Kudumbashree: Keeping Patriarchy & Politicisation Intact
Representative image of Kudumbashree workersPhoto credit: Local Self Government Department of Kerala

Kudumbashree: Keeping Patriarchy & Politicisation Intact

More and more cases of politicisation of the community organisation tumble out as the CPM aggressively takes charge of Kudumbashree

In the first part of our series on the politicisation of Kudumbashree, we told you the story of Jinesh who was removed from his post as accountant over flimsy reasons. Despite High Court orders stating that hearings must be conducted by the Executive Director, it was not obeyed. The CPI(M)’s long and powerful arm hovers over Kudumbashree and its accounts.

In the second part, we told you the story of Vinodini who was slapped with charges of possessing marijuana simply because she refused to step down from the post of accountant in the organisation.

In this final part of our series on Kudumbashree, we bring you more stories on politicisation, victimisation and the apathy of officials whose duty it is to save the legitimacy of Kudumbashree.

Binto Tojo hailing from Velukara panchayat in Thrissur was another accountant who suddenly found herself cornered by a newly elected CDS (Community Development Society) of Kudumbashree post 26 January 2018.

Within six months of the new chairperson taking charge, trouble started brewing for Binto and when the time for her appraisal came, things turned bad.

“First they had given me full marks in the appraisal form. But later they changed it and in a new form, lower marks were given,” says Binto Tojo. “No reasons were given for the change.”

Binto was accused of being a supporter of UDF and removed
Binto was accused of being a supporter of UDF and removed

“It was the first time there was this kind of political polarisation,” she says. “The accountants union protested my removal. V Shivankutty MLA had visited us and a solution was promised within 14 days.”

But nothing changed. The local area committee was exerting its might to have her removed. With eight years in the job, Binto was too involved to give up.

A solution popped up when she was asked to join the party like the chairperson of the Velukara CDS Anitha Biju who joined CPI(M) in 2016 although she was previously a Congress supporter.

Binto’s husband Tojo, a Gulf returnee who now undertakes small catering works for a living had himself joined CPI(M) although he too was a Congressman earlier.

“I had worked in the job for nine years. One fine morning I was told to leave by 5 pm,” says Binto. “Velukara was among the top ten CDSs in Thrissur district. There is really only one staff, the accountant, in Kudumbashree who has to do all the work,” says Binto.

She too went to court and got her removal stayed along with four others from Thrissur. Her case too was heard by Pramod KV, the program officer and not the Executive Director.

Out of the 15 CDS members who attended the hearing, nine said they will go with the governing body’s decision, two held that Binto should be allowed to continue and four insisted that Binto be removed. As a result, an order to remove Binto was issued a second time on 07 June 2019 and she remitted office.

“I have a 91 year old father–in-law and a son in fourth standard who I have to care for. The money I earn from the job is going into fighting cases. I have to travel frequently to Trivandrum and Ernakulam which is difficult too,” she says. “I have lost interest and hope. I am too tired to fight.”

Another reason for her giving up is a vigilance case filed against the previous chairperson, a member of CPI(M), based on complaint by another CPI(M) CDS member Leena Unnikrishnan, who was passed on for the position of chairperson.

Being the then accountant, Binto too was dragged into the case although the case pertained to a decision taken before she had joined.

“The Deputy SP told me it has got nothing to do with me. That it was a case of personal vendetta against the chairperson,” claims Binto. “He told me that if the case doesn’t stand, I can file a counter case. He assured me everything was clear on my side.”

But it had caused Binto’s reputation enough damage.

Even the order of the hearing which removed her, cited her as having acted against the by-laws of Kudumbashree without explicitly citing the vigilance case.

Ironically though, in the very next paragraph of the same document, the Executive Director openly flouted all by-laws by counting the votes cast by four panchayat members posing as ex-officio members of Pazhayannur CDS just to ensure removal of Vinodini, as reported earlier by The Lede.

Representative image of Kudumbashree workers
How False Charges Were Foisted For Questioning Kudumbashree Leadership

Binto’s husband remains supportive of going to court still, but Binto does not want any of it and so he has obliged.

“If it were me I wouldn’t give up so easily,” he says trying to spur her into fighting for her honour.

“Rewarded” For Being Vigilant: Salini

Many districts and 270 km away in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, Salini of Venganoor CDS falling under Athiyanoor block too was removed less than ceremoniously in 2018.

Her original sin was finding out that the vice-chairperson had been posing as chairperson and availing of loans from banks.

Salini was removed on 13 August 2018.

The revelation of the fraud had caused embarrassment for the powers that be.

“It was when I had gone to the bank to introduce the new chairperson that we were told that they had already been acquainted with the chairperson,” she says. “She had availed a loan of Rs 3 lakh from Canara Bank, Kovalam Branch and another Rs 7 lakh from Grameen Bank, Perinjala Pallichal Branch,” says Salini.

