Renewal of Vows (K. Saedi)
RENEWAL OF VOWS
The first time I saw Krishnammal and Jagannathan (affectionately known as Amma and Appa) was 18 months ago, and soon I joined the army of their children! Now I was going back to see them again and just being with them (in the belief that by doing so, I will gain from their compassion and wisdom). I arrived in Chennai on 29th March and waited for a friend, Gina Albani, to arrive from Greece before we travelled to Vinoba Ashram in the village of Kuthur, where Amma and Appa reside. She had heard about the work of LAFTI and contacted me through a mutual friend, wishing to visit LAFTI operations.
Friday 1st April
Gina and I took an overnight train to Trichy on 1st April, and arrived in Kuthur the next day after having visited the Shiva cave temples in Rock Fort.
Saturday 2nd April
Amma was there to welcome us and it was an overwhelming feeling to see her again. I thought she looked younger! She understood why and explained that after a lull in the land distribution, it had now started again and was going ahead in earnest. She worked with renewed energy and could not rest. She told us that she had attended a meeting with the local bank managers, arranged by the District Collector the previous week. He had recommended that loans be given to Amma for land purchases because of her good credit record (having paid off 95% of the previous loan).
Afterwards, I met with Benoir, CESVI’s Project Coordinator. CESVI, an Italian-based NGO, has been running a project from Vinoba Ashram for the past three years. It supports some of LAFTI’s operations: Vocational Training; Training Camps; and Micro-Credit. The project is financed by the European Union (75%) and CESVI (25%), and has just been extended for another six months through September 2005. For LAFTI’s Land Purchase and Housing Construction, Amma seeks financial support from the government, other NGOs and LAFTI supporters both in India and abroad.
In the afternoon, Amma took us to LAFTI’s brick factory in Kohur where there was a great deal of activity. The families including children lived in temporary dwellings and worked together to produce bricks: channelling the piped water, mