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The women empowerment model has fallen prey to politics
The women empowerment model has fallen prey to politics|Photo credit: Kudumbashree
Governance

The New Kudumbashree Model: Control & Punish

Once hailed as a model for women self help groups, Kudumbashree has fallen prey to politics and politicians

Jeff Joseph

Jeff Joseph

“I had told you to prepare for PSC (Public Service Commission) exams but you wouldn’t. Instead you ran behind Kudumbashree and look where it has got you,” said one of the elderly members of the Kudumbashree CDS (Community Development Society) of Koothattukulam municipality in Ernakulam district of Kerala to Jinesh MG over phone.

She was back home from Trivandrum after appearing for a very reluctantly called for hearing by the Kudumbashree following orders of the High Court of Kerala. The hearing would see Jinesh being ousted from a job he had held for 9 years straight.

The hearing would also see many CDS members change aisle and vote against Jinesh’s continuing in his post as accountant.

The recording of the conversation which is in possession of The Lede illuminates that which lay hidden in plain sight – politics, and the far reaching internecine rivalries that stew at the bottom of the much trumpeted success story that is Kudumbashree.

The Pretext

“One day when I was waiting for a friend of mine in the town hall below my office, I sat on a chair which had been put there as part of a meeting,” says Jinesh. “That was cited by party people here as what had led to my eventual removal,” he says.

“The meeting had been organised in memory of KT Jacob,” adds Jinesh.

Jacob a leader who hailed from the region was a former Minister for Revenue from 1969 to 1970 and passed away in 1976. He belonged to the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Although part of the same ruling coalition in Kerala, CPI is seen as a rival within the ranks and an enemy to be held closest by the dominant party CPI(M) (Communist Party of India Marxist), its cadres and leaders alike.

Though electoral calculations brought them close under a carefully stitched coalition, the split of 1964 has still not been forgotten, unlike the Sino-Soviet tensions and the doctrinal differences which had paved way for the communist split.

“They alleged that I had joined CPI with a 100 others,” says Jinesh.

Koothattukulam municipality is under CPI(M) rule and with the Kudumbashree CDS too in their hands, alleged political slights such as these could be deemed serious enough to be disciplined immediately especially when they are in power in the state.

“Even if you put together all the members of CPI in Koothattukulam municipality, I doubt whether there will be a 100,” Jinesh scoffs at the allegation. “It was nothing but to teach me a lesson,” he says.

And the lesson was not for the odd chair he had sat on or the imaginary hundred followers he had shared the chair with.

The Back Story

“When I was the district secretary of the CITU union for accountants, I had stood up for another accountant whose contract was not renewed under flimsy political pretexts,” says Jinesh.

CITU, or Centre of Indian Trade Unions, is a workers’ union of the ruling CPI(M) and Jinesh had held a responsible position in it. He was the district secretary of its union for accountants of Kudumbashree in Ernakulam district.

Shanthini, the accountant who had been removed from the nearby panchayat of Palakuzha within Ernakulam district, approached the High Court of Kerala and got the removal stayed.

Her reinstatement caused embarrassment for the party and hurt many egos. The local leadership and its apparatus put in motion a well perfected procedure to teach those involved a lesson.

“They sought to make an example out of me,” says Jinesh. “One of the party members had warned me then itself. He said you are going to be next.”

What the party and its local leadership had failed in were their attempts to politically capture the Kudumbashree machinery - an organisation that was never meant to be political to begin with.

Kudumbashree & Its Structure

Launched by the government of Kerala in 1998 for wiping out absolute poverty from the state through concerted community action, Kudumbashree is today the largest women-empowering project in the country. It is deemed so successful that it is being emulated in many other states of India.

Kudumbashree in essence is a three tier federal structure raised independently below the umbrella of local self-government.

At the bottom tier are the Neighbourhood Groups (NHGs) also called “Ayalkoottams” consisting of 10-20 women members in each primary level unit.

In each Ayalkoottam, five women office-bearers are selected for undertaking functional activities
In each Ayalkoottam, five women office-bearers are selected for undertaking functional activities
Photo credit: Kudumbashree

The middle tier is a federation made up of all the “Ayalkoottams” falling within a ward of the local self-government and is called the Area Development Society (ADS).

The Area Development Society has a bigger governing structure consisting of a General Body having all the Presidents, Secretaries & three volunteers of each federated NHG.

The Governing Body of ADS is made up of a 7 member governing body elected from the general body
The Governing Body of ADS is made up of a 7 member governing body elected from the general body
Photo credit: Kudumbashree

The apex level of the Kudumbashree Federation, above the NHGs and ADSs, is the Community Development Society (CDS). The general body of CDS is composed of 7 members each from all the ADSs that fall under it.

