It is not very often you see city authorities providing drinking water and other facilities to people on protest against a ruling government. But in Thiruvananthapuram, women from the Kudumbasree Rural Mission have found vocal support from the Left-ruled city corporation. They are protesting the Central government's decision to grant 14 crore rupees to a rival, privately run NGO called Janasree Mission. Janasree has alleged links to the ruling Congress. Understandably, the Kudumbasree people are angry, and justifiably so too.
The issue has become so farcical that members of a Government-managed Rural Development Programme are pitted against the same Government, while a private NGO is reaping the benefits of government funding. It's a complex plot worthy of a Shakespearean comedy.
Trouble has been brewing since the Congress-backed Kudumbasree-clone, Janasree Mission, was introduced during the last government's tenure. The latest grant to Janasree, is ostensibly for agricultural and animal husbandry programmes.
The Kudumbasree Mission was once a showpiece of Kerala, a sustainable rural development programme lauded by even the UN. Its units produce food products, collect garbage, run eateries... But now, sadly, it has become a mere pawn in the usual tug of war between the Congress and the Left.
The Janasree Mission is a privately owned NGO. One of the top Congress leaders in Kerala and former state Minister MM Hassan owns shares in the mission. There is dispute over how many shares, but Hassan himself has admitted to owning 50,000 shares.
The state congress committee itself has consistently maintained that Janasree is not a feeder organisation of the party. Yet, the claim is difficult to accept at face value. Janasree was inaugurated by Union Finance minister Chidambaram during his first tenure. Its microfinance scheme was inaugurated by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, when he was Opposition Leader.
Therefore, a Central grant from a Congress-led government through a Congress-led government in the state for an NGO which has a congressman as its shareholder is worthy of a several questions.
To be fair, the Left doesn't come out smelling of roses in this war either. MM Hassan had for long been vocal about alleged 'politicisation' of Kudumbasree. And he is absolutely right!
As this Planning Commission study found, politicisation is rampant in Kudumbasree. There are also instances of Kudumbasree units being denied funds and facilities by local government bodies ruled by a rival party. Several of the projects instituted under the Kudumbasree schemes, have also become notoriously inefficient. Lack of management and fund underutilization were found to be the main causes.
Since its inception, Janasree has also faced hurdles from the Left Democratic Front. In fact, during the VS Achuthanandan ministry, state finance minister Thomas Isaac drew flak for saying that Janasree was a plan to make Kerala's women work for the Congress. His threat to bring in a law targeting the mission's microfinance arm was also criticised. The Left government even demanded that banks stop lending to Janasree.
As this reader succinctly puts it, "...people believe that Kudumbasree is the project intended to help comrades and Janasree to assist Congress men. Growth of Janasree is obviously due to misappropriation funds in Kudumbasree and acute politicisation of its projects."
Kudumbasree has been effective in providing employment and empowering women. It is one of those projects which have contributed to the Kerala Model of development... It is a shame then, that in a state which constantly boasts of its high Human Development Index, poverty alleviation schemes are mired in controversy and steeped in inefficiency.
To be fair, this is not a new war. And I am not the first to highlight it. What is shocking though is the complete lack of interest the issue has elicited. In this day and age, the number of Facebook 'likes', Twitter 'retweets' and Google '+1s' on news reports are a fairly good indicator of the interest in a news item among the youth. Unfortunately, the war over Kerala's rural development has elicited very few of these.
Perhaps it's a sad reflection of a new Kerala where politics is rife, yet reviled... In Kerala, every issue quickly gets drawn into the morass of centre-left political debate of an older generation, but few remedies get proposed or implemented. In this proxy war Kerala's development will be the sacrificial lamb. It saddens me.