Oct 262010

Article by Ananya Mukherjee-Reed
Source: OneWorld South Asia

Kerala, hailed as God’s own country, attributes its high development indices to the local women. Through their group, Kudumbashree, these women are not only rejuvenating the local agrarian economy but are also changing the way women are perceived. Ananya Mukherjee-Reed explores the myriad achievements of Kudumbashree as she travels across the state.

Kerala, a state of approximately 32 million people in southern India, is well-known for its human development successes. In terms of every major human development index, Kerala has consistently ranked the highest in comparison to other Indian states as well as other countries in the developing world.  What is most notable about these successes, however, are the social processes through which they have come about.  A history of mobilisations from above and below and synergies between ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ have resulted in a culture of collective social experimentation which is quite unique, although, obviously not free of complexity or contradictions.

One aspect of this dynamic has been the role of women. While Kerala’s women have historically enjoyed remarkably better levels of literacy, healthcare, maternal health and so on, their social positioning or public participation had not improved commensurately. But that is about to undergo a dramatic change.  In fact, by the time you finish reading the piece, a new chapter in Kerala’s social history may well have begun.

For the first time, 50% of the seats in Kerala’s local body elections are reserved for women, with some 40,000 women aiming for political office.  11,600 of these contestants are from ‘Kudumbashree’ a 3.7 million strong state-wide network of women’s groups in Kerala. Kudumbashree is also the Government of Kerala’s main anti-poverty program.

In April 2010, I began travelling in Kerala to observe this experiment first hand.  From what I observed, Kudumbashree is above all, a social space from where women – the doubly, triply marginalised, can actively determine the needs and aspirations of their communities and take their collective demands to the state and public institutions.

Kudumbashree has many different activities, but the one I observed is an innovative approach to solving the crisis of food security.

Some 250,000 Kudumbashree women throughout Kerala have come together to form farming collectives which jointly lease land, cultivate it, use the produce to meet their consumption needs and sell the surplus to local markets.  Currently, these collectives are farming on an approximate area of 25000 hectares, spread throughout the 14 districts of Kerala. The idea is to increase the participation of women in agriculture, and in particular, to ensure that women, as producers, have control over the production, distribution and consumption of food.

This strategy for involving women in agriculture comes at a very crucial time for Kerala. As in most parts of the world, vast quantities of Kerala’s agricultural land has been diverted towards residential and commercial development. At the same time, fall in agricultural prices and rising wages have made farming an unprofitable activity – leading to a continuous fall in food production in the state.  It is in this context that Kerala has developed its food security strategy. Unlike the standard approaches to food security; it goes beyond the question of food distribution to the realm of food production. Indeed, as global movements like the Via Campesina have been trying to assert, unless the production of food is enhanced and the real producers of food have control over the food economy, there can be no food security.

As I travelled through Kerala, it seemed to me that Kudumbasree farmers are emerging as key actors in this attempt to rejuvenate the agrarian economy.  They are bringing back land for agricultural production through their collective organisation. Slowly but surely, the connections between local livelihoods, local markets and local consumption are being reinvigorated.  As I travelled, my intention was not so much to ‘assess’ Kudumbashree, but to understand what the experiments might mean concretely to its protagonists.

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