“I had believed the union when they said they will find a solution and get me re-instated,” rues Salini. “But they were spying on my moves for the party.”

On 13 August 2018, she was surprised to see another person appointed to her post when she was still in office.

“Accountants needs to have BCom degree with knowledge of Tally. But the kid appointed now doesn’t have either,” says Salini. “But she is the branch secretary’s sister’s child.”

“The DMC (District Mission Coordinator) says they can’t do anything. The Assistant Director refused to take interest citing the flood then. I had met leaders of the Union, MLAs all and sundry to no avail. I know of at least three other panchayats in Trivandrum where accountants have faced a similar fate,” says Salini.

“Kavitha in Attingal was removed without an appraisal after nine years in the job. Anu who was an accountant with five years’ experience in Trivandrum Corporation was removed. The Accountant of Pangodu was transferred to another place similarly,” she says.

Many like Binto Tojo of Velukara Panchayat in Thrissur consider transfer a better option.

“It is natural for people to have issues with someone working at the same place for so long. The DMC could have transferred us to a nearby panchayat or found some solution,” she says.

But officials of Kudumbashree says it is not possible for contractual positions and the rule is that the accountants have to be from the same panchayat.

Representative image of Kudumbashree workers
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"Party Wants Me Gone": Remya

Remya KR, 37, who was the accountant of Avanoor Panchayat in Thrissur district too takes a dim view of the wanton politicisation of Kudumbashree.

“There is nothing but politics left within Kudumbashree now,” she says. “From the sweeper to the technical assistant, everyone were replaced in Avanoor Panchayat when CPI(M) came to power. Same was done with the CDS.

I was told that if I attended party meetings, I could continue on the job by a Local Committee member. The panchayat president Vijaya Baburaj told me that she had no issues with me personally. She told me that it is party order and they have to give jobs to whoever they have promised.”

That Kudumbashree is not running on party workers’ fund seems to be forgotten by CPI(M) party leadership who so diligently tries to capture the organisation and stuff it with cronies.

“Sathyageetha Mohandas, the chairperson too says she has no issues with me continuing but for the party orders. Even the sweepers used to earn more than what my salary was. And yet I continued for seven years and this is the treatment I get. They only want those who obey the party. It is poor people like us who suffer,” says Remya.

The party has such a high say in the matters that many of the CDS’ own activities reflect the bias, an allegation widely heard about Kudumbashree everywhere in Kerala. From allegations of bias in distribution of flood compensation, this has come to be seen as an open secret. In Avanoor, a ward members’ aunt is alleged to have been allotted fund out of Ashraya fund (Ashraya is an integrated project aimed at identification and rehabilitation of destitute families started in 2002) for building a house through the CDS.

We can never do everything that the party people ask us to. It is simply not possible for them to get everything they want.”

And it is when someone shows them the rule book that the vendetta machinery takes over to teach the offender a lesson and show them their place.

“Even before a CDS meeting often it is decided in the party meeting what the decision is going to be,” says Remya. “And since the party has a majority, other members aren’t even informed about decisions.”

And Remya is not alone. Within Thrissur, apart from Vinodini and Binto, Remya is aware of accountants who are suffering similarly.

35 year old Santhini KK of Velur CDS, Bindhu Vinod of Vellachira, Jisha of Madakathara, Swapna of Vellachira and Jesmi of Pariyaram all within Thrissur district are in a similar situation.

“Panchayat Is Not Anyone’s Father’s Property”: Aimanam

And so is Dhanya V Das of Aimanam in Kottayam district made famous by being the setting of Arundhati Roy’s book The God of Small Things and the birth place of her mother Mary Roy.

“In Aimanam the panchayat president is so well behaved that he went to physically beat the member secretary for calling me to the panchayat without informing him, even though I had gone there for settling papers after I was removed,” says Dhanya.

The officer has since been transferred but remained unavailable to comment. The President AK Alichan too remained unavailable inspite of multiple attempts to reach him.

Dhanya now undertakes data entry works in the nearby panchayat of Athirampuzha and its surrounding areas within Ettumanoor to make a living. Her husband supports BJP and that was her fault.

“I was told not to enter the panchayat’s premises by the president,” says Dhanya. “I will go. It is not anyone’s father’s property,” she says.

The Counter View

“There are 1065 accountants working at the CDS level in Kerala. The accountants report to the chairperson and reviews are held every year. In some cases the relationship doesn’t work out, in some they do,” says Harikishore IAS, Executive Director of Kudumbashree and the man heading the women’s organisation.

“In many cases the CDS committee feels that the accountants are inefficient,” he says. “And only a miniscule number of CDSs have had issues with accountants,” he insists.

