Food security as if women mattered: A story from Kerala

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed spotlights an innovative experiment by the government of the Indian state of Kerala to increase the participation of women in agriculture and to ensure that, as producers, women have control over the production, distribution and consumption of food.

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 programme.

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 over 25,000 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 have been diverted towards residential and commercial development. At the same time, a 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 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 Kudumbashree 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 as to understand what the experiments might mean concretely to its protagonists.

For most of the 250 women I have met so far, farming is a not-new vocation.  But for some, this is the first time they are working for an income. For others, this marks a very important transition from their role of an agricultural labourer. 'Earlier we were just labourers. Now we have hope,' says Savitri, a landless dalit woman in Palakkad district.The 'hope' that she speaks of comes from her new role as a 'producer' and farmer. Now she works for herself and her group, on the land they have collectively leased. 'As a labourer, I knew there was only work, only hard labour and nothing to gain at the end,' she says. In Idukki district, I met several women who have given up working as wage labourers since they have taken up farming. There is much enthusiasm for expanding their farming activity, although land remains scarce.

Palakkad has one of the lowest wages for agricultural work in Kerala, and lower still for women (Rs.45-65 a day). By contrast, the women now earn Rs.125 per day, as fixed by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) of the Government of India. Their workday has also been renegotiated to avoid the afternoon hours of intense heat in the summer months.

'As farmers, now we control our own time, resources and labour,' was the refrain I heard over and over again. Dhanalakhsmi, a young woman in Elappully, tells me that the change in her role from a labourer to producer has had a profound effect on her children. 'They see me differently now. When we are at meetings discussing our farms, our incomes, or simply sharing our problems, they watch with a lot of interest.'

Kudumbashree's farming collectives are producing some amazing results. In Perambra in Kozhikode district, for instance, Kudumbashree women and the local community have worked together to revive 140 acres of land that had been lying fallow for 26 years. It is now lush green, with rice, vegetables and tapioca growing in abundance; migratory birds that had disappeared for two decades have now returned.

For 26 years, the main canal flowing through Perambra had been swamped.The community's first challenge was to bring it back to life. 'As we worked on the canal, we got snake bites and serious injuries from broken glass and syringes. Many of us had to be hospitalised. But we didn't give up,' says one. The entire community got mobilised and involved. Two men, Abdullah and Narayanan Nair, tell me that they thought the community has changed as more and more women have taken up productive work.

The farming experiment also speaks to the potential of the NREGS. Many criticise the NREGS as only a temporary make-work programme that is bound to generate inefficiencies in the long run. For reviving fallow land, Kudumbashree utilises NREGS funds earmarked for preparing land for cultivation. In Perambra, some 1,037 women worked for 14,518 workdays, with the result that over two lakh (lakh = hundred thousand) rupees reached Kudumbashree households. To this are added funds from various agencies and bank loans at minimal interest rates.

But the increase in incomes is only one piece of the picture. The women draw my attention to other types of changes they have set in motion.

First, the women are extremely proud that their production is organic. Several Kudumbashree groups produce their own organic manure, and practise prudent water management, as water is scarce in Kerala.In Payyoli, a Kudumbashree group told me that their 'dream' was to develop an entire line of organic products, beginning from fodder, to manure, to a range of organic dairy products. It has been only a year since they began farming. 'With some resources and support, there is no end to what we can do.'

Second, and in some ways perhaps the most profound, are the prospects it has opened up for social inclusion. Many Kudumbashree farmers who were agricultural labourers are also dalits, and are particularly happy to belong to a collective of women from other castes. It means a lot to communities tormented by caste injustice.

Indeed, the pain of caste injustice remains at the heart of local consciousness. I heard this clearly in the voice of Arun, a 12-year-old dalit boy who very shyly sang a song for me, as others insisted that he must. As he sang, and the workers from the nearby fields gathered to listen to him despite the blistering afternoon heat of 43 degrees, his shyness gradually disappeared, his voice rose, and his eyes glistened with a brightness I have rarely seen.The song went so: the upper castes cannot so much as to bear our touch, but they have no trouble using the fruits of our labour.

For those who have experienced such indignity, it meant a lot to see the entire community working together to breathe life into Perambra's fallow lands. Wherever I went, Kudumbashree women voiced their resistance to the caste system.  Pushpa, a very dynamic Kudumbashree leader, told me that her dream was to 'see the end of the caste system'.

Indeed, hunger, poverty or food insecurity are not isolated issues that can be solved by technocrats, however 'skilled' they may be. They affect the entire social reality of communities, who often are the ones with the solutions that might work, but are also powerless to put them into practice. As the Kudumbashree experience highlights, food security, in particular socially inclusive food security, cannot happen without real empowerment of food producers and food-producing communities.

Against this canvas, how are we to understand the potential of Kudumbashree's food security experiment?

Currently, around 250,000 women are practising collective farming in an approximate area of 27,000 hectares (66,000 acres). Such a scale of women's involvement in collective production is certainly not common. Kudumbashree farmers show great enthusiasm for further expanding these operations. They are eager to experiment with new crops, organic methods, better governance, stronger connections to their local markets and so on. Where does this enthusiasm come from?

