Kudumbashree (meaning “prosperity of the family” in the local Malayalam language) is the Kerala government's ongoing participatory “poverty eradication and women empowerment” mission, which started in 1998, and works through a three-tiered community network of women.
Problems and Purpose
In 1973-74, 59.79 per cent of the population in Kerala lived under poverty while the corresponding national figure was 54.88 per cent. By 1993-94, the occurrence of poverty in Kerala came down to 25.43 per cent, well below then national average of 35.97 per cent (Economic Review, Kerala 2018). Although below the national average, 25.43 per cent still constituted a significant level of poverty; so, a special task force of the Kerala Government, in 1997, recommended the establishment of a State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) with the purpose of completely eradicating poverty in Kerala within next ten years. The state government launched this mission in 1998.
It became fully operational only in 1999 under a new name – the Kudumbashree Mission. A three-tiered community network or self-help groups of women implements this mission. The first tier of this network is Neighbourhood Groups (or Ayalkootam in Malayalam) consisting of ten to twenty women. The second level, consisting of two or more Neighbourhood Groups, is Area Development Societies. All Area Development Societies in an area are affiliated to the local self-government level, Community Development Society.
The mission aims to eradicate poverty through women empowerment. Through a coordination of these three tiers, the mission works on projects for (i) “economic empowerment” such as through collective farming, livestock farming, market development and so on; (ii) “social empowerment” such as destitute identification and rehabilitation, and rehabilitation of mentally challenged persons; and (iii) “women empowerment” consisting of educational programmes and programmes for the elimination of violence against women. The three-tiered network helps the local self-government institutions (Panchayats in rural areas and Municipalities in urban areas) in the preparation and implementation of the local bodies' anti-poverty plan, women component plan, and other local development schemes. It also assists the local self-government institutions in the identification of beneficiaries of central (federal) and state (provincial) government's welfare programmes.
Background History and Context
Kerala is one of the 28 states (provinces) of India, located in the southwest of the Indian subcontinent. It has a predominantly Malayalam-speaking population. The state of Kerala has a distinct history of poverty alleviation and development in comparison with the rest of India. This “Kerala model of development”  forms the wider context for the formation of Kudumbashree Mission. 
The two immediate contexts for Kudumbashree are the following. First, in 1997, a three-member task force constituted by the Kerala Government recommended setting up a State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM). The Kerala Government announced the formation of SPEM in the state budget of 1997-98. Then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, launched SPEM in May 1998. However, it became fully operational only in April 1999 with the name Kudumbashree Mission. It functions under the Local Self Government (LSG) Department of the Kerala Government. The second immediate context was the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts. These Acts instituted local self-government institutions at the rural and urban level as constitutional bodies and as the third-tier of governance in India, distinct from the Central and State governments. The Kerala government used the amendment as an opportunity to deliver poverty alleviation programmes through local participation and self-government institutions.
The three-tiered structure and the concept of Neighborhood Groups have two distinct lineages. The first is efforts by individuals and civil society groups and the second is government initiatives.
Individual and civil society initiatives:
The Kudumbashree Mission is popularly called Ayalkootams which is the Malayalam term for neighborhood meetings or assemblies. The origins of the Ayalkootam lies in a 1970s experiment led by D Pankajakshan, a Gandhian teacher, in Kanjippadam village in Alappuzha District. This experiment also had a three-tiered structure. The first tier, called Tharakootam, consisted of members from ten to fifteen neighboring homes. They met every night in the courtyard of one of the houses. The next level was the Ayalkootam made of five Tharakootams. The third level comprising ten Ayalkootams was the Gramakootam or the village assembly.
Some of the central features of this experiment were voluntary sharing of resources, mutual self-help, and community ownership of local affairs. Apart from discussing local affairs, resolving mutual conflicts, and improving interpersonal relationships, the Tharakootams also discussed national and international matters in their meetings. The Alappuzha experiment inspired the formation of Neighbourhood Groups in other villages in Kerala.  Neighbourhood Groups in Nalpathimala in Kottayam district, led by Thomas Abraham and the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, was one such experiment . Kurup’s initiative was also the model for the experiments organized by Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), the Left-oriented People’s Science Movement in Kerala, along with Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram in the 1990s for a project called Panchayat Level Development Planning. This involved creating Neighborhood Groups for mapping local resources and planning development activities at the panchayat level. 
The Kerala Government formed Neighbourhood Groups in 1986 for the implementation of Government of India’s poverty alleviation programs for the urban poor. With the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992, which provided constitutional status to the urban local self-government institutions, a three-tiered structure consisting of Neighbourhood Groups, Neighbourhood Communities and Community Development Societies for community participation in local governance and development was established. The two pre-74th Constitutional Amendment Act examples cited by the government as success stories of community participation and involving Neighbourhood Groups are the Community Based Nutrition Programme in Alappuzha (started in 1991) and in Malappuram (started in 1994). 
