The COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated existing gender inequalities and impacted women disproportionally. The effects of the lockdown were such that it made women bear the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic, in addition to facing increased instances of domestic violence. To overcome this unprecedented situation, we researched upon the many Self Help Groups (SHGs) of different states. But the trajectory of Kudumbashree, the success SHG model in Kerala has a different story to tell: how they challenged and continue to challenge the through its unique ways!
Kudumbashree: A unique model
Initially, the Kudumbashree mission (meaning “prosperity of the family”) was launched as a part of a poverty alleviation programme called the State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) by the Kerala government with three-tier structures NHG (Neighbourhood Groups) at the grassroots, Area Developmental Societies (ADS) at the ward level, and CDS (Community Developmental Societies) at the local government level. It was started in 1998 by then CPI(M)-led government of Kerala. Later, this network handled a wide range of activities like microfinance, marketing, gender sensitisation programmes etc. This resulted in a wide-spread inclusivity of women in local self-economic and social development.
COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities for Kudumbashree
“We are now actively conducting vaccination drive campaign ‘Oppam‘ and an information has sent to all 27755 NGHs regarding this,” Kavitha PC, District mission Officer, Kozhikode, told us.
Since the outbreak, the Kudumbashree, through 306 tailoring-stitching and 21 microenterprise units, have made more than 71.5 lakh cotton masks, 9,322.65 litres of sanitizers and face shields. This helped to meet the production constraints of these items due to excessive demand in the market.
Stringent lockdown and and inefficient management of the healthcare and food systems pushed several poor households into hunger and death in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Many women-run enterprises such as rest places in railway stations and canteens managed by Kudumbashree members were also shut during the pandemic. Nonetheless, the SHG groups in Kerala found new opportunities such as managing Janakeeya hotels and providing scientific disinfection services.
Disinfection was one of the main strategies for crushing the curve of COVID-19. As India grapples with the worst second wave COVID-19 manifestation in the world, the number of patients are surging exponentially. Upon this social inevitability, the district coordinators of Kudumbashree were directed to form teams in enterprise mode for performing disinfectant services. Their services were used during the 2021 assembly elections particularly for cleaning classrooms, government buildings, private houses, vehicles. For this, the team members had received intense training from the Fire and Rescue team of the State government. Currently, the services of the Kudumbashree teams are available across all districts in Kerala and have helped them earn more than Rs 50 lakhs.
Pramila, CDS chairperson of Villiapally, said that many members from their locality worked in the first level treatment centre on a daily wage of around 700 rupees which helped many women-headed households to come out of the poverty.
Janakeeya hotel, as an extension of the community kitchen which was run with the help of Kudumbashree during the lockdown, has been growing at a high pace since its inception in April 2020. The price for a meal in these hotels is Rs 20 and Rs 25 per meal if it is ordered as parcel. There were 215 such hotels in the state in April 2020 with 180 units in the rural area and 35 units in urban areas. This number has reached 1013 units of hotels across the length and breadth of Kerala which involves 839 units in the rural area and 174 units in the urban area in April 2021. Till 23 April 2021, the total served meals were 25,32,225 in numbers, as per the Kudumbashree website.
Chart: The growth of served meals by Janakeeya Hotel
Chart 2: The growth of Janakeeya Hotel units by region wise
The remarkable pace of growth in Janakeeya hotels managed by Kudumbasree implies the growing demand for the economical meals which in turn shows the gravity of economic distress faced by the people. “Our main customers for this subsidised meal were auto drivers, workers in informal sectors, migrants and self-employed entrepreneurs,” said Hemalatha, a leader of the Janakeeya hotel unit in Koyilandy, a small town in northern Kerala. She also added that the units sold around 150–200 meals at noon daily.
Each unit receives subsidised rice from Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation for Rs 10.90 per kilogram. The infrastructure facilities were provided by the local self-government for free of cost. Each member would get Rs 400 for their labour till noon and Rs 600 if they prepare meals for two times. In convergence with the UNICEF, special care to destitute families was also initiated.
Neoliberal Hindutva and its ease-of-business policies widened the gap between men and women in India in every domain. One of the main reason for the drop in India’s rank in the Global Gender Gap report 2021 is the downward trend of women in labour force participation. According to CMIE (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy), the labour participation rate for women less than 11% compared to 71% for men. With a wide outlook in Kerala, we can say that “Kudumbashree” acts as a reserve army of labour during the crisis.
Faced with the pandemic, the Kerala Government announced interest-free loans– “Sahayahastham” — of the principal amount of a maximum of Rs 20,000 which they could pay back within three years. Kerala State Financial Enterprises (KSFE) has initiated a micro-credit scheme KSFE Kudumbashree Vidyashree Scheme by giving laptops to the children of Kudumbashree women workers.
An often overlooked impact of COVID-19 is on our mental wellbeing, especially that of those belonging to the marginalised sections. With the help of 360 community counsellors, Kudumbashree is providing mental health support and counselling to the underprivileged people through Snehitha gender help desk. From a socio-political lens, this should be highly appreciable as they are building a community-centric approach to counselling for a society where self-care being rapidly being commodified.
What Nation should learn?
When the finance minister titled the Union Budget 2021 as “Inclusive development for aspirational India”, laxity towards Dalits, women, migrants and all other oppressed communities were reflected. Under the gender budget statement, there were hardly any allocations in micro, small-scale and medium enterprises for women. Addressing bottlenecks need not be effective until they come effective in policymaking. In reality, on the other hand, Kudumbashree is setting an example by handling a wide range of domains like microfinance, gender, social development etc.
Dr. M.P. Jayesh is a Research Scholar, PhD in Economics, IIT Delhi.
Shravan M.K. is pursuing masters in Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be found on Instagram.
All images as provided by the authors.