The executive committee of CDS selects two office bearers – Chairperson and Vice Chairperson
The executive committee of CDS selects two office bearers – Chairperson and Vice Chairperson
Photo credit: Kudumbashree

The member-secretary who is a deputed government official working within the local self-government works as an ex-officio member of the executive committee.

Above the CDS is the District Mission which has no elected members and coordinates activities of all CDSs within a district. At the state level, the State Mission similarly coordinates the 14 districts.

It was to assist the member-secretary and ensure financial discipline that the post of accountant was created in each and graduates hired on contract basis for the role.

When started, the position had a salary offer of Rs 5000. The contract had to be renewed every year through voting by all members of the CDS executive committee. Not many were willing to take up the job initially.

The community structure of Kudumbashree though closely embedded with the local self-government has an autonomous character of its own or so it was planned.

Jinesh was in his ninth year working as an accountant for the Koothattukulam CDS drawing a salary of Rs 13,500 when he was forcefully ousted.

Party Pedigree And Other Rocket Science Calculations

At the lower ends of Kudumbashree, a strong party pedigree in one’s lineage is important for survival. Especially for those not subservient to the party’s whimsical wishes. And in common parlance, “party” in Kerala refers to the ruling CPI(M).

Jinesh’s father as well as his father-in-law were loyal members of CPI. His brothers on the other hand were members of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), a mass organisation of CPI(M).

“Though I have no party, I support the Left in general,” says Jinesh. And it was when the LDF (Left Democratic Front) was in power that he had got the job. And it was as part of a Leftist labour union, CITU, that he had stood up for a fellow worker’s right.

But when standing up for fellow workers’ rights, it is not appreciated when it is the party that is guilty.

On 14 August 2018, Jinesh was expelled without a reason or procedure from a job he had given his nine years for.

Empowerment Through Coercion

On 25 July 2018, CDS Koothattukulam held its executive committee meeting in which, among other things, the renewal of contract of the accountant was put for discussion.

Chairperson, Kala Raju, who is accused of being a spokesperson for the local party leadership parroting their lines as and when needed by those who have worked with her, objected to his continuation citing difficulty in working with him.

But the meeting concluded with 19 of the 21 CDS members in the 25 member body supporting Jinesh’s continuation. Of the two who objected, one was the chairperson herself.

Within two days, on 27 July 2018, another CDS meeting was called for and the issue again put up for vote. 23 CDS members took part. In addition to the CDS members, four male municipal councillors also attended to ensure that all went well.

The night before the meeting, spouses of many CDS members, most of whom were members of labour unions of CPI(M) themselves, were approached and threatened to ensure that their wives voted as per the party’s wishes.

During the voting, 14 members opposed Jinesh continuing in the post, while nine supported him. The consequences of an unhappy party apparatus was known to all and most toed the line as dictated.

The decision to remove him was forwarded to the District Mission and an order removing Jinesh from the post of Accountant of Koothattukulam CDS was issued on 14 August 2018.

“The member-secretary had mischievously written that the majority supported continuation of Jinesh in the minutes,” says Kala, the chairperson, justifying the second vote which reversed the earlier decision. “Jinesh doesn’t listen to me. An accountant has to obey the CDS chairperson. He can’t do whatever he wants,” Kala Raju told The Lede.

According to members of the CDS who chose to remain anonymous, the only reason they knew of as to why Kala would hold any grudge against Jinesh was that once during a meeting under the district mission, when asked a question, Kala could not give a convincing answer and was rebuked by the person taking the class. Kala had blamed Jinesh saying he should have helped her answer the question.

After being removed, though Jinesh stayed on for a few more days at the request of the member secretary, to settle all the pending paper work, he was not allowed to sign the attendance register.

From 16 August, floods wreaked havoc in Kerala. Nature took over for a while.

After the floods receded, on 30 August 2018, Jinesh managed to get a stay on his removal from the High Court of Kerala. On 31 August he signed the attendance register.

This saw the chairperson Kala complain in writing to the District Mission against the member-secretary for allowing Jinesh to sign the register without the chairperson’s consent.

When he approached Kudumbashree, he was told to get a clarification on the issue before he could continue.

The court on 24 January 2019 ordered the Executive Director of Kudumbashree to hear the CDS members of Koothattukulam and to inform it within two months’ time as to the outcome of the hearing.

A hearing was eventually scheduled on 03 April 2019, much after the stipulated two months’ time.

Back in Koothattukulam, a vehicle was arranged to take all the CDS members of Koothattukulam to Trivandrum for the hearing, together. A few chose not to go. Others called up Jinesh and apologised in advance.

