Part One: Prologue
In 2008, I reported the results of research on Kudumbashree women leaders at the village level, from seven districts in Kerala. Those were the days when Kudumbashree was being projected as the ultimate answer to all of women’s woes, and the chorus consisted of politicians, official feminists, researchers, bureaucrats, development experts – in other words, everyone, well, almost. What I had to say was not pleasant to their ears. However, implicit in my reporting was the essential changeability of Kudumbashree, which was after all a government programme. The discussions around the modifications of the Kudumbashree bye-law and its approval were on during our fieldwork, and even though we reported after it was finalised and approved, it was too early for us to assess its impacts.
Not unexpectedly, my results made me quite unpopular among the admirers of Kudumbashree. But since most of it remained unexpressed openly, I could not respond. Then, after some months, a feminist scholar and friend who worked closely with the official circles in Delhi called me. She had just listened to a presentation before an important committee by the-then Executive Director on Kudumbashree, a femocrat who was working hard to create maneuvering space for Kudumbashree women. One of the committee members asked her about the state of research on Kudumbashree, and she apparently mentioned my work, saying that it was ‘hostile’.
I was stunned. There was no reason at all, in my mind, at least, why I should be hostile,especially because I had never swallowed the then-plentiful readymade determinisms about self-help. Indeed, I had resisted the idea that neoliberal self-help welfarism would necessarily lead to neoconservatism. So I made an effort to speak to the Executive Director whose valiant effort at changing the institutional framework I deeply admired. I pointed out to her that the scene we had described was before the institutional change and we had felt that the proposed changes held the potential to bring much-needed change in the power relations that had reduced Kudumbashree women to governance workers and provisioning labourers.
The misunderstanding was thus cleared and after that, I have derived much pleasure and satisfaction in working with and for Kudumbashree, and functioning as a ‘translator’ between the worlds of the Kudumbashree women and outside, moving in and out. However, I have maintained and guarded a clear distance from the programme all through, and have cherished it simply because distance is vital to staying alert and critical. In my mind, that is the only way in which a researcher can build a loving relation to the lakhs of women who bring alive the programme each day – by watching it closely and commenting critically on its shifts and changes.
This is especially vital because Kudumbashree is a state-supported programme shaped by three powerful agencies beside the women who form its core: the panchayats (and the Departments that control them), political parties in power at different levels, and the Kudumbashree bureaucracy. The programme is now too solidly entrenched at the interface of development and politics in Kerala to be completely dislodged by any of these agencies, but they can destroy it slowly, from within. Vigilance therefore becomes important, and a truly loving relationship would demand truthful expression of misgivings and criticism.
I am all the more concerned because the Kudumbashree seems to be into international conferencing these days, getting big names in first-world development academia (who, I doubt, have conducted much research or even closely observed the programme over the years as it evolved) to endorse it publicly. That is very often the first step towards securing international prizes – who knows – even the Nobel itself- and it seems rather ironic to me that this effort seems to coincide with a period of steady erosion of gains in democratisation. I found it striking that in the last conference did not have a primary emphasis on research on Kudumbashree itself – and so it was clearly not meant as an exercise to gain self-reflexivity – and I am told that except for Bina Agarwal, the main speakers had little to do with Kudumbashree and relied largely upon supplied information in their remarks. Thus in a context in which responsible people in the programme seem to have lost self-reflexivity, it is up to others to speak.
So I am going to risk again my reputation among admirers and others who have now attached themselves to the programme by raising unpleasant questions. I am writing my fears only because I feel that some recent changes in Kudumbashree threaten to undo the democratisation that it achieved particularly after 2008 and indeed the potential for such democratization to expand may be closed forever. Therefore I am asking questions, not making allegations – questions that seem reasonable from recent observation and available documents.