First, farming, as the women tell me, comes naturally to them. For some, this is their first opportunity to use their 'natural' skills towards an independent income. For others, collective farming marks a highly significant transition from wage labour to independent production. Women eagerly speak of the control over their time and labour that they now enjoy and that they never had before. Second, their enthusiasm for farm work has much to do with the collective nature of the activity and the relations of solidarity. As a Kudumbashree farmer in Kozhikode told me, 'We have developed so much solidarity I feel we can do almost anything.'

As indicated by these words of a young Muslim woman, Kudumbashree groups seem to demonstrate a strong sense of social inclusion. Members are vocal against caste and religious discrimination. They proudly proclaim Kudumbashree to be first and foremost an organisation of poor women. While it is hard to assess how representative this is of Kudumbashree's 3.7 million members, I do wonder what makes such social inclusion possible, especially given the deeply divisive nature of the Indian society. My hypothesis is that the fabric which connects Kudumbashree members draws upon gender, class and locality and the commonality of experiences that derive from there. The women's involvement in farming appears to provide a common experience where solidarity triumphs over social schisms.

In order to better understand these social relations, we need to take a close look at how Kudumbashree is organised. Kudumbashree has a three-tiered structure, which begins from the neighbourhood group (NHG). Each comprising 10-20 women, the NHGs are led by elected representatives and have regular weekly meetings where women discuss issues related to their community. Often, an NHG is a woman's first exposure outside the home. As I heard repeatedly from members, it is through this participation that she transforms from a quiet, neglected 'housewife' to a vocal member of the community. By and large, the members of the farming collectives are drawn from the NHGs. The existing relations of solidarity greatly enhance decision-making within the collective. For example, decisions as to how much of the collective's surplus is to be sold, how much is to be consumed, which member needs more food support, how profits are to be deployed, are all informed by the relations of solidarity rather than just the 'bottom line'.

All the NHGs in a single ward are federated into an Area Development Society (ADS), which is also governed by elected office-bearers who represent the NHGs. The ADSs are further federated at the level of the panchayat/municipality to form a Community Development Society (CDS). The CDS thus becomes 'the representative structure of the vast network of NHGs in the Grama (village) Panchayat/Municipal areas. It works in close liaison with the local self-government and serves as both a dissemination organ for government programmes and an enunciator of community needs in governance issues'.

This dual role - of bringing government programmes and resources to the community and bringing community needs to the government, especially the local government - is a key feature of Kudumbashree. It derives from Kudumbashree's roots in the People's Plan Campaign for decentralisation initiated by the government of Kerala in 1996.The Campaign had two main features: to transfer a part of state finances to local governments which the latter could use for their development needs; and two, a massive effort to open up the planning process to community participation. These steps transformed decentralisation 'from a mere administrative exercise into a mass movement'.1 In 1998, Kudumbashree was launched to further popular participation in local development. The vision was for Kudumbashree to become 'the community voice of local self-government - in particular the voice of the economically and socially weak, and of women'.

This history, and the deep state-community linkages that it has fostered, contradicts clearly the neo-liberal claim that development is best done by communities alone, and the state can only be a hindrance. The farming initiative amply demonstrates how a policy vision, when rooted in local realities, can come to be 'owned' by the people whose lives it affects. Neither individualistic anti-state models nor top-down 'state-led' models generate this sense of ownership. As I heard in almost every collective, while the idea of farming was floated at panchayat meetings and CDS meetings, they were never taken up without extensive discussions at the neighbourhood groups. The main production-related decisions are all taken by the farmers, with various kinds of support and incentives from public institutions.

What does all this tell us about food security policy? For one, food security entails a whole gamut of social relations. It is not something that can be determined solely by technocrats in isolation from these relations. This is why many social struggles reject the notion of food security altogether - and speak instead for food sovereignty. Food sovereignty strives for fundamental transformation in social relations governing the production and consumption of food.

Second, while Kudumbashree's community structure provides an excellent basis for people-centred, inclusive food security practices, material constraints remain paramount. Land, for example, remains a central constraint. At present, Kudumbashree farmers do not own land, but lease it. They worry about the insecurity of their lease. What happens if the lease is revoked after they have put in the labour and investment to rejuvenate 100+ acres of fallow land? Obtaining finance also remains a challenge. While organic farming is their preferred method, the lack of availability of organic seeds and chemical-free inputs poses serious constraints. Interestingly, what they seem fairly confident about is the demand for their products, a confidence that is borne out by evidence. This demand derives from their reputation in local communities as well as the elaborate network of community markets that Kudumbashree has developed over the years.

Can this experiment be sustained and expanded? Only if the emphasis on the collective dimension and the state-community linkage remains. These dimensions distinguish Kudumbashree from Grameen-style microcredit or individualistic income-generation programmes and bring it closer to the vision of producer sovereignty and empowerment that many social movements endorse.           

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is a professor of Political Science, Development Studies and Social and Political Thought at York University, Toronto, Canada. This article first appeared over two parts on the OneWorld South Asia website <>.


1.       Ramakumar R, Nair KN. 2009. State, politics and civil society: A note on the experience of Kerala. In: Geiser U, Rist S, editors. Decentralisation Meets Local Complexity: Local Struggles, State Decentralisation and Access to Natural Resources in South Asia and Latin America.Perspectives of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South, University of Bern, Vol. 4. Bern: Geographica Bernensia, pp 275-310.