Friends of LAFTI Foundation
Supporting the work of Land for Tillers' Freedom (LAFTI)
Land for Tillers' Freedom (LAFTI) is a non-governmental organization (NGO) serving hundreds of impoverished villages in the Nagapattinam and Thiruvarur districts of India's southeastern state of Tamilnadu. Although LAFTI's founders, Krishnammal and S. Jagannathan, had been working in the region since 1969, LAFTI only became registered as organization in 1981. Krishnammal says LAFTI's mission is "to liberate Dalit ("untouchable") women and their families from their misery and their servile bondage to the landlords in the Tanjore area, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu."
LAFTI's projects aim to:
Projects include land distribution and cultivation, housing construction, adult training, youth housing & education, various income-generating activities, domestic animal distribution, and other forms of emergency assistance.
Although LAFTI's plate is often overflowing with many important projects, land acquisition and distribution has always been and will continue to be its number one priority.
The majority of village workers toil in the rice paddies from sunup till sundown as bonded laborers for absentee landlords. Women earn about 50 rupees ($1.14) per day, while men earn about 80 rupees ($1.82). Since farming is seasonal, frequently they have no income at all. LAFTI aims to help every family acquire one acre of land, so they can reap all the proceeds. In a good year, an acre will produce 2 or 3 crops, earning 16,000 - 20,000 rupees ($364 - $455 U.S.) for the year.
Over the years, LAFTI purchased and distributed over 12,000 acres to landless families in this region. Since Dalit women face the greatest barriers, Krishnammal insists on placing the ownership of the land in the name of women. This will give them a measure of independence and security. Banks have supported LAFTI's land redistribution efforts by providing low-interest loans, which the women will repay over five years.
Recent developments have made the dream of an acre of land for each family look like a definite possibility. The Chief Minister (similar to Governor) of Tamil Nadu campaigned on the promise of giving land to each landless family. He soon discovered there was no way the government would ever be able to handle all the paperwork, and he asked LAFTI to help.
First, LAFTI acquired and distributed 160 acres of reclaimed wasteland, formerly belonging to the temples. LAFTI then helped village workers clear the thorny bushes that had been growing for 15 years and treated the land before converting it to paddy fields. This backbreaking task paid off when they proudly harvested their first rice crop.
LAFTI received some great news in July 2006 when the Chief Minister asked for help in distributing over 1000 acres. Over the next two months, LAFTI staff diligently completed mounds of paperwork - in triplicate, and personally delivered boxes of documents to Chennai. For each acre, they completed a packet containing an application form and loan documents. Each packet had a picture of the future recipient affixed on top, with her thumb print and attesting signature on each page; a detailed map of the plot; and certificates of caste, residence, annual income, and occupation - all bound together by pins. After everything was processed, LAFTI had to meet again with each landlord to sign all the documents. Over 200 landlords were involved with this massive undertaking.
Through skillful negotiations, Krishnammal convinced the government to waive all the stamp duties and registration fees, a revenue loss of $139,600 (U.S.) for the government. This is another major accomplishment since the land recipients would not have been able to afford these fees.
On November 14, 2006, 1,015 women were deeded 1,061 acres. Within 18 months, 125 women had totally repaid their loans. The rest will do so in the near future.
LAFTI is currently working on distributing another 5,000 acres.
Village residents live in dilapidated, rat-infested huts, made of mud, straw, and thatch. These huts have poor ventilation, and smoke from cooking fills the air, making it difficult to breathe. During the monsoon season, the huts often flood and leak, becoming damp and moldy, and leading to respiratory diseases.
Another LAFTI goal is to replace the village huts with decent weatherproof housing. LAFTI recruited an army of volunteers who travel from village to village, helping families build houses. Village residents save the down payment for their new homes and help with the work. This project is an example of LAFTI's skill at forming partnerships between various groups of people. Residents pay for the foundations of their houses and government agencies provide money for the roofs. Funding for the walls is provided by LAFTI's outside benefactors, many of them abroad. As with the land, houses are also deeded to the women.
In April 2008, LAFTI received a generous gift, which will greatly reduce housing construction costs. The public sector-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) has agreed to give LAFTI fly-ash (a byproduct of coal-fired electrical generation) for free, and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) of India donated a brick-making machine. LAFTI will soon start building environmentally friendly houses, making use of the fly-ash. Unlike conventional brick-kilns, this process will not require wood (leading to deforestation) for firing bricks.
