Women Self Help Group struggle in Kerala..victory for Olson or Ostrom?

A brilliant case study by B L Biju of University of Hyderabad and K G Abhilash Kumar of University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

It is about this women SHG in Kerala named Kudumbashree which was used to decentralise and mobilise weaker class in Kerala:

Decentralisation and participatory development are recent attempts of the political left to protect, mobilise and empower the weaker sections of class and non-class varieties. The Kudumbashree agitation proves this point well. AIDWA’s state unit, often ridiculed by its critics as the “pet children” of “patriarchal CPI(M)”, had a very decisive role in this agitation. The agitation was a fitting reply to critics who equated decentralisation with depoliticisation of development and ideological deviation from class struggle. The agitation signalled the mainstreaming of gender-class combination of demands to the attention of the state. It was a political struggle born out of mutual understanding between a left political party and poor women through multiple ways of interactions in light of a participatory model of democracy and development.

The agitation brings to our attention two parallel processes of women empowerment initiatives in Kerala – first, with the active involvement of AIDWA and CPI(M), and second, with the leadership of autonomous NGOs and feminist intellectuals. Some working alliances or a dialogic relationship between the two would have helped the task of empowering women with improved strength and legitimacy.13 The agitation has left an indelible imprint in the history of people’s struggles in Kerala as an example of how decentralisation could become a preparatory ground for mobilisation and massive struggles of class and non-class groupings.

The women’s movement in Kerala reflects the value system, demands and methods of agitation of different strands of feminism. Socialist feminism is not dominant in Kerala despite the fact that the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) has a large membership, and debates relating to third generation feminism and its subversive politics are principally confined to women intellectuals and celebrities. The enactment of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution that ushered in an era of decentralisation in local self-governance, percolation of procedural democracy to the grass roots, reservations for women in elected bodies, and gender-inclusive welfare programmes have seen women’s participation in public spaces, political institutions, and democratic struggles.1

So basically it is a case of how the current govt tried to take control of things:

It is against this background that this article looks at the “day and night agitation” (rapakal samaram) organised in front of the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram during the first week of October 2012 by women self-help groups (SHGs) associated with Kudumbashree (officially known as the State Poverty Eradication Mission).3 The agitation was led by the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and supported by the CPI(M) to protest the United Democratic Front (UDF) government’s decision to reverse the process of decentralisation and re-bureaucratised development, affect a heavy cutback in the total plan outlay for the poverty eradication mission, and block resource devolution. Though the agitation received overwhelming support from Kudumbashree units across Kerala, the UDF government remained obdurate. It was only when the agitators raised the stakes and threatened to lay siege to district headquarters that the government agreed to negotiate and on the ninth day of the agitation signed an agreement in favour of the women’s demands.

This event brings to the fore the specificity of women empowerment in Kerala, its articulation in the form of gender-cum-class demand, gender-effects of decentralised development, and the relationship between the political left and women’s movements.

The Congress Govt.  pushed its own organisation – Janashree- and sideline Kudumbashree.

The incumbent UDF government has debilitated the institutional capacity and drained the financial resources of Kudumbashree. It increased the interest rate on government loans from 4% to 12%; indefinitely postponed the promises of the Gender Budget; and relocated its expert administrative staff. Above all, the government issued an order permitting Kudumbashree members to become members of the Congress-sponsored non-governmental organisation (NGO), Janasree as well, i e, hold dual membership.

A section of Congress leaders started the Janasree Sustainable Development Mission in 2008 to counterbalance Kudumbashree. The negative verdict against LDF in the 2010 panchayat election and the change in state government in 2011 gave them an opportunity to nurture this party-sponsored NGO. However, Janasrees could attract only 10 lakh members despite the government permitting double membership. In a strategic move, the Congress Party’s Members of Parliament (MPs), with the help of a memorandum signed by UDF’s block panchayat presidents, appealed to the central government to replace Kudumbashree with Janasree as the nodal agency of NRLM. However, the central government did not yield because Janasree had no track record comparable to Kudumbashree. In its reply, the central government described Kudumbashree as a model SHG for other states.9

When the Congress’ attempts to recruit poor women with an attractive financial offer through borrowed money from the central government, public sector banks and NABARD failed, the state government provided money for Janasree. Its hastily designed projects were approved and sanctioned Rs 14.9 crore under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY). The opposition criticised it as a political manoeuvre and an attempt to siphon public funds to a party-sponsored NGO. Indeed, a person who had been booked in corruption cases related to microfinance was appointed as the director of “Janasree Microfin”, its newly formed microfinance wing.

No information is available about the resource mobilisation, stakeholders and functioning of the Janasree to the public.

