in the sense that there should be more families involved. And deeper in the sense that Kudumbashree should take up more activities.”
It already has an array of projects—an all-woman construction team, women taxi and auto services, wellness centres, IT units, canteens, mineral water boiling plants, schools for differently-abled students being some of them. There are also collective farming and other livelihood-based projects at every neighbourhood level in the state. So much is the popularity of Kudumbashree that delegates from South Africa and Uganda have come to witness it more than once.
Said K.T. Jaleel, minister for local administration, Kerala, to THE WEEK: “Women work more efficiently than men. That’s why Kudumbashree is a success. A few days ago, some delegates from Sri Lanka came to Kerala to know more about Kudumbashree and implement such women-based programmes in Sri Lanka.” Women from Kudumbashree are engaged in noble services across the state, said Jaleel. “Many railway stations and airports in the state are maintained and cleaned by women from Kudumbashree. They are prompt and disciplined in their services,” he said.
Kudumbashree has administrative and community structures, and elects representatives at all levels every three years. At the community structure, the first stage of elections is at the level of the neighbourhood groups, each of which has five office bearers. The office bearers of an area development society then meet together to elect the seven-member executive committee. Each executive committee of the area development society elects its representative to the community development society, which elects the chairperson and vice-chairperson of the community development society. “Depending on the needs, Kudumbashree members meet and set targets and go about doing work they are assigned," said A. Shajahan, executive director, Kudumbashree. "It is easy for the state government to set targets at the local level when it gets the right information from Kudumbashree units.”
Though women are enthusiastic about being part of Kudumbashree all over the state, there is some reluctance among tribals. Said Priya Paul, state mission manager: "Tribal women in districts like Wayanad don't like moving out of their locality for enterprising projects of Kudumbashree. So, they do mostly the agricultural-related activities of Kudumbashree near their home. All said, we have an active Kudumbashree in Wayanad"
Men in Kerala, generally, support Kudumbashree. "They have no alternative. They have to support their wives and daughters who work in Kudumbashree because it adds to their income," said N.K. Jaya, director, Kudumbashree.
In some Kudumbashree meetings, men are also invited to discuss problems. "It is not as if we totally shun them," said Jaya.
Said Reji, a Kudumbashree worker in Trivandrum railway station, "I work in the parking area. I am happy with my work. There is no pressure of any kind and I earn a decent living."
Of 14 districts in Kerala, Kudumbashree is the most active in Ernakulam. Said Tanie Thomas, district coordinator, Ernakulam, “Kudumbashree has around 6,000 micro-enterprises in Ernakulam. Each of it has five women. There are also 4,500 agricultural groups consisting of four to five women per group." Most of these women, Tanie said, earn anywhere between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000 per month. “It could even go up depending on the number of hours they work," Tanie said.
In Ernakulam, a few days ago, Kudumbashree helped set up an ambitious drinking water project of Kochi Municipal Corporation at Rs one per litre. The water treatment plant sells over 300 jars, of 20-litre capacity, drinking water a day. Said Soumini Jain, Kochi mayor, to THE WEEK: "Water produced at a cost of Rs 10 for a 20-litre jar is being distributed to people in the city by Kudumbashree units for Rs 20. Most other brands, as you know, sell it for a minimum of Rs 50 per jar.”
The project ensures 10 to 12 full-time jobs for Kudumbashree workers in Ernakulam, Jain said.
Recently, Kudumbashree helped segregate food waste at a former minister's son's wedding in Kozhikode, which was attended by more than 10,000 people. With the help of Kudumbashree workers, plastic water bottles and spoons used by guests at the wedding were taken away for recycling, and the food waste was converted to organic manure.
Said Rowhanath Begum, 38, a Kudumbashree worker in Kalamassery, Ernakulam, "I have been working for many years for a project called the ‘basic service for the poor’. I am assigned to go to different homes every day as part of the project and do odd-jobs for them. I don't get a fixed salary. It varies from Rs 8,000 to Rs 15,000 a month, depending on how much I travel for work.”
Women in Kudumbashree are also engaged in door-to-door thrash pick up in Kochi.
In the northern-most district of Kasaragod, Kudumbashree workers are engaged in cashew units where they help collect and process cashew nuts. Said Abdul Majeed Chembirikka, district coordinator of Kudumbashree in Kasaragod, "There are around 2,15,000 women workers in Kudumbashree in Kasaragod district. They earn Rs 300 to 350 every day depending on the work they do." In Kasaragod, Kudumbashree also runs a cafe in the government guest house and at an agricultural college. “Not just that, there are three women of Kudumbashree who do all essential services at the regional transport centre in Kasaragod," Chembirikka said.
In 2010, a Malayalam film, Penpattanam, looked at the struggle for survival of four Kudumbashree workers portrayed by actors Revathi, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Shweta Menon and Vishnupriya.
Said V.M. Vinu, the director, “Women in Kudumbashree work so hard. I wanted people to know about it. I was not bothered about the commercial success of the film.”
The film made an impact, Vinu said. “So many Kudumbashree workers in Kozhikode played an important role in promoting my film.”
More powers to Kudumbashree.
His vision, Kerala’s mission
As district collector of Malappuram, IAS officer T.K. Jose played a significant role in envisioning Kudumbashree. Said Jose, “I was the district collector of Malappuram in 1996-97. Those days, there was a community-based nutrition and poverty alleviation programme for women in Malappuram, which I thought could be implemented all over Kerala. So I took the proposal to the state government. It was readily agreed upon.”
Jose, though, doesn’t want to take credit for it. “It was a team effort. There were also others involved in conceptualising Kudumbashree. Thomas Isaac, former NABARD chairman Prakash Bakshi and present chief secretary S.M. Vijayanand played important roles,” he said.
Before Kudumbashree was implemented in Kerala, most poverty alleviation programmes were male-dominated. “This was the first time a women-centric poverty eradication programme was launched in the country,” said Jose, who is now principal secretary, local self government department.
“In 2005, Narendra Modi had invited me to Gujarat and train the officials there on how to launch a similar scheme for women in Gujarat.” Jose went there along with a few other officials and gave them insights into the working of Kudumbashree’s success.
Jose is content with the phenomenal growth of Kudumbashree over the years. “In September 1998, when I was made the chief of Kudumbashree, I remember the then chief secretary telling me, ‘My heartfelt condolences’. He thought I was moving into an organisation which will never take off,” said Jose.
Structure of Kudumbashree community organisation:
♦ 10 to 20 women in a neighbourhood group. One woman representing a family.
♦ 5 office bearers
♦ 2,61,000 NHGs across Kerala
♦ 4.2 million members
Area Development Society (ADS)
♦ Federation of representatives of NHGs at ward level.
♦ NHG office bearers, 7-member executive.
♦ Covers 98 per cent of the state (19,894 ADS)
Community Development Society
♦ Federation of representatives of ADS at panchayat/urban local body
♦ Representation of each ADS in the executive.
♦ Registered apex federation at the local government level.
♦ Covers 100 per cent of the local governments in the state (1,072 CDS).