For over 50 years, friends and admirers from around the world traveled to a remote area of southeastern India to meet Krishnammal Jagannathan and S. Jagannathan, founders of Land for Tillers' Freedom (LAFTI). This extraordinary and captivating couple (known throughout the region as "Amma and Appa" or "Mother and Father") are Gandhians who have committed their lives to uplifting the rural poor. They once worked with Mahatma Gandhi and later worked side-by-side with Gandhi's successor, Vinoba Bhave, founder of the Sarvodaya ("universal uplift") and Bhoodan ("land gift") movements.
Among their many visitors were world leaders, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, and peacemakers who came to study Gandhian methods. In 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, visited their humble, sparsely furnished home, located on the edge of Gandhigram Rural University. When asked about this visit, Krishnammal simply replies, "Ah yes, they were here. I cooked them a meal."
Renowned throughout India and honored with numerous awards, Krishnammal and Jagannathan continued to lead modest lives and always remained committed to their goal of improving the living conditions of India's rural poor, especially women. Born into extreme poverty and called a Dalit ("untouchable"), Krishnammal never lost sight of this goal. Her life-long dream of providing an acre of farmland and decent housing to every impoverished family in the region continues to burn deep in her soul. This dream drives her and the small, but dedicated, staff of LAFTI to work tirelessly.
Visitors continue to come. Many who have had the pleasure of meeting Krishnammal, Jagannathan and LAFTI's staff have returned again and again. Some of us have stayed on for months. Others stayed only a few days. Regardless of how long we stayed, the impact on us was profound as we traveled with the LAFTI team through Indian villages; observing row after row of moldy, rat-infested, mud huts; and witnessing the influence LAFTI had on these people. Village residents were mesmerized by Krishnammal's words of encouragement as she reminded them that a bright light burns deep inside of each of them, and they have the power to improve their lives. If they commit to working hard and saving their money, LAFTI will be by their sides.
Eventually we (the visitors) leave India to return to our jobs and comfortable homes, but the visions of these destitute villages and Krishnammal's unending optimism remain imbedded in our memories. So much is needed, but the question lingers, "Other than making an occasional donation, what can we do to help?"
On December 26, 2004, a devastating tsunami ripped through India's Nagapattinum District. This is an area where LAFTI has been working for many years. After this horrible event, many of LAFTI's friends connected across continents to gather donations to help with LAFTI's rebuilding efforts. We began to wonder if perhaps we could do more. We can tell their story.
In August 2006, a small group of supporters met at Gandhigram to discuss methods to help LAFTI achieve its goals. The idea of creating the Friends of LAFTI Foundation was conceived at this meeting.
The sole purpose of the Friends of LAFTI Foundation is to help LAFTI provide services to struggling, impoverished families so they can develop the tools needed to become self-sufficient. The Foundation also acts as a clearinghouse of information about LAFTI's activities in India and distributes this information to LAFTI's international supporters. We're not sure where this will take us, but we will continue to tell LAFTI's story.
Gandhi once said, "Poverty is the worst form of violence." LAFTI and their friends have joined forces to fight the violence of poverty in one small section of the world. Krishnammal continues to remind us, "Everything is possible," and she has made believers out of us.
In April 2008, the Friends of LAFTI Foundation's application for tax-exempt status was approved under section 501(c)3 of the United States Internal Revenue Code. All donations in the US are now tax-deductible.