Part Two: Kudumbashree in Chandydesham
I believe the new bye-law’s potential has been realised in some places where initial conditions have been favourable. The programme is of course too vast and spread over very diverse populations for its results to be even. What is important to me is the fact it has improved things for women in some places at least, compared to the pre-2008 scene – my recent research into sites of extreme disadvantage in Kerala tells me this. But even where the institutional change is yet to make a serious difference, we found that women leaders were deeply aware of its potential, and were empowered by that knowledge. This is also confirmed by the many women leaders from across seven districts who have stayed in touch even though our research was over by 2008.
Altering the provisions approved in 2008,therefore, needs to be done with a lot of care.
I am really shocked therefore to see that recent changes made in the rules regarding internal elections tantamount to destruction of the mechanisms that ensured that the strongest consensus candidate would become the Chairperson of the panchayat-level apex body, the Community Development Society. The 2008 bye-law assured this by instituting open election of the Chairperson – CDS members openly expressed assent or dissent, and the Chairperson could be elected only through genuine consensus among the members. Now open elections have been replaced with secret ballots probably justified by some tired old definition of democracy. This means that assent and dissent will be secret and distrust can well be allowed in and after the election.
The consequences of this are not trivial. The CDS in a panchayat was envisaged to be in partnership with the panchayat committee in the 2008 bye-law. On the ground, it means that the CDS has to stay absolutely united and strong, representing women’s collective interests in the panchayat. I have seen many instances of the great value of such all-woman connections and friendships – often strong enough to make space for another affective life for women outside the family. To undermine the mechanisms that produce such a consensus is fatal tothe CDS’ ability to stay the panchayat’s partner, and not end up ‘under’ the panchayat as used to be the case in the pre-2008 days. Secret ballots are not some unavoidable instrument of democracy, and in this case anyway, the CDS members resemble not citizen voters but elected legislators who are accountable to their constituencies and therefore must vote openly.
I also hear that the continuous training given to women leaders in the bye-law and all aspects of management and administration, which laid stress on their specific and independent role in the panchayats – undoubtedly one of the most empowering aspects of the programme post-2008 – has also been tampered with grievously. This training which was rightly continuous, used to be done by members of the 19 training groups that Kudumbashree had itself developed. The Kudumbashree, like most other SHG networks of the 1990s, understands ‘collective interest’ of the group as the sum total of the individual-familial interests of the women members of the group. In such a group, cooperation is always fragile and needs constant bolstering — and this was an important reason for training to remain frequent. Training sessions were occasions in which women came together and renewed their commitment to cooperation. The Kudumbashree bureaucracy too had a major role in keeping the cooperative game going.
I have myself seen that these women communicated effectively not just because they knew the bye-law well but because they had a wealth of experience at different levels of the programme, and more importantly, being Kudumbashree women themselves, they shared much with their trainees – in other words, an unequal pedagogic relation did not mark their relationship.However, apparently, now it is the trainers from the Kerala Institute of Local Administration who are now deputed for the training.
While I do not dispute their competence (simply because I do not know them), a reduction of the effectiveness is inevitable of only because a teacher-taught relationship is unavoidable here. But more importantly, it indicates a move that devalues the skills acquired by the Kudumbashree training groups, and one that may actually push up costs of training too. It is worth noting that these groups continue to be invited to conduct skill training, motivational training and so on by other government departments and even private agencies; the NRLM has deputed experienced Kudumbashree leaders to lead training of other women in other parts of India. It is then not clear why they have been excluded from their own institution!
The training groups also have a story of evolution similar to the CDS. The trainers who started as resource persons in their individual capacity came together with their shared interests and competencies to form these training institutions (in fact training enterprises, as these institutions were intended to help its members become financially sustainable). The Kudumbashree Mission spent a lot of time and money in building the capabilities of these trainers and their institutions. From 3 such professional training groups in 2006, the number increased to 19 in 2010. More than 200 community professionals earned a decent livelihood through this. The cost of training provided by these groups was about one-third of the cost charged by other trainers/institutions. In one stroke, the enterprise institutionalization of training service provision in Kudumbashree achieved three key results: assured livelihoods to about 200 families; savings in the amount spent on training. Ironically, States like Maharashtra are now looking at the Kudumbashree model of community professional training institutions in a large scale, while in Kerala, Kudumbashree is making every effort to devalue what these professionals have achieved.