Interestingly, the earlier govt. headed by left had led to this decetralisation of SHGs in Kerala:

Decentralisation in Kerala did not give a free run to NGOs; there was scope for collaboration between NGOs and political parties as well. However, weaker sections were already familiar with party-led political mobilisation, much before NGOs entered the picture. By decentralisation the CPI(M) meant the deepening and institutionalisation of the process of mobilisation and democratisation. Scholars (e g, Heller 2005) remarked that the CPI(M) used decentralisation to embed class struggles in mass mobilisation. While critics denounced it as an ideological deviation and class compromise, admirers appreciated it as a strategy to interconnect class and non-class.

In the Kudumbashree agitation in Thiruvananthapuram, the CPI(M) took up the specific combination of class and non-class identity of economically backward women. The agitation did not face any major criticism from independent women organisations, though none of them declared their support. After the agitation met with success, they complained that AIDWA had hijacked Kudumbashree at the behest of the CPI(M) (Devika 2012). However, Kudumbashree, which provides means of livelihood, credit and meeting space, had already become a household name for poor women and any move to debilitate it was seen by women as an attempt to dismantle their base of associational life, participation and livelihood

Media woke up late to this agitation:

The media, which initially ignored the agitation, later understood its consistency and gave headline news. Earlier, many women-led demonstrations against the price hike in various places and a number of strikes organised by nurses (mainly women) working in private hospitals for better wage-service conditions in Kerala had prepared the mood for the Kudumbashree agitation. The celebration of Kudumbashree’s 14th anniversary in Kochi just a week before the agitation was an occasion for its members to assemble and share common problems.11

The CPI(M) was looking for a new arena of struggle in state politics. The group-specific targeted development through LSGIs and increased reservation for women in local bodies indicated the possibility of gender voting. In this agitation, the party and women intellectuals did not form two fighting camps. The legitimacy of Kudumbashree in women/feminist circles went in favour of the agitation and became a threat to the government. Most probably, it was an expression of “class feminism”.

The agitation mobilised poor (class) women (non-class). Such an agitation was necessitated by the realisation of the impacts of and reasons for the Left’s major failure in the panchayat election 2010. In spite of plenty of welfare projects to its credit, the CPI(M) did not win votes. So it became necessary to unionise women SHGs with the help of AIDWA. The CPI(M) in Kerala has been trying to expand its multi-class coalition to counterweigh both its adversaries in the party system and in civil society.12 Through the agitation, the CPI(M) warned the government, which has a thin majority in the assembly, that any step to reverse the welfare policies initiated by the previous LDF government would be fraught with political risk.

Conclusion:

Decentralisation and participatory development are recent attempts of the political left to protect, mobilise and empower the weaker sections of class and non-class varieties. The Kudumbashree agitation proves this point well. AIDWA’s state unit, often ridiculed by its critics as the “pet children” of “patriarchal CPI(M)”, had a very decisive role in this agitation. The agitation was a fitting reply to critics who equated decentralisation with depoliticisation of development and ideological deviation from class struggle. The agitation signalled the mainstreaming of gender-class combination of demands to the attention of the state. It was a political struggle born out of mutual understanding between a left political party and poor women through multiple ways of interactions in light of a participatory model of democracy and development.

The agitation brings to our attention two parallel processes of women empowerment initiatives in Kerala – first, with the active involvement of AIDWA and CPI(M), and second, with the leadership of autonomous NGOs and feminist intellectuals. Some working alliances or a dialogic relationship between the two would have helped the task of empowering women with improved strength and legitimacy.13 The agitation has left an indelible imprint in the history of people’s struggles in Kerala as an example of how decentralisation could become a preparatory ground for mobilisation and massive struggles of class and non-class groupings.

Fassinating read by all counts. Given the huge focus on women related issues in India this one is quite a case study. Even more interesting to note is how one political party actually tried to push decentralisation where most of the time it is case for centralisation which the current govt. tried to do.

What else does the study show from an economic perspective?

I recently pointed about works of Mancur Olson. He showed why it was easier for people with narrow interests to collect together for a cause compared to those with diverse interests. Well, so clearly Olson’s idea succeeds here. Women associated with Kudumbshree had common interests to prevent their organisation from being sidelined. And this was clearly for a good cause.

What about Ostrom? Well, once again it shows decentralisation does work in development programs. People know about their development needs better than centralised agencies manned by so-called experts..

It also brings Public choice theory in picture.  Buchanan followers would  wonder why a political party would be interested in promoting an organisation. Well in  both cases (LDF and UDF) it was for poltiical gains…

What else?

Fab stuff to read…

 

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One Response to “Women Self Help Group struggle in Kerala..victory for Olson or Ostrom?”

  1. Women Self Help Group struggle in Kerala..victory for Olson or … | Self Help Talk Says:

    [...] Women Self Help Group struggle in Kerala..victory for Olson or Ostrom? A brilliant case study by B L Biju of University of Hyderabad and K G Abhilash Kumar of University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. It is about this women … Read entire story here. [...]

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