Right Livelihood Award
Meanwhile, the houses are going up! I have received pictures, and LAFTI has now made a CD, which, sadly, my computer didn’t open.
Professor Saedi is now at Kuthur, and I hope he will be checking in here with us shortly.
With best wishes,
31 March 2005
Kerstin Bennett, Administrative Director
Right Livelihood Award
PO Box 15072
S-104 65 Stockholm
RE: Nomination of S. Jagannathan and Krishnammal Jagannathan, and LAFTI (Land for the Tillers Freedom) for the 2005 Right Livelihood Award
Dear Ms. Bennett and Members of the Right Livelihood Award Committee:
In Tamil, the language of South India, the words for “mangrove forest” are Alaiyathi Kadu. Translated literally, the words mean “trees that soothe the waves”.
Alaiyathi Kadu has taken on new meaning following the tsunami wave that hit the coast of Tamil Nadu on December 26th, 2004, killing more than 7,000 people, and leaving tens of thousands homeless. From a geo-mapping of the coast, as UNESCO and the Swiss-based World Conservation Union reported within two weeks of the tragedy, those areas that had maintained their mangrove forests and coastal greenbelts were hit far, far less hard than those in which they had been destroyed, usually to make way for prawn farms (ruled illegal by India’s Supreme Court in 1996, but backed by multinational agencies including the World Bank.)
Six days after the tsunami, I had the privilege of walking through the fish market of Nagapattinam, the scene of the center of the damage from the tsunami, where the wall of water 13 ½ meters high swept in and carried almost 4,000 people to their deaths. The scenes of devastation were harrowing, to say the least, but when people saw me and Krishnammal Jagannathan walking down what remained of the main street, many ran up to us and, in excited Tamil, asked, “How is Appa? (father) Is he still alive? Is he coming?”
In the midst of the tsunami aftermath, these people remember that five years back, Jagannathan undertook a 56-day fast by the side of the Nagappatinam fish market. They recognize the continuing commitment that he has made to the people of the area, both fisherfolk and those who work the land.
Jagannathan’s 56-day “Prayerful Penance” was undertaken in recognition of the damage done by the prawn farms, including the destruction of the coastal greenbelt and tidal estuaries. One of the great ironies of the tsunami that hit Nagappatinam is that the damage was much, much greater than it would have been even a decade earlier. The destruction of tidal estuaries and chemical pollution of local waterways had destroyed major breeding grounds for fish. When the tsunami hit, more than 80% of the fishing boats of the area were onshore, as the fisherfolk had started voluntarily rotating boats going to sea because fish harvests had declined so radically. Only seven boats survived undamaged. Jagannathan is now perceived by the people of the area as the equivalent of an Old Testament prophet.
Meanwhile, Krishnammal Amma (mother) and Land for the Tillers Freedom (LAFTI) have extended their work in aiding the poorest of the poor of the region. There were tremendous floods in the region three months prior to the tsunami. Rainfall was abnormally high, but among the major causes of the flood were the destruction of the tidal causeways by prawn farming (in violation of the Supreme Court order) and thus the inability of the water to drain off, and the incapacity of the land to hold water anymore. Once bright green, fertile rice-growing land, part of the rice bowl of south India, had become a parched wasteland. When the rains came, chemical-laden waters flooded over the banks of the prawn tanks, lapping at and destroying home foundations, and polluting all of the drinking water. In January, I visited one village of 175 men, women, and children, once the home of rich paddy fields, now surrounded by flooded-out prawn farms on four sides, stinking wastes. Where formerly the people worked the fields, there was now 100% unemployment. Drinking water had to be trucked in. The tidal fishing grounds were bereft of fish. And the people were starving.
LAFTI has been providing rice to the villagers, and has been working with the District Collector to move the village in its entirety. In the meantime, the prawn farm owners have applied to the World Bank for “tsunami relief aid” to try to restart operations.
Caste has long been a problem in this area, and the tsunami highlighted this scourge on south Indian society. While the fisherfolk communities were the hardest hit by the tsunami, they are also well-organized politically, and were often able to direct the flow of aid from non-governmental organizations. Entire communities of Dalits – “untouchables” – who provided aid to fishing communities -- ranging from carrying fish to the market to making the baskets in which the fish were put – were economically destroyed by the tsunami, but often received no assistance whatsoever. LAFTI, with its 70 workers – more than 90% of whom are Dalits – undertook a survey three weeks after the tsunami, and in a single day found 2,133 Dalit families, in some 33 villages, all of which were at least partially destroyed by the tsunami, but which had received no assistance whatsoever. LAFTI has now become the center for the distribution of food and medical relief to these Dalit communities.
LAFTI has launched a series of economic initiatives, from computer training, to sewing, to mat weaving to aid these poor communities to get an economic toe hold. Photographs are enclosed. Their work in land reform, which has already provided land for some 11,000 families who had been landless for more than 700 years, continues.