As for the question of contempt of court in his decision not to attend the hearings he says, “It is not contempt. Our Programme Officer heard the cases and after court’s direction I myself attended hearings in Thrissur. There is no contempt. All the orders were issued by me only.”

At first he gave a number of less than five as the number of accountants whose removal was controversial and later when pointed out that more than ten cases have been known so far, he said, “The issue of accountants is present in less than 1% of the CDSs. There is no politicisation in the Kudumbashree as such,” he insists.

“If there is politicisation, shouldn’t more accountants be changed everywhere?” he asks. “Since there is reservation of 50% of seats for women at the local self-government level, parties might be looking into Kudumbashree as a potential source to tap for leadership,” he says.

“Out of 20,000 wards in Kerala, there are close to 7000 ward members who are members of Kudumbashree,” he says as proof of how Kudumbashree is empowering women.

But that raises the question that if almost a third of ward members in the state hail from Kudumbashree, isn’t the organisation political?

“Politics In Kudumbashree Serves Only One Purpose”

Sunil PG, a social activist based in Koothattukulam has a different understanding from that of the Executive Director.

“Kudumbashree is a vote bank and political parties have started seeing them as such. CPI(M) being the most closely involved with its advent, they consider it their monopoly. This creates problems as there is a lot of overlap of interests,” says Sunil.

“In Koothattukulam for instance, the party controls the Koothattukulam Farmer’s Service Cooperative Bank and party leadership wanted to transfer the Kudumbashree funds to the bank. The bank is under a debt of Rs 8 crore and doesn’t even have an IFSC code as required to avail many subsidies that are passed through Kudumbashree.

Rs 8 crores debt for such a small bank is a serious issue. This puts accountants like Jinesh in a spot. If they oppose, they become anti-party and if they don’t, they become partners in crime,” says Sunil.

“In the case of the members who were forcibly evicted from the canteen they had been running for three years, within a few days after they took a stand which wasn’t to the leadership’s liking - all that they had built was taken back. This is how politics plays out,” he says.

“What Kudumbashree helps build is dependency which can later be used to keep people under control,” says Sunil PG
“What Kudumbashree helps build is dependency which can later be used to keep people under control,” says Sunil PG Photo credit: Jeff Joseph

Kudumbashree was not always a political body according to many of its CDS members spread across different districts of Kerala. “But now it has started to be overtly political,” a three-time CDS member from Koothattukulam insisted. “I no longer attends its meetings like many others,” she says.

“Politics in Kudumbashree serves only one purpose – mobilisation,” says Sunil PG.

“For instance, in the wake of the Sabarimala temple entry protests, women of Kudumbashree were quickly mobilised for a counter protest. Did anyone ask whether these women had any option? Instead of hiring followers for party meetings, now the party uses Kudumbashree members,” he says.

“There Is Only So Much We Can Do”

Pramod KV who conducted many hearings in place of the Executive Director says, “It is wrong to allege politicisation. Kudumbashree is a community organisation and when a community says they don’t want someone, we as officers really don’t have an option.

We can’t force them to accept someone who they don’t want. Sometimes the accountants might be doing a good job but still the community may not be okay with their continuation. As for politicisation, in Kerala almost 60% of the panchayat are with the LDF (Left Democratic Front) now and the rest are mostly with UDF (United Democratic Front). No one has brought any political issues to our attention as yet.

I do agree that it may be happening on the ground. But we can’t control everything that happens at the ground level,” he says.

“Each CDS is an independently registered entity. We don’t have much powers in that. Moreover politics is not a bad thing. But it shouldn’t be used to deny opportunity for others. Kudumbashree being a community organisation, the accountants have to work in conjunction with the community members,” says Pramod.

“We want the community organisation to thrive, so priority is always given to the leaders of the organisation.”

The problem with the argument is when one considers how Kudumbashree leadership has come to be dictated by local party leadership, their views and preferences and are easily made to dance to their tunes.

“CPI(M) Is Aggressively Trying To Capture Kudumbashree”

“There is a new trend emerging wherein the ruling CPI(M) is trying to cash in on Kudumbashree very aggressively,” says PK Muraleedharan. Muraleedharan is the ex-president of Pazhayannur panchayat and belongs to UDF.

“I agree that the CDS decisions are important. But don’t the officials have a duty to check if the decisions conveyed as taken are legal or even correctly arrived at?” he asks. “In many instances, CDS members are not even allowed to talk in meetings.”

Alleging official collusion he says, “The DMC of Thrissur, Jyothish Kumar is a hardcore party man. He takes decisions after talking to the panchayat president. He talks and behaves like a branch secretary of CPI(M). He is a political stooge,” alleges Muraleedharan.

“Legally, the panchayat president has no role interfering in CDS decisions. DMC shouldn’t have considered the panchayat president’s view at all,” he says. But he did and so did the Executive Director of Kudumbashree by eventually lending weight to Jyothish Kumar’s decision in the case of Vinodini.