This is why I find the recent move by the Kudumbashree to start community colleges for Kudumbashree women in collaboration with Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai so galling. Even as it excludes its own experienced trainers – women whose knowledge definitely is ‘from below’, from experience of Kudumbashree work – it seeks to build a pool of academically -oriented researchers who are expected to rescue precisely such non- institutionalized knowledges! The project proposal submitted by a member of the faculty of TISS makes really interesting reading (I had a chance to see it, thanks to the efforts of an RTI activist). The proposal delivers a veritable philippic against the power-knowledge nexus. I quote:
This exclusionary politics of power, being a double-edged sword, also denied the right of the common and their lived experiences to get involved in development and planning. The archaeology of knowledge needs to be contested in this context and the relevance for the formulation of Herstories to the body of knowledge. [next paragraph] This continuous relegation of the common and their day to day life to the periphery has manifested in the various forms of collectives and resistances, and these local mobilisations were the pioneering initiatives towards an alternative, horizontal and participative democratic structures. These struggles have generated the language of subaltern voices, which retraced and redefined the depreciated oral narratives [and] the histories of the underclass and thus initiated the process of democratisation of development ..
[Introduction, ‘Herstories: Contesting Epistemologies of Power and Knowledge – Community College Initiatives of the Kudumbashree Mission’]
I will not dwell on the many questions I have to this highfalutin collection of phrases assembled in haste from participatory development theory, Foucaldian newspeak, postcolonial theory etc. etc. and strung together breathlessly; suffice to say that it claims to be committed to rescuing precisely the kind of experience that Kudumbashree authorities have chosen to exclude from trainings at this moment! The proposal claims that the one-year proposed post-graduate diploma in Development Praxis arose from the need to build “women from Kudumbashree network as trainers, Kudumbashree in fact, proposes to empower the community voice through the women network and, thereby, making women not only carriers of the community voices, but also interpreters, creators,and theoreticians of the community voices”. [From the section ‘Information economy and the digital divide’ of the above proposal].
There may be reasons to support that subaltern knowledge may be recovered only through a small group of insiders who must be first trained by the academic elite — however contested they may be.But even if we concede that such training is necessary,is it not important to see if the already-existing training groups were found lacking, and in what ways? Was an evaluation carried out? Nothing of this is revealed in this proposal. I am not saying that the training groups are faultless and perfect in every way; however, a reasonable response would be to retrain the groups rather than start a postgraduate diploma programme accessible only to a relatively small number of Kudumbashree women. And even there, one would expect a preference for women who are already trainers. Anyway, the irony is only too apparent when one reads it in the context of ongoing efforts to discredit Kudumbashree women’s knowledge elsewhere! The irony is compounded by the role granted to TISS in retrieving ‘subaltern voices’ — an institution recently notorious for its student-bashing, speech-gagging, and silencing of teachers. Contesting power/knowledge, indeed! If it were not so seriously immediate, one would have laughed.
It is true that Kudumbashree has recently been involved in much data-collection, but I wonder if this research advances democracy or simply add to the ‘bureaucratic modernity’ that hangs like an eternal shadow over our poorest peoples. Take, for instance, the data collection in tribal hamlets by Kudumabshree for participatory micro-level planning. Tribal peoples in Kerala have always been the victims of bureaucratic modernity that rests upon, among other things, tons and tons of statistics which reach closer and closer into the tribal person’s lifeworld and reduce it into manageable categories and priorities. In Kerala too, the heightening distress in tribal hamlets has been accompanied by newer and newer rounds of data collection, so detailed that there is hardly anything that is left to be reduced to tables. That has not really meant anything at all to the tribal people whose misery continues to grow. The thorough surveys in all districts conducted through the joint effort of the Department of Local Self-Government and the Department of Tribal Affairs, the recent surveys in tribal hamlets by panchayats aided by the Kerala Institute of Local Administration, and the Kudumbashree’s surveys are all part of the same venture. They are often decorated liberally with the claim to be ‘participatory’, and in the case of the last, with the claim that the exercise allowed tribal people to set their own agendas. But even a cursory examination of the content would reveal that each of these are utterly positivistic in methodology and governmental in content. While this does not affect the other surveys — which do not make the tall claims that Kudumbashree’s micro-planning surveys do and are quite competent in themselves (especially the first) — it is a damning comment on Kudumbashree’s vision of research. The tiny sections on history and myth, and sociological features in the sample report that I saw add nothing new to our knowledge of these hamlets. If this is Kudumbashree’s vision of research, it seems to clash royally with the the hyperbolic romancing of knowledge-from-below that is tom-tommed in the proposal for the community colleges!