But what has now come to the fore is the need for solid houses, with real roofs. For centuries, the poorest of the poor have been living in low-lying areas, in mud and thatch huts. Vermin regularly destroy the roofs. During the monsoon season, the houses leak, and, often, the mud walls collapse. Children live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. And the mud huts themselves are a symbol of the degradation of Dalit communities.
It has been the dream of LAFTI and, especially, Amma, to see an end to the mud huts, replaced by houses, to be held in the name of women, that the villagers build themselves. LAFTI has already trained 100 Dalit masons and carpenters, this in an area where for many in the higher castes, having a Dalit even touch the wall of one’s house would have once been unthinkable. Krishnammal has investing in several cinderblock fabricating machines, and trained communities in brickmaking.
Now is the time. In January 2005, Amma called a meeting of leaders from 40 different villages, including several entirely destroyed by the tsunami, to launch her “Army of Compassion”. With some assistance from aid organizations and individuals in Italy, Japan, England, New Zealand, and the United States, the villagers are gathering together to make their own bricks and, over the next three months, to rebuild entire villages. This being the dry season where there is no agricultural work, and most of the rice fields having been destroyed in the floods, LAFTI is paying each worker, man or woman, a subsistence wage of $7 U.S. per month, plus food, so that the Army can move from village to village, ridding themselves of the mud huts. She has convinced the regional Oil and Natural Gas Board to donate electrical hookups. The Army will march until funds are exhausted – currently there are concrete plans for 703 houses, but they will continue working until their funds run out. Krishnammal says she plans to devote the rest of her life to the building of the needed 11,000 homes, and is hoping that her movement will grow from there.
The work of the Jagannathans is increasingly recognized internationally. The Women’s World Summit Foundation recently made a major award to Krishnammal Jagannathan, calling her “India’s Joan of Arc”. Their environmental struggles against multinational aquaculture interests have now received worldwide attention. Following a presentation by former Right Livelihood Award winner Dr. Vandana Shiva, who had just returned to Italy from a visit to LAFTI, the head of the international “Slow Food” movement Carlo Petrini announced his support of efforts to boycott the products of industrial prawn farming. School children in such diverse locations as Osaka and Kobe, Japan, Wales, and North Carolina have started “brick” funds, to raise funds for the new houses. Asian Indian communities in London, Hamburg Germany, and Murfeesboro, Tennessee are contributing to the efforts. Several Quaker communities in the United States have adopted LAFTI as part of their “Right Sharing of World Resources” programs. Interviews with Krishnammal Jagannathan have recently appeared on Rome and Swiss National TV.
The work of S. Jagannathan, Krishnammal Jagannathan, and LAFTI are the very epitome of what the principle of ‘right livelihood’ is all about – respect for other people and the natural world, being responsible for the consequences of our action, and taking only a fair share of the earth’s resources. For a total of more than 120 years, the work of the Jagannathan’s has entailed great personal sacrifice, arrayed as they are against both the traditional oppression of class and caste, the bureaucratic nature of governments, and a corrupt and corrupting system of world trade which has left devastation in its wake. Awarding the 2005 Right Livelihood Award to the Jagannathans and to LAFTI would truly elevate their struggles to a global stage, one on which they so justly belong.
* * * * *
I have enclosed sets of materials with this letter on LAFTI’s behalf: newspaper articles and photographs taken in the past three years, financial statements, and letters supporting their nomination, as well as another copy of the new book The Color of Freedom by Laura Coppo. Appendix B in the The Color of Freedom contains information regarding the work of the Environmental Justice Foundation in London, the leading organization in Europe working on the multinational aquaculture issue. In the United States, the leading organization in this effort is the Earth Island Institute – www.earthisland.org, and especially its Mangrove Action Project.
However, to our knowledge, there is no organization anywhere, and certainly not within India, that has so well integrated relief assistance, long-term self-help efforts, and the addressing of social injustice, global economic inequity, and environmental sustainability all at the same time. Former Right Livelihood Award winners Medha Patkar and Vandana Shiva, both of whom visited LAFTI this January, can attest to the unique nature of their work.
I myself have known the Jagannathans for almost 30 years, having first met Krishnammal Jagannathan at a United Nations-sponsored International Seminar on Training in Nonviolence, held in Gujarat, India in 1977. Over time, they have become like family to me, and the relationship is mutual. We have no ongoing financial relationship, though during the tsunami, my daughter and I did raise money on their behalf. Given my experience as a book publisher (I am the founder of New Society Publishers) and author, as well as my close relationship with the Jagannathans, I was invited by the author Laura Coppo to collaborate in bringing out an English edition of their oral biography.
As above, LAFTI would benefit greatly from a cash award, as well as the international recognition that would result from the Right Livelihood Award. LAFTI’s headquarters at Kuthur are now able to accommodate guests.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if there is any further information you require, or if I can answer any questions not sufficiently addressed in the enclosed material. Thank you for consideration.
David H. Albert