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 an 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.