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Land to the tillers

Aug 04, 2008

For eighty-five-year-old Krishnammal Jagannathan, buying land from landlords and then distributing it among poor dalits signifies freedom from slavery. The lifelong Gandhian has set up an organisation in southern India that has successfully given thousands of acres of land to poor and low-caste families.

For Sarvodaya activist Krishnammal Jagannathan land represents freedom. A lifelong Gandhian committed to the philosophy of self-reliance, 85-year-old Krishnammal and her 95-year-old husband S Jagannathan began a movement in 1968 called LAFTI-Land for the tillers’ freedom.

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LAFTI started in Tamil Nadu in southern India as a non-violent movement to get land from landlords and distribute it to landless peasants. In two decades it has succeeded in redistributing thousands of acres of land to poor and low-caste families.

“The villagers tell Krishnammal how much land is available and where, and who the owner is. Then LAFTI negotiates with the landlord, usually demanding a rate that’s less than the market price."

Krishnammal first thought of the idea in 1968 (the organisation was registered in 1991), when a Muslim trust in Kula Manickam village wanted to sell large tracts of land - but only to Krishnammal, not to any landlord.

Since she didn’t have the money then to buy the land, Krishnammal decided it would be best to approach the matter professionally and set up an organisation to access funds.

“The model is actually very simple,” smiles Ariavelam of Ekta Parishad.

“The villagers tell Krishnammal how much land is available and where, and who the owner is. Then LAFTI, along with members of the local community, negotiate with the landlord, usually demanding a rate that’s less than the market price,” he says.

An agreement is then signed between the landlord and LAFTI, after which beneficiaries are selected. They have to be poor and landless. The gram sabha sets up a committee to select the beneficiaries. After the selection process, the community collects caste and income certificates, photographs and family card photocopies from the beneficiaries.

On another level, the management at LAFTI begins looking for
funds from banks, the Tamil Nadu Adi Dravida Housing and Development Corporation (TAHDCO) and the National SC and ST Financial Housing Development Corporation (NFHDC) that offer subsidies for this purpose.

The beneficiary must not be more than 50 years old, so an age certificate has to be included. The beneficiary must also be a Hindu dalit.

When distribution of the land starts, the beneficiary has to pay Rs. 5,000 as a first installment; the rest is paid within five years at the rate of 6% interest per annum. There is no penalty.

Before registration there is an agreement between the beneficiary and LAFTI that the land cannot be pledged or sold.

When final payment has been made, the original documents relating to the land are handed over to the beneficiary.

Till September 2007, around 12,000 people had received 11,066 acres of land. The land is also registered in the names of women in the family.

But there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

Defying rules

Meet seventy-five-year-old G Subramanian whose family has lived in Kilavenmani village, Nagapattiam district, Tamil Nadu, for generations.

“The reality of our everyday lives could not be ignored. If we had to survive, we had to go to work in the landlord’s fields every day. Otherwise we would starve. As adults, my parents received two padi (kilograms) of grain as ‘wages’ for their manual work; the children got one padi. But even this was ‘paid’ to us only on a weekly basis - we could not demand anything from the landlord. If we did not show up for work for any reason, we received no grain that day,” he says.

Subramanian adds: “Every week, when we went to pick up our quota of grain from the landlord it was given to us in the backyard, not in front of the house. The grain was measured in a marraka (vessel used as a measure) and poured into the cloth we carried. Under no circumstances were we to touch the marraka; we just held out our arms and received the grain. However, whether it was handing out grain or clothes, everything was done by the servants. The landlord hardly ever showed up.”

On December 25, 1968, a conflict broke out between landowners and tenants when the tenants asked for a hike in wages. At night the landlords began firing, leading to a scramble by the villagers who took refuge in a nearby hut. In their anger, the landlords set fire to the hut - 44 people died a fiery death.

Palanivel, 58, was 18 years old when the 1968 incident happened. “The atrocities of the landlords never really abated. We had to go to the fields before sunrise and return after sunset. In case a mother had to breastfeed her child, she had to take the permission of the owner. Lunch had to be eaten near the paddy field, not at home. If anyone objected he was tied to a tree, whipped and made to drink cowdung water,” says Palanivel.

Poor’s benefactor

This was when Krishnammal Jagannathan visited the village. Subramanian says: “When we first saw her we thought they were Brahmins. But in the evening they sent a truck of paddy for the victims. Their visits to the village became more frequent and they helped us selflessly.”

One day, Krishnammal asked Palanivel to look for land that was for sale in his village. They found out that Sanmukha Sundara Mudaliar of Manchakollai village was selling his land (144 kuli, or feet) and was asking for Rs 20 per kuli. They finally settled on Rs 18 per kuli. In 1972, an acre of land went for Rs 6,000. Krishnammal ultimately bought 50 acres at Rs 6,000 per acre.

"Poor people have the honesty to repay all their loans. The biggest stumbling block is political interference. No one wants the people to start wielding power and lead self-reliant and dignified lives."

Against all odds, Krishnammal began by offering to take care of the labourers’ children when they worked in the fields. “We would speak to the women alone in the fields,” she says.

In Valivalum, Krishnammal began her struggle to release 309 acres of temple land, with support from the government. “But the one thing that kept haunting me was ‘why don’t we give land directly to the poor?’. Especially since the government began to withdraw its support to our cause because of vested interests.”

It was then that they got the news that a Muslim orphanage in Kula Manickam village was interested in selling Krishnammal 82 acres of land. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Till date, 125 landless women have repaid their loans. Poor people have the honesty to repay all their loans. The biggest stumbling block I face is political interference. No one wants the people to start wielding power and lead self-reliant and dignified lives,” Krishnammal says.

She concludes: “I tell the people I am like the wind, make use of me while I am around. Now, education for the children of the landless and building pucca houses for them is my priority. Who says my work is over?!”

Source : Infochange
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