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Kerala Government’s Department of Local Self-Government directs, monitors, and supervises the Mission. Kerala Government allocates funds for the Mission in its budget and the Mission is also supported by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), a bank owned by the Government of India.
Despite being monitored by the Department of Local Self-Government in their activities and the functioning of the Neighbourhood Groups, Area Development Societies and Community Development Societies of the Mission are largely autonomous and work in coordination with the local self-government institutions where they operate.
The Neighbourhood Groups meet weekly at the house of a member on a rotating basis. The members of the group elect a five-member volunteer committee (president, secretary, community health volunteer, income generation volunteer and infrastructure volunteer) for administrative purposes. The general body of the next level, that is, the Area Development Societies, consists of volunteer committee members from all affiliated Neighbourhood Groups. This general body elects a governing body of the Area Development Society consisting of a president, a secretary and five members. The Area Development Societies work in association with the ward member of the local self-government institution. These Societies meet every month to supervise the activities of the Neighbourhood Groups and to provide relevant guidelines to them.
The Community Development Societies, consisting of all Area Development Societies in a village panchayat or an urban local body, are the link between the local self-government institutions, the three-tiered set-up of the Mission and the government. The Community Development Societies also have a general body and a governing body. The general body consists of the Area Development Societies’ governing body members. They meet every three months to discuss and evaluate the activities of the Mission in a village or a municipality. This general body elects a governing body comprising a Chairperson, a Vice Chairperson and seven members for the day to day administration of Community Development Societies.
At the government or the bureaucratic level, there are district coordinators and other officials. A senior bureaucrat acts as the Executive Director of the Kudumbashree Mission.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Mission conceives women empowerment and community development as central to poverty eradication. Thus, the membership of the Mission’s community network is limited to women. During the initial phase, the membership consisted of women from below-poverty-line households but currently all adult women are eligible for membership to the Neighbourhood Groups – the basic units of Kudumbashree’s community network. The membership follows a “one family, one member” rule. However, any women irrespective of this rule can participate in the discussion and activities of the Kudumbashree. With the government’s permission, Special Neighborhood Groups can be constituted for physically and mentally challenged persons (or consisting of their mothers) and persons battling AIDS or any other special groups. There are more than 2500 Special Neighborhood Groups for elderly women and around 19 for Transgender people. Members of the Scheduled Tribes (official nomenclature for indigenous peoples in India) can also constitute Special Neighbourhood Groups for themselves.
Methods and Tools Used
A three-tiered community network or self-help groups of women implements this mission. The first and the lowest tier of Kudumbashree’s community network is Neighbourhood Groups (or Ayalkootam in Malayalam) consisting of ten to twenty women. The second level consisting of two or more Neighbourhood Groups is Area Development Societies. All Area Development Societies in an area are affiliated to the local self-government level Community Development Society.
Thrift and microcredit through deliberation in weekly meetings at the level of Neighborhood Groups is the main activity pursued by the Neighbourhood Groups. The three tiered network also plans income-generating activities involving agriculture or micro-enterprises to be run jointly by members of the network.
The three-tiered network also helps the local self-government institutions (Panchayats in rural areas and Municipalities in urban areas) in the preparation and implementation of the local bodies' anti-poverty plan, women component plan, and other local development schemes. It also assists the local self-government institutions in the identification of beneficiaries of central (federal) and state (provincial) government's welfare programmes.
In addition, the Community Development Society of the network acts as a liasing body with banks for loans for the network's activities. It also facilitates capacity building activities by training and providing information to women in particular to assume leadership roles. The society also helps in creating awareness around gender related government initiatives such as prevention of violence against women and legal literacy.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Kudumbashree Mission is currently an ongoing mission. The main activity of the Mission's three tiered community network of women is thrift and credit. However, they also help the local self-government institutions to prepare and implement plans for poverty eradication, women's empowerment and general economic development of their area of operation. As such, the Community Development Society (CDS) prepares a "CDS Action Plan" which is a "demand plan" that make to their local self-government bodies. This Action Plan is developed in a bottom-up manner with Neighborhood Groups preparing their "micro-plan" over several sittings which are then first consolidated at the Area Development Society level as "mini-plan" and all "mini-plans" are consolidated into the "CDS Action Plan."
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The most recent data (31 March 2019) shows that there are more than 4.3 million women members of the Kudumbashree, comprising 291, 507 Neighborhood Groups, 19,489 Area Development Societies, and 1064 Community Development Societies. As of May 2019, it has collected around 47.52 billion Rupees (634.29 million USD) as thrift and there are around 2600 small-scale enterprises managed by Kudumbashree members. 