“Everyone knows that they are all taking positions in favour of the ruling party,” says Muraleedharan.

Jyothish Kumar, the controversial DMC of Thrissur district, who is accused of being blinded by his subservience to the party says, “There is no politics in Kudumbashree.”

“We just give primacy to the chairpersons or the CDS governing body’s decisions. After all we can’t take any decisions on our own. Whatever comes from below we have to follow. There is no politics,” he says.

TP Geevarghese, the DMC of Ernakulam district is a bit more accommodating to the possibility that politics may have seeped into Kudumbashree at the lower levels. “It is but natural,” he says when asked. “But we make sure that as officers our decisions are not driven by politics.”

“At the end of the day, Kudumbashree is a community organisation. Our first priority is always to ensure that the decisions of each community involved is respected. We can’t force decisions on these units. We call them for negotiations and ask them to compromise and if they are still not willing, we go by the majority decision,” he says.

Controlled Freedom: The Modern Slavery Trap

“Kudumbashree’s definition of empowerment is about ensuring women don’t go outside the paradigms presented by the existing structures to create an alternative,” says Mini Mohan, an activist who has worked closely with Kudumbashree.

“Earlier too these issues of political coercion existed in the undercurrents. Now they are coming out in the open. That is all,” she says about the politicisation within the organisation.

“One has to understand that Kerala is a highly politicised society. From the beginning, most CDS members were party members,” she says suggesting it was not any other way. The Executive Director’s claims of Kudumbashree offering one third of the ward members seen in this perspective changes form.

“Members from other parties would even change their party to get ahead in Kudumbashree. Only compliant members can continue to climb up. And this is not limited to Kudumbashree alone, even ASHA and anganwadi workers face the same issue. No other party has a cadre system tight enough to force people into submission at the lower levels. In the Malabar regions the fight is increasingly becoming BJP versus CPI(M).

The role that religion and its structures are playing as a controlling system there runs parallel to what happens elsewhere in Kerala with regards to CPI(M),” she says.

“How this increasing factionalism is affecting Kudumbashree is yet to be studied fully. Social audit reports of Kudumbashree is never released to the public. And without any transparency, we are propagating to the world that it is a very successful model.

We wait for a failure to happen. Until then it is maintained that whatever is existing is the best model. The officers of the Kudumbashree are duty bound to prop it up as a success story. So it is natural for them to not accept even the existence of a problem. It suits them,” she says explaining why the official machinery denies any politicisation within Kudumbashree.

“What Kudumbahsree is doing in reality is to give a notion of empowerment while still holding women under the strong grip of traditional power structures. The patriarchal hierarchy is not sought to be replaced nor expected to accommodate a new leadership from Kudumbashree.

When a panchayat president tells a CDS Chairperson that they can call for a meeting only with their permission, it is clear as to how traditional power systems views Kudumbashree CDS. They see it as another tool at their disposal. A surplus investment whose returns are to be encashed for their own benefit.

The social and community roles and relationships that the organisation helps women forge make them dependent on the political structure that helped them build these. This induces a mental and financial dependency which forces members to stay within the lanes of expected conduct.

This controlled freedom is akin to modern slavery. Only those people who can be kept wrapped under their control are allowed to come forward. Can we then call it a gender sensitive structure independent of political control?” Mini Mohan asks, explaining how and why any form of independence is punished.

“Deep rooted patriarchal notions are reflected in all of this,” she insists.

“Take the instance of the human chain organised by Kudumbashree. Do you think the participants took part because of their deep understanding of scientific temper or they wanted to enter the temple?

True public participation has sadly come to be replaced by such make believe structures. More than 90% of ADS and CDS function as a part of mainstream political parties. But the most tussle happens when CPI(M) is in power.

There is no visibility for the survivors nor for the victims. It is easy to corner them and nullify their voices under organisational and procedural might. In the end, the victims are made submissive and left voiceless.

The accountants and their random removals are part of a process which ensures that no untoward voice emerges challenging the already set notions of power.

A Kudumbashree CDS is thus not about the will of the governing body but the will of the governing body as dictated by the pre-existing political powers. And in most instances, it is the party leadership, a panchayat president or the municipal chairman.

All it takes is a leader and two rich families to control a panchayat. The Kudumbashree officials at the district and state levels knows this well enough not to go against them. Their commitment to community organisations ends there,” she says.

The minister for Local Self Government, AC Moideen remained unreachable for comment despite repeated attempts. The Lede was informed by his gunman that “He has been very busy planning for the local body elections for over a week.”

“Call me after two days,” the minister said when this reporter eventually got hold of him and told him that it was in connection to the removal of accountants.

The minister once again postponed a response after the said two days but The Lede is continuing to try him and will update this story once we get a response.

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