Kudumbashree has transformed ordinary women from Kerala's poorest families into agents of social change.
President Droupadi Murmu, who is in Kerala for a two-day visit, has a major event to attend on Friday, 17 March, at Thiruvananthapuram — the silver jubilee celebrations of Kudumbashree.
Kerala’s Kudumbashree is the largest self-help group in the country — with over 4.5 million members across the state — and has transformed ordinary women from poor families into agents of social change.
President Murmu will also release a handbook, Chuvadu, that lists ideas for the movement’s future and its achievements. The ideas for the future were formulated through 1070 Community Development Societies under Kudumbashree.
Kerala was desperate for funds when torrential rains unleashed a savage flood in August 2018, marooning and devastating several parts of the state.
Individuals, collectives, and organisations came forward with generous donations to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF). The Bill and Melinda Foundation, too, contributed. Many posted the receipts the Chief Minister’s Office had issued on social media.
But what stood apart was a sum of ₹7 crore a collective of empowered women from low-income families donated to rebuild the state.
Their donation equalled the contributions of tech behemoths Google and Apple.
The women were part of Kudumbashree, a poverty eradication and women empowerment programme implemented by the Kerala government’s State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM).
Inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on 17 May, 1998, Kudumbashree lived up to its name — the prosperity of the family — when the natural calamity wreaked havoc in the state.
Most of the women members themselves were at the receiving end of nature’s fury, yet they contributed whatever they could to the state, considering it as their extended family.
Each Ayalkoottam or neighbourhood group under Kerala’s Kudumbashree collected a week’s income from their members to contribute to the CMDRF.
The profits of micro-enterprises such as retail outlets and eateries operated by the neighbourhood groups, too, formed part of the contribution.
As the floodwaters receded, the Kudumbashree members joined a massive cleaning drive in which more than 1.5 lakh flood-affected houses and 5,000 public places were cleaned and sanitised.
The Kudumbashree also offered counselling to over 8,000 families, who faced psychological trauma due to the destruction of their properties in the incessant rains and floods.
The women’s collective opened community kitchens across the state and rehabilitation camps, making a silent statement on what a group of empowered women could do for society.
The floods, in fact, provided a snapshot of the range of activities the women of Kudumbashree were capable of, and the many levels at which their interventions helped society.
Their contribution is all the more significant because the weekly saving of a neighbourhood group member seldom exceeds ₹100!
During the peak Covid-19 days, too, they were active, delivering food, pulse oximeters and medicines — along with ASHA workers — to those who had to sequester themselves indoors.
Even as Kerala’s much-hailed robust healthcare system faced tough challenges, Kudumbashree members stepped in, manufacturing masks and sanitisers. They also arranged primary Covid treatment centres — the first line of defence — with the help of local bodies.
They also functioned as the bridge between the Covid-affected and the respective local bodies and government departments.
During the lockdown, Kudumbashree launched Janakeeya Hotels — or People’s Hotels — across the state, providing quality food to the hungry at affordable rates.
Even those in home quarantine and isolation hospital wards benefited from the community kitchens and the efficient distribution network. In many local bodies, Kudumbashree was the nodal agency for Covid management.
Kudumbashree now has 125 restaurants offering meals at ₹20.
For the organisation, the silver jubilee marks a self-assessment of its achievements, examining the quality of life of its members, planning the future of neighbourhood groups, and micro-level planning on sustainable development goals.
Looking back, Kudumbashree has evolved and transformed significantly in the past 25 years. What began as a cluster of microcredit neighbourhood groups with thrift and credit activities, went on to create crisis managers and entrepreneurs.
It also contributed several women political and social leaders to the state, where male domination still prevails.
When Vajpayee inaugurated it 25 years ago in Malappuram, the organisation aimed to bring women confined to the four walls of their households into the mainstream.
In the subsequent years, Kerala saw these women becoming integral to grassroots-level planning for employment generation, poverty alleviation and women empowerment.
It ensured the large-scale mobilisation of women in community activities across the state.
Kudumbashree has evolved as a huge network integrated with more than half of the families in the state. It is one organisation that could feel the community’s pulse much before anyone else.
It is a link between the government and the common people. The neighbourhood-bonding helped it explore many fields, including micro-enterprising, social collectives, agricultural initiatives, rural development projects, running palliative care units, and forging compassion initiatives.
It has also made rapid strides in empowering Dalits and tribal women.
Though critics accuse the organisation of failing to evolve perspectives capable of addressing the changed gender roles and formulating a critical alternative development model, its contributions are unmatched in reducing poverty.
It also facilitated numerous women’s initiatives across the state, reinforcing the concept of gender-free participatory development.
Now, Kudumbashree is Kerala’s biggest social capital. Its members have become elected members of the three-tier local bodies after the 33 percent reservation for women was implemented. (In Kerala local bodies, it is 50 percent).
Interestingly, Kudumbashree was launched against the 1996 People’s Plan Campaign of the then EK Nayanar-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
From the beginning, it has been functioning under the Local Self-Government Department (LSGD) with financial support from the Union government and NABARD.
Kudumbashree is formally registered as the State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) under the Travancore Kochi Literary, Scientific and Charitable Societies Act of 1955.
It has a Governing Body chaired by the state minister of local self-governments and an Executive Committee chaired by additional chief secretary, Department of Local Self Governments.
The Mission is managed by the iGoverning Body and Executive Committee. The committee is headed by an executive director, normally an IAS officer.
The Governing Body takes policy level decisions and reviews performance of the Mission on a regular basis. While the executive directions for scheme formulation and execution are taken in the Executive Committee.
The Mission has a State Mission Office located at Thiruvananthapuram and 14 District Mission Teams, each located at the district headquarters. This official structure supports and facilitates the activities of the community network across the state.
At the primary level, Kudumbasree is a collective of Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs); at the ward level, it comprises Area Development Societies (ADS), and Community Development Societies (CDS) at the local government level.
The organisation now has 3,06,551 NHGs, 19,470 ADSs and 1,070 CDSs. Additionally, Kudumbashree launched auxiliary groups in 2021.
These groups were meant for the social and economic empowerment of women aged 18-40 years and to offer income-generating opportunities to educated women, to give them a platform for making social interventions as well as the financial development of their families.
It has over 45,85,677 members now. It is undertaking consultancy work on women empowerment in 13 other states.
One of the biggest contributions made by the Kudumbashree is the deep social capital formation among women. Before Kudumbashree, the social capital among women was weak in Kerala.
Another major contribution is the reduction in poverty in the state, which various studies and surveys, including the latest Multidimensional Poverty Index by NITI Aayog, have validated.
Kudumbashree champions women’s empowerment and it is expected to address the alarming increase in atrocities against women. It has to emerge as a strong counterforce to check the crimes against women.
(Story has been updated correcting its total number of members to 45,85,677)