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Since our Independence in 1947, successive governments have intended to enable socio-economic upliftment of the masses through various schemes and programs. Governments, at the Centre or state, have explored several paths with varying levels of success and failure in meeting their envisioned goals. The Kudumbashree programme is one such model from the southern state of Kerala. It aims at poverty eradication through economic and social empowerment of women. It has received much attention and considerable success since its inception in the late 1990s. This essay aims to understand the success of the Kudumbashree programme. 

‘Kudumbashree’ is a Malayalam word that translates to ‘prosperity of the family’. The Kudumbashree programme is rooted in Kerala’s People’s Plan Campaign, which  aimed at decentralisation through local planning. The Campaign famously involved the then state government’s call to devolve nearly 35% of the plan fund from a centralised bureaucracy to the local bodies. The programme has a decentralised three-tier structure with Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) at the lowest level, followed by the Area Development Society (ADS) and the Community Development Society (CDS) at the local government level. The programme witnesses decentralised, democratic leadership of women. While similar to the Self Help Groups (SHGs), the NHGs also function as a forum for development action and planning. 

Inaugurated by the Prime Minister in 1998, the programme was gradually extended to all parts of the state in phases during 2000-2002. The community structure of the program evolved through experiments done in Alappuzha and Malappuram municipalities during the early 1990s. The NHGs have 10 to 20 women members from every locality. Membership remains open to all women with the sole restriction that only a single member from each family can join an NHG. In the group meetings, members deposit a pre-fixed thrift amount towards the group savings fund. The NHG issues small loans to members as per requirement, based on an interest rate decided by consensus. Internal lending activities begin only 3 months after formation and regular meetings of each local group. Once a group has been functioning for 6 months, they qualify for bank linkages thereby increasing their internal lending capability. A 15-point grading system developed by NABARD is used in deciding eligibility for bank linkages. The above model of thrift and credit promotes saving habits among the poor and further provides them with opportunities for responsible credit. 

All the NHGs in a ward together form the Area Development Society. The ADS works closely with local governments at the ward level and has the elected ward member as its patron. It supports the functioning of NHGs and also has a key developmental role in conducting gram sabhas at the ward level. The Community Development Society at the local government level is at the top of Kudumbashree’s community organisational structure. A CDS has upto 30 ADS as its members, with an executive committee having one representative each ADS. Other than monitoring member ADS, CDS plays a key role in awareness building, information dissemination, plan formulation and implementation at the local government level.

The overall management and implementation of the programme is carried out by the Kudumbashree Mission, which is a state poverty eradication mission of the Government of Kerala. It works closely with local self-government institutions aiding the expansion and promotion of community networks, information dissemination and provision of required financial & technical assistance. Kerala’s minister for local self government heads the governing body in-charge of the Mission. The Mission also functions as the nodal implementing agency for urban poverty alleviation schemes, both Central and state, including the National Urban Livelihood Mission and Valmiki Ambedkar Awaz Yojana, among others. 

The state government provides financial support for the programme through grants and interest subsidies. It facilitates independent implementation and empowerment over dependence on government welfare. The three levels of Kudumbashree i.e NHGs, ADS and CDS enable socio-economic empowerment of women in the following ways: 

(i) Support via micro-finance for setting up micro-enterprises, livestock farming, market development, etc. 

(ii) Promote greater financial independence and empowerment among the members.

(iii) Women empowerment initiatives to provide agency and elimination of violence against women.

As of 15th September 2021, Kudumbashree has a total membership of 45,85,677 women with 2,94,436 NHGs. During the pandemic, the Kudumbashree network was instrumental in the state’s response strategy. The network was used in spreading the health department’s Break the Chain initiative. As per the Kudumbashree website, 1.9 lakh Whatsapp groups were formed to help people access proper information regarding the pandemic. As part of measures to boost the economy post-pandemic, the state government is using Kudumbashree NHGs to disperse interest-free loans to members under the Chief Minister’s Sahayahastham (helping hand) scheme. Amidst the pandemic, KSFE (Kerala State Financial Enterprises)  launched the Vidyashree micro-credit scheme in collaboration with Kudumbashree ‘ayalkoottams’ (NHGs) to help students from poor backgrounds to continue their online education. 

For more than two decades, from the days of People’s Plan to the recent Covid response, Kudumbashree has been an important tool of empowerment in Kerala’s society. Numerous studies and awards are a testimony to the success of Kudumbashree. Sarava Selvi C and KS Pushpa in their research, published in the International Journal of Current Advanced Research, found that women who participated in NHGs have developed a strong sense of self-worth, faith in their ability to interact within power structures. There was also an increase in their contribution to the household. 

Much like the famous Grameen Bank model of Bangladesh, Kudumbashree of Kerala provides insight into how empowerment and independence can be promoted among local communities. The Kudumbashree model shows how the government can play a supportive role in ensuring the social and economic empowerment of the rural poor. The programme provides a sense of agency rather than the sense of dependence on the state. Monitoring and analysing the success and efficiency of such models is important for other states and regions that may wish to adapt them in accordance with their local conditions.

Read more: Gauging Efficacy: Production Linked Incentive Scheme

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.