And it costs a bomb too, apparently. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the replies to RTI queries about the expenses incurred on the surveys in each of the districts. Is it ethical to spend so much from funds earmarked for tribal development in surveys when tribal people are at the brink of decimation from lack of absolutely basic needs? Is Kudumbashree finally succumbing to being yet another plodding government institution lacking will and imagination in delivering its mandate? I do not expect government officials, however enlightened they may be, to uphold the view that the poorest escape their terrible lives not through finer and finer data collection but through popular struggles that put pressure on the state to yield welfare. But Kudumbashree, which claims to be a popular movement, must surely be more aware it this? The knowledge it has produced for micro-planning, going by the sample report (since the methodology is likely to be common, it is probably possible to generalise from it), has nothing that would shape popular struggle or effective pressure on the government.
Anyway, I am also not sure if Kudumbashree’s other research endeavours pass through ethical evaluations in content either: I chanced upon a questionnaire used by Kudumbashree data collectors recently to collect data on violence against children which included question s that seemed utterly inappropriate, invasive, and potentially stressful to young children. The questions number 164! While this survey was carried out by Kudumbashree women, it is not sure that it was supported by the Kudumbashree Mission as the questionnaire did not indicate that. I am not sure if the report of that research is out, but it is surely going to be questioned seriously once it comes out. And even if it was not conducted for Kudumbashree, I don’t think the institution can excuse itself of blame.
Talking of resource crunches, I would also be interested in greater clarity about the sources of funding for the community colleges. Friends in Delhi tell me that the proposal for these, which was submitted as part of Kudumbashree’s plan to the National Rural Livelihood Mission, was rejected by authorities in Delhi, but the advance amount to TISS had already been paid by then. That sounds very worrying because then the question of sources certainly becomes acute especially because funds were not secured separately for these in Kerala either. Could it be that these colleges were funded out of Kudumbashree’s Plan Budget? If that is the case, I can only say that it would be appalling and completely unacceptable, and we would also need to know which source in the Plan Budget was used.
Part Three: Kudumbashree in Muneerland
I have been speaking with women leaders in Kudumbashree in seven districts, and they all tell me that payments are due to them in almost every single head from the Matching Grants downwards, even in the Minister in charge, M K Muneer’s own district, Kozhikode. I hear also that out of the 100 crores allowed in the state budget for Kudumbashree, only 25 crores have actually reached the Mission — of course this government has plenty of money to promise to the Adanis and little for paying up arrears to the poor and the poorest!
The women leaders also complained about corruption, of sorts we had not heard about even in the pre-2008 days. Women leaders of one district told me that bills for expenses on events like Micro-enterprise skill training were cleared only if they were ‘suitably’ inflated; others complained that micro-enterprise training was being offered to women who were not even members of Kudumbashree; yet others said that women members were being used as ‘fronts’ by private caterers and others to gain contracts. A further complaint was about how members now had to sign for amounts due to them but which they were yet to receive! But most distressing to me personally was the observation that the disrespectful behaviour that women leaders had to suffer from male officials in the pre-2008 period was back in some districts at least. I am putting this down here only because the numbers who complained were too high to dismiss these as gossip. It appears that all these different forms of corruption are present in different degrees in all seven districts, and there seems to be enough reason for at least serious introspection. And indeed, this prompts one to assign greater weight to media reports of rampant corruption that have already appeared in the mainstream media (for example, in the Mathrubhumi News Channel.