Roadside Drama, Threats And Free Ice Cream

On the way to Trivandrum, the Force Traveller that the CDS members were travelling in was stopped at the insistence of CDS chairperson Kala Raju.

While the members took refreshments, another vehicle, a newly acquired Ford Ecosport belonging to the Municipality, stopped by and from it emerged local leaders of Koothattukulam - Municipal Chairman Roy Abraham and Standing Committee Chairman Sunny Kuriakose.

While a few were surprised, others realised that they were being shepherded.

The local leaders told the CDS members assembled inside the bakery in unequivocal terms that, “You have to come back to Koothattukulam after this. Remember that,” the threat reminded.

The leaders paid for the ice cream and refreshments the members had savoured during the humiliation.

They did not stop at that. They went all the way to the Kudumbashree office in Trivandrum where the hearing was scheduled and met the officers who were scheduled to conduct the hearing.

A video of the two Municipal office bearers and their presence in the Kudumbashree office in Trivandrum is in possession of The Lede. In the video, they can be seen coming out of Director Asha Varghese’s Office just before the hearing had even started.

Order dated 06 April 2019 removing Jinesh from his post
Order dated 06 April 2019 removing Jinesh from his post

“There was no threat before the hearing,” insists Kala Raju, chairperson of Koothattukulam CDS. “Everyone was heard and majority wanted Jinesh removed.”

Amongst the members who sided with Jinesh were a group of CDS members who were running a canteen inside the municipal office’s premises. Started in 2015, with support from the then Koothattukulam panchayat (before it was designated as a municipality) the canteen had been working smoothly.

After the second CDS meeting in which nine members had supported Jinesh’s continuing in his position, the canteen received an eviction notice asking them to vacate the premises in seven days’ time.

“We had learned to run the canteen with the help of Kudumbashree but one fine day everything was taken back,” one of the members said. “We ran behind the chairman and others but our well-wishers told us not to waste time.”

Left with no choice, the group vacated the premises and the structure they had themselves built.

“We regrouped in a few months’ time and started a hotel in a rented building towards the end of last year. Things have been going well till now,” the member said.

When asked about the sudden eviction and its suspicious timing, chairperson Kala said, “It has nothing to do with CDS or the accountant.”

Kala also denied allegations raised by some from within the CDS that she takes home the day to day cash collections and returns. This, it was held, was a constant irritant for those responsible for the money. Many of the present CDS members privately alleged that she never kept accounts of the money received nor settled them.

“All is well with our CDS,” insists Kala. “There are only few months left now.”

While the assembly and CDS elections are not due until 2021, the local body elections are scheduled for next year.

Asked about her political inclinations and how they weigh on her decisions as the CDS chairperson she said, “Everyone has their own politics but we don’t bring politics inside Kudumbashree.”

A member of her CDS but claimed that, “Kala holds considerable sway within the local party set up and uses it too. But it remains unclear as to what gain the chairman and the Standing Committee Chairman of the municipality have by removing Jinesh.”

Jinesh now earns a living through the daily wages received by finding occasional work as a driver. He is a graduate with nine years’ experience as an accountant with no employment to be found.

“Because I got this job and it was so close to my house. I stuck with it. I had hoped that maybe things will improve over time. Earlier the salary was a pittance, just Rs 5000. It was only two years before I lost my job that it was increased to Rs 13,500,” he says.

“It was only in 2014 that appraisal system was put in place,” he says. The appraisal system had a three step evaluation to be done by the accountants themselves, the CDS chairperson and a District Mission Officer.

The member-secretary is Sugathamma NK, who was accused by chairperson Kala Raju of having helped Jinesh by allowing him to sign the attendance register a day after the High Court of Kerala stayed Jinesh’s removal.

She could not be reached for comment after she was transferred out shortly thereafter.

Sugathamma NK has been transferred out of Kudumbashree since
Sugathamma NK has been transferred out of Kudumbashree since

“Today I have two kids and a home loan which was taken showing the job as a guarantee. What do I do now?” asks Jinesh.

“I guess it was only meant to be mine for so long. They have been running a campaign on the ground to malign me. It is being said that I built my house by swindling Kudumbashree money. I don’t want to continue in the job but even if for a day, I want to prove my innocence,” says Jinesh.

Jinesh has approached the High Court again, bringing to its notice that the Executive Director had not deemed it important to conduct the hearing as directed by the court. A decision is awaited still.

Jinesh is fighting, though without much hope. For Jinesh’s is not a lone tale.

(In the second part of this series, The Lede brings you more accounts of Kudumbashree workers consistently victimised by political bosses)