Food Security as If Women Mattered: A Story from Kerala

Kerala, hailed as God's own country, attributes its high development indices to the local women. Through their group Kudumbashree, these women have not only rejuvenated the local agrarian economy but also brought about a social transformation in the way women are perceived. Ananya Mukherjee-Reed explores the myriad achievements of Kusumbashree 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.

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 syringe. 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 for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (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 work-days, with the result that over two lakh (lakh = million) 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 practice 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 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 a voice of Arun, a twelve 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 to 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.

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