When I ask for introspection, I mean introspection not just by the Kudumbashree Mission but also by M K Muneer and the Muslim League who now, whether they admit it or not, wield considerable clout in it. This is not to say that all the officers who have profited by the Muslim League’s power over the Kudumbashree are corrupt. But given that it holds a huge, huge responsibility – the welfare of over 40 lakh Malayali women – the Muslim League had better keep a keen eye for corrupt officials. They needed to be ruthlessly weeded out. The sad truth, it appears, that this does not happen always and when it does, it is inexcusably slow. I still believe that MK Muneer and his party are capable of making the correction if only they tried.
An excellent example of how the rich prey on the hard-won spaces of the poor is in the experience of Cafe Kudumbashree. The successful marketing of women’s culinary skills through Cafe Kudumbashree has made it popular and the Cafe Kudumbashree food courts that it organized across cities in Kerala have been a great success. The efforts in building the Cafe Kudumbashree brand was anchored by a group of officials in the State Mission and a training institution of hospitality sector professionals from within Kudumbashree member families. This group, based out of Thrissur, worked tirelessly across Kerala with Kudumbashree women running small eateries and office canteens, building their skills and confidence in managing modern-type food outlets. A typical Cafe Kudumbashree food court that ran for 10-15 days, would have 15-20 groups (3-5 women) offering traditional cuisine in a large food court with seating, drinking water and prompt cleaning services. The income earned by these groups ranged between Rs.2 lakh to Rs.15 lakh. Net take- home earnings typically were in the range of Rs.25-30000 per woman in these 15 days. Between 2012 and 2014 Kudumbashree organized more than 20 such food courts leading to actual strengthening of about 100 food production units of women (benefitting not less than 500 families).
In 2015, Kudumbashree changed its focus from organizing food courts in Kerala and began to explore international arenas. About 30 women selected through a process which many insiders have termed ‘opaque’, went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to organize Cafe Kudumbashree food court there. The accompanying official and non-officials party were orginally 20 strong, beginning with big wigs from the office of the Minister’s office, Kudumbashree Governing Body, State Mission and District Mission officials. The Government order had explicitly stated that no government funds will be spent on the jaunt; that accompanying officials (five persons) will meet the cost of travel etc. from the sales proceeds of the Cafe KS food court. However, now a large number of Cafe Kudumbashre ‘support institutions’ have surfaced which prey on the space that the Cafe Kudumbashree workers have created by their sweat and toil. This figured prominently in the women leaders’ complaints, as mentioned earlier. Can we attribute the sudden fall in the perceived quality of the last Kudumbashree food court to such backdoor entry of sub-standard commercial eateries?
It is not hard to accept the fact that the vastness of Kudumbashree which now includes over 40 lakh women will have flaws and failings. I am even willing to concede that politicians can hardly avoid distributing positions to their party supporters. But moves that destroy Kudumbashree’s democratising potential, promote nepotism to a degree that harms the programme and erodes gender equality, and encourage predation on livelihood spaces opened up by the poor by their own labour – these cannot be tolerated in any way. More upsetting is the fact that many Kudumbashree women leaders now have got used to corruption as the ‘normal’ way of doing things! It is precisely these the moves mentioned above, and the weaning away of women from this new conception of ‘normal’ functioning that ought to be the priority now, not setting up structures that will only drive a wedge between the TISS-educated and (mostly less educated) others in the Kudumbashree.
Finally, I know well that mine is not a lone voice. I would not have been able to learn so much and write this much if many, many concerned individuals – women leaders, RTI activists, officials at many levels in Delhi and Kerala – were not willing to share information and their rage. The Minister and the top officials of the Kudumbashree had better become aware that the programme is closely watched. And that not all of us peddle sycophancy.