Although farming will continue to be the primary source of income for village communities, LAFTI recognizes that families cannot survive on farming alone. Agricultural work is seasonal and subject to the elements. A good year will bring in three crops, but a drought or a severe monsoon season could wipe out all their hard work. Therefore, village workers need to develop other skills to supplement their income.
Through mobile training units, LAFTI instructors teach tailoring, mat weaving, computer operations, electrical and plumbing, masonry and carpentry. All programs are six months long, and each participant receives a small monthly stipend during training. Upon completion of the program, LAFTI helps participants market their skills and obtain employment.
Over 1000 people have successfully completed one of LAFTI's programs, and more are waiting in the wings.
Since the tsunami, construction skills (carpentry, masonry, electrical and plumbing) are in great demand, and wages have increased substantially. To date, only men have been trained in these fields, but LAFTI is encouraging women to consider these career opportunities.
YOUTH PROGRAMS The struggle continues....
As with all impoverished areas, the hope for village communities lies with educating the children. During her travels through the villages, Krishnammal found young children left home alone while their parents toiled in the fields. Many were the sons and daughters of migrant laborers, who were displaced by the prawn farms that sprung up throughout the region. Older children often had to quit school to help support their families. Some children had abusive or alcoholic parents, and a few were orphaned and living in crowded conditions with extended family members. These tragic conditions led LAFTI to develop three boarding hostels for about 150 children, ranging from ages 8 to 18. Children attend neighborhood schools while LAFTI provides their room and board and other basic needs. LAFTI also works hard to ensure the children remain connected to their families.
THE STRUGGLE TO CLOSE PRAWN FARMS
In December 1992, Krishnammal and Jagannathan came to a village that was utterly destitute. "Our land has been taken, our water is poisoned, and all of the fish are dying" was their complaint. Multinational aquaculture corporations, partially funded by World Bank loans, had moved in and started farming prawns in land that for centuries had been richly covered with rice paddy.
Prawns are grown in large man-made tanks. The water in these tanks must be brackish, part fresh and part salt. The fresh water is taken from the ground, depleting the groundwater supply, while the saltwater is brought from the sea, necessitating the cutting down of the coast-protecting mangrove forests, the breeding grounds of fish. The salt water, contaminated with hormone-containing chemical food and the pesticides used in the tanks, seeps down into the groundwater, making well-water undrinkable, and leading to the deaths of cattle and skin and eye diseases among humans. The polluted water also drains into the rivers and the ocean. Fish catches have been reduced by as much as 80% in some places due to surface water contamination and mangrove deforestation.
While an acre of paddy land can provide employment for 120 people, an acre of prawn farm employs three, leading to virtually universal unemployment. The saltwater seeps into the cropland, making it barren. Although prawns are easy money for farm owners (they sell for $11 U.S. per pound in the United States, which would feed the family of an Indian laborer for a month), the tanks become unusable after seven to ten years, leaving behind a salinated, chemical-filled wasteland on which not even thorn bushes will grow for decades.
Jagannathan immediately threw himself into a new struggle, and he organized the farmers and the fishermen. The prawn companies, aided by police and hired thugs, often responded quite brutally. In 1996, Jagannathan took his case to the Indian Supreme Court, which ordered the shutdown of almost all the prawn farms in Tamil Nadu by March 1997. The judgment has not been implemented, and today there are more prawn farms than ever. Hearing of national legislation that would have overturned the Supreme Court decision, Jagannathan went to Delhi and fasted for three days at the Gandhi Samadhi. He had just had surgery for cataracts and glaucoma, and the pollution and dust of Delhi caused him to go almost completely blind. The legislation, however, was not passed.
In 1999, Jagannathan (at age 85) fasted for 56 days in the fishing village of Akkarapettai, south of Nagapattinam, eating only one meal a day, until he was forced to stop due to ill health. One of Jagannathan's goals in the prawn struggle was to create solidarity between the farmers and the fishermen, who have both had their livelihoods devastated by the aquaculture corporations. Various district collectors have closed down a few farms, but new ones continue to spring up.
Click here for a one-page handout, About LAFTI.
The struggle continues....