From pickle making to IT business, the march of Kerala's neighbourhood network Kudumbashree in the last 12 years is an inspiring story of social and economic empowerment of women.
The self-help chain, started on a modest scale in 1998, has grown over the period as one of the mighty womens movements in Asia with a full-time membership of 3.7 million, engaged in an array of gainful activities.
It was initially conceived as a community-based women oriented initiative with neighbourhood groups as its base.
Kudumbashree has since then emerged as the driving force for most of the community activities at the grassroots in Kerala, where 40 per cent of plan funds are spent through the local self-government institutions.
"Self-employment and poverty eradication were set as the goals of Kudumbashree when it was launched.Since then it has been able elevate the role of women in society and made them the controllers and managers of money in their family.
"Now, no empowerment programme at the LSG level will be carried out without it," spokesperson for the Kudumbashree Mission, R Parvathi Devi, told PTI.
It was conceived as a collaborative venture of the state government, National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development and State Poverty Eradication Mission.
Under it, economically deprived beneficiary groups were identified and a wide network of NHGs formed.
Though initially it focused on the rural areas, it had over the years been extended to towns with help of municipalities and city corporations.
The units started small and micro enterprises by pooling individual savings and with support of rural or co-operative banks and civic bodies.
Many of them were then like cottage industries turning out such items as chutney, pickle or curry powder, small-time snacks or household articles like broomsticks or mops.
Slowly, they began to diversify and expand into initiatives like catering services, budget hotels and group farming.
While engaging women, majority of them drawn from working class background with the burden of looking after their families and children on their shoulders, the organisers ensured that they would not fall into the clutches of private money lenders for raising capital for their small ventures.
"Besides the social impact, the product and services of Kudumbasree has been able to achieve a brand-like status," Parvathi said.
The NHGs' number increased within a short time exceeding 2,03,000 with their presence in all 999 village panchayats, 53 municipalities and 5 city corporations.
At the grassroot are NHGs comprising 15 to 20 women, five of whom are chosen as volunteers to co-ordinate the activities.
Each group has its nominees at the ward (civic division) level Area Development Societies.
The ADS sends its representatives to the Community Development Society, which completes the three-tier structure of Kudumbashree.
On the whole there are 17,486 ADSs and 1,061 CDSs.
"Now almost all important developmental and empowerment projects of civic bodies like destitute rehabilitation, take home ration and computer education in schools are being implemented through Kudumbashree," Parvathi said.
Thanks to Kudumbashree, Kerala has become the sole state to implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme through a women network.
The dry flower unit in Wayanad, bamboo products workshop in Pathanamthitta, strawberry farming in Idukki, Caf Canteen in Thrissur and designer jewels and foot-wear units in Kozhikode are some enterprises started as part of Kudumbashree mission.
"We had to face resistance from our families when we joined Kudumbashree.But now my family, including my bedridden husband, rely on my income, said Smitha, a Kudumbashree worker who is part of a team that removes domestic garbage in Thiruvananthapuram.
Another worker Sunitha, part of a tailoring unit, said besides supporting the family, being part of the movement boosts their self-respect. Kudumbashree officials said Rs 1,790 crore (Rs 17.9 billion) had been mobilised as thrift fund and loans amounting to Rs 3,483 crore (Rs 34.83 billion) to NHG members.
For pooling funds,1,29,041 NHGs had been connected to banks under Linkage Banking Programme and they had already availed credit of Rs 993.65 crore (Rs 9.93 billion) to set up and run their enterprises.
While 27,820 individual enterprises and 2,234 group (with minimum five members) units were active in urban areas, 2716 individual units and 9423 group enterprises had been organized in rural areas.
Some 46,444 families took part in lease land farming to bring 62655.2 acres under cultivation. Under Bhavanashree housing loan scheme for poor in rural areas, 46,749 houses had been built.
Buds, special schools set up jointly with civic institutions, had been helping education and care of physically and mentally challenged children.
To empower the younger generation and create awareness among them, Childrens Neighbourhood Groups named Balasabhas have been formed.
Some 8,66,000 lakh children are active in 50,220 Balasabhas in rural and urban areas, she said.
A majority of Keralites, including women, are aware of their rights and strength to a great extent.
"If anybody lends them a helping hand, they can easily come up and become self-reliant. Kudumbashree has just proved that in a short span of time," she added.