The statistics are impressive - savings of approximately Rs 7000 million and lending of more than Rs 16,000 million; assembling computers and imparting rudimentary IT skills to schoolchildren and adults; group farming on leased lands; running canteens and hotels; executing data-entry work in government departments; recruiting human power for organizations. The list goes on.
These are the attempts of a over 3.18 million women - mostly below the poverty line - to survive and find hope, dignity and self-respect under the banner of the Kerala State Poverty Eradication Mission, better known as Kudumbashree.
An evolution of the community development societies (CDSs) that began in the early 1990s, Kudumbashree started functioning in 1999. The idea was to form neighbourhood groups of women and empower them through capacity-building, training and setting up micro-enterprises. The efforts paid off: when panchayat (local self-government) elections were held in 2005, 48 Kudumbashree members were elected, 14 of them becoming panchayat presidents.
In the beginning, neighborhood groups of 10-20 women were formed on a nine-point risk indicator basis (such as no access to safe drinking water or sanitary latrine, illiteracy, Scheduled Caste/Tribe status, alcoholism or drug addiction etc). These groups were federated first into Area Development Societies and then into Community Development Societies. The women met weekly, sharing their experiences and depositing small amounts of money. They were trained in public speaking and other skills.
After about six months, using the money they had collected, the units kick-started their businesses, selecting enterprises that suited their members' education and training. Today, Kudumbashree covers 3,773,402 families; 3,754,017 families have started saving.
"Agencies promoting self-employment were not giving adequate importance to the knowledge part, and our idea was not just to give employment," says T K Jose, an Indian Administrative Officer and former executive director of Kudumbashree, and the brain behind the project. "The traditional methods of jam- and pickle-making were not always sustainable and the money also wasn't good enough. Besides, there were emerging markets which created a wealth of opportunities."
A Kudumbashree group has to put in five per cent of the project cost, while 45 per cent comes from the government and 50 per cent is taken as a bank loan. Jose and his team, comprising the project's district level functionaries, its IT coordinator and other assistants - including collegiate social work student-volunteers - emphasized problem-solving, managerial capabilities, confidence-building, imparting technical know-how and marketing.
In 2000, some units of educated Kudumbashree women piggybacked on the Kerala government's plan to computerize its various departments. The Kudumbashree Technoworld Information Centre (KTIC), which started with seven members at Thripunithura in Ernakulam district, was the first consequence. "We have so far done work for all the government departments that were computerized," says Nirmala Maniappan, who coordinates the activities of this unit. The KTIC, which started with five computers, bought another 10 computers and also a digital camera and laser printers. The profits in 2005 amounted to Rs300,000. The bank loan of Rs 288,000 it took to start up was paid back in three-and-a-half years.
M A Aboobacker, director of Kudumbashree, Central Region, says that this is a "holistic poverty reduction programme", and not mere "income-generators". He explains: "An individual cannot work himself or herself out of poverty. Society has to intervene, and it is on this premise that we work."
"Innovation and technology are two components of the project that no group can do without," says Kabir B Haroon, Kudumbasgree Ernakulam district mission coordinator. Thus, as certain units began doing data entry, others started assembling PCs that they would use; some enterprising women have taken land on lease and are farming paddy, seasonal vegetables and condiments; Kudumbashree units run 41 hotels and 53 canteens; another 47 units make ethnic delicacies and 87 are involved in direct marketing. There are also scores of units engaged in coconut processing, selling tender coconuts, waste management, poultry farming and making paper cups.
Says Girija Dinesan of the first Kudumbashree canteen in the state at the Paravur municipal office in Ernakulam district, "We were a 10-member group and, initially, people were skeptical about us. Nearby hotels were worried that we would take away their business and tried to jeopardize our efforts."
Kudumbashree has also been running Keralashree, a virtual employment exchange, for the past eight months. Members and their dependants register by paying Rs 75, and companies can hire employees gratis. "Earlier, we used to keep track of job opportunities and call up companies to tell them that we have the right candidates," says Smithamol M R, who coordinates the wing's programs in Ernakulam district. "But companies approach us now, and sometimes register online for candidates." Placement has served 350 members so far, and 2,300 aspirants have registered. Kadamashree's take is 10 per cent of the first salary.
Another of its wings, EKSAT (Employment through Knowledge, Skill and Technology) trains members in various skills. Kudumbashree manufactures Amrutham Nutrimix, a nutrient for children below three years distributed to anganwadis and sold in the open market. Another venture, Kerashree Coconut Oil, has also received a good response. Now, with training from the Ministry of Agriculture's Coconut Development Board, there are efforts to manufacture value-added products, such as hair oil.
Since March 2000, farming has been carried out by 16 members of the Asamannoor panchayat's Apsara Kudumbashree unit, which has tied up with the state Krishi Bhavan. "We farm paddy, vegetables and condiments, depending on the season," says Sobhana Balakrishnan. "At no time is the land allowed to lie idle." Except for the sowing of seeds, all other farming-related work is done by the women and the products are sold locally.
Apsara Kudumbashree eventually bought the leased farming land in March 2004. "The profit margins are thin, but then we have never had to go without food in the past six years as we always have something or the other ripe on our fields," says Balakrishnan.
Says Nirmala Maniappan, "Kudumbashree has given us an identity." Radhika Gopi, a graduate who has been working with the IT unit for the past five years, says, "If not for this project, we wouldn't have been able to step into large offices. I found money for my marriage from this."
Irrespective of changing governments in Kerala, Kudumbashree has received ample political support - one reason behinds its success, says Haroon. "But its greatest achievement is that we have found hope in life," says Maniappan. "Many of us had contemplated suicide in the past, but after working with our units for so long we find ourselves unified, and now we know that if we can sustain our work, it will keep us going."
Nonetheless, Jose feels that the focus of the project needs to change. "We should slowly move out of mass mobilization projects and focus on household-specific projects. This would help focus on individuals, such as destitute persons who may not be able to take advantage of such group projects," he says, adding that units should learn to be on their own without support from the government, and that communities should be able to manage their issues themselves.