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25 years of Kudumbashree – Reflections and Possibilities

Hailed as the largest women's network in the world with over 4.48 million members, Kudumbashree has contributed immensely to women's empowerment and self-reliance, bringing about significant transformation in Kerala's socio-economic and cultural setting.

By Ajai Narendran
New Update

publive-image Women part of the Kudumbashree network take a pledge | Photo courtesy: kudumbashree.org

Kudumbashree, the poverty eradication and women empowerment programme initiated and spearheaded by the State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) of the Government of Kerala in 1998, is entering its 25th year of functioning. Hailed as the largest women's network in the world with over 4.48 million members, Kudumbashree has contributed immensely to women's empowerment and self-reliance, bringing about significant transformation in Kerala's socio-economic and cultural setting.

Kudumbashree is a woman-centred programme launched in 1998 aimed at eradicating poverty through community participation and action. The scheme is ably helped and nurtured by the local governments. It is the creation of employment that leads to income generation that is the very basis of poverty alleviation programmes such as this. Kudumbashree addresses this by extending help to less privileged women in the state through its thrift and credit programme. This system has proved to be very effective in enabling and empowering women to build a sustainable income generation model.

Commenting on the factors that led to the success of Kudumbashree, Dr Thomas Issac, an economist and former Kerala Finance Minister, says, "Kudumbashree is very different from normal self-help group networks. These are all neighbourhood groups. It is linked to local democracy, and the local government is the sponsor. We don't federate Kudumbashree beyond a local government, so it is rooted in the locality."

As the initiative inches towards its silver jubilee, the women folk that form the core and crux of Kudumbashree have much to rejoice. The service of these women has been lauded, especially the way they rose up to the occasion during the Covid-19 lockdown with community kitchen and other initiatives.

Jomy Thomas, Chief of Bureau, Malayala Manorama (New Delhi), says Kudumbashree has withstood the test of time and successive governments because it remains unchallenged and matchless to date. "Though the Kudumbashree programme was not affected by any change of government, there was a time when the UDF government felt it should bring about a parallel programme. But Kudambashree continued its successful stint because it is a unique initiative."

The social revolutionary aspect of the programme is what makes it unique, according to Thomas. "Right from the 1960's women from Kerala went to other countries for better career prospects and opportunities. They sent money back home, and the family prospered. Women were the breadwinners for many families even then. So, there was a history of women taking such initiatives in Kerala."

The programme has also succeeded because of its adaptability. In many districts of Kerala, Kudumbashree has adapted to local issues and has constantly renewed its approach. The scheme's political patronage also makes it not just successful but financially viable.

Just as there is much to be learned from the factors that led to the success of Kudumbashree, this mass women's movement can achieve much more in the coming years. Hinting at a future governance model, Dr Issac says: "Now Kudumbashree covers only 55% of the families in Kerala. We want to increase it to 75%. We want to attract younger women into the fold. In the future, we want auxiliary units for the main group where younger women can be active. As of now, we are looking at generating employment, but in the future, this programme can be hugely successful if we can turn this into an organisation that generates revenue-earning jobs."

According to Isaac, the government wants to promote Kudumbashree as a community organisation before the Gram Sabhas, which will enable even the non-members to take part in the meetings held at the local levels. But would just reforms in governance and functioning alone suffice? Kudumbashree has been the subject of numerous academic research, and a lot has been published worldwide on this. But are we reaping the best insights and recommendations from those studies? The answer to this is not an optimal one.

Looking at the possibilities latent in Kudumbashree, Thomas says: "Even though the project has been constantly improvised, there is much scope for further improvements. For instance, if you consider a parallel initiative, like Amul, it started as a localised initiative but succeeded in scaling up its operations to become an enterprise. Today they are on the road to emerging as a multinational brand. Improvisation efforts by Kudumbashree are a great strength, but I am not sure how much of it is possible in the long run. When a service entity enters the product sector, naturally, there will be competition. If you cannot compete, there are possibilities of slowdowns and lags. It appears the initiative is too Kerala-centric. The diverse products coming from Kudumbashree cater only to the local market. There is a lack of proper branding of such products. There seems to be latent inhibition and boldness in such branding. Kudumbashree could have done it. I do not know why they are not doing it."

The way forward for Kudumbashree in these changing times depends greatly on how willing it is to relook at itself and explore ways to scale up. A better pooling of domain experts and practitioners into a central think tank of the Kudumbashree initiative would open up the possibility of churning out innovative ideas and testing that could help it recalibrate, reorganise and expand.

According to Thomas, all stakeholders must come under a single roof and discuss how Kudumbashree can be scaled up. The power of the initiative is the human resources; much of it remains untapped when it comes to utilising the potential of women to its full extent. "There should be a concerted effort to sit together and think over the lessons that could be emulated from various other co-operative models that succeeded well. If we are to have lasting and sustainable development, we need to bring in inputs from experts and insights from numerous research studies done on Kudumbashree. We need to step outside our mindsets when branding and marketing our products."

Dr Isaac feels much will be done in the coming days in terms of learning from the criticisms the model has received. "Kudumbashree has become an important source for similar activities in other states, and it is being intensely studied and documented by academics. Their analysis and evaluations give insights that an insider may not get. This outsider perspective is important. Their studies are very valuable even though they are critical of Kudumbashree. So, we would welcome such studies and use them to improve the programme."