Kudumbashree Mission also operates as the National Resource Organization for the National Rural Livelihood Mission launched by the Government of India in 2011. In this capacity, the Kudumbashree Mission provides technical and training support to poverty eradication and livelihood missions in other States in India. 
With the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts mandating reserved seats for women in local self-government bodies, Kudumbashree became both a training ground and recruitment space for women’s entry into local level democratic politics. 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
There are several criticisms of the Mission. One criticism is that the Mission reduces women’s empowerment as simply a matter of thrift and credit. Micro-credit, micro-enterprises, and other income-generation activities dominate in official reports with little mention of other issues concerning women such as health and education. 
Since microcredit is the major activity of Neighborhood Groups in Kudumbashree, the criticism made against microcredit initiatives might be applicable to Kudumbashree. In a study on the Grameen Bank, the Nobel Prize winning microfinance organization in Bangladesh, Aminur Rahman makes a distinction between the Bank’s “public transcript” of poverty alleviation and women empowerment and the “hidden transcript” of targeting women for accomplishing “the goal of investment and recovery of loans.”  This implies that microcredit banks work within the same logics under which all banks operate irrespective of their public posturing. Similarly, Ananya Roy talks about the emergence of “poverty capital” through microfinance “where development capital and finance capital merge and collaborate such that new subjects of development are identified and new territories of investment are opened up and consolidated.”  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak characterizes the enthusiasm for micro-enterprises by women in the age of “globalization as financialization” as “credit-baiting of the gendered subaltern” and paving the way for women’s exploitation.  Thus, microfinance projects make available to financial capitalism another uncaptured territory – women in developing countries – and makes them part of the formal capitalistic economy.
A key difference between the Grameen Bank and the Kudumbashree Mission is that unlike the Bank in Bangladesh, the Mission in Kerala is not a civil society organization independent of the state. However, state-facilitated micro-credit initiatives can also operate within a neo-liberal understanding of state’s role in development. Katherine Rankin makes this point, in the context of micro-credit in Nepal, and argues that state supported microcredit represents a shift in development rationality. In the earlier model, the state through its commercial banks had a responsibility to make finance capital available to the rural poor, but now the responsibility is devolved to the poor who must “act as responsible agents of their own well-being.” Further, it is a case of “engendering development” with women as the new agents of development. 
In the context of Kerala, J. Devika and Binitha Thampi has argued that Kudumbashree is part of a “new regime of empowerment.” This new regime emerges in the context of a diminished ability of the state to meet the financial needs of the people and reconfigures its role as “facilitators of the new self-help-centered philosophy of welfare.” Devika and Thampi argue that while the male worker as the political subject was at the center of the earlier regime and women were mere beneficiaries, the new regime casts women (“female worker in the informal sector”) as agents of development.  Devika and Thampi also argue that the Mission is prone to the danger of bureaucratization where the three-tiered structure of Kudumbashree Mission is becoming a new bureaucracy. This they contend is not surprising given that the community network of the Mission is a “state-created civil society.” 
In her fieldwork, Devika found that the leaders of the Kudumbashree community network (the Chairpersons, Secretaries, Presidents etc.) perceive themselves as “members of the lower tiers of the development bureaucracy and not as local leaders.” 
A related problem is that the Mission can act as a parallel and competing institution to local self-government bodies.  There is a danger of state government bypassing the local bodies and using Kudumbashree as a vehicle for welfare and service delivery. This has created instances of tensions between the members of local bodies and the women leaders of the Mission’s community network. 
Another issue that is common to both local self-governing bodies and community networks such as Kudumbashree is the control of dominant groups and local elites in the bodies. The community-based networks like Kudumbashree is often pitched as a counter to this dominance by creating alternative and special space for the marginalized sections  – poor women in the case of Kudumbashree. However, within community networks such as Kudumbashree, the most marginalized (the Dalit and Tribal (Indigenous) women) remain marginalized compared to women from other caste groups. Seleena Prakkanam, a Dalit activist with previous association to Kudumbashree, in an interview with Devika mentions how on crucial occasions Dalit women have to step aside in favor of women from more influential social groups. 
Despite these criticisms, studies have also noted Kudumbashree’s positive effect on the women’s participatory capacity in Kerala. Kudumbashree has become the recruiting ground of women leaders for local politics. The Mission has given women “broader visibility within the public sphere.”  Women have reported that discussions in the weekly meetings of the Neighborhood groups have created solidarity among women on wider social issues, beyond the thrift and credit activities of the groups.  The participation in weekly meetings of the Neighborhood Groups and public meetings of the local self-governing bodies have given self-confidence to the women and have made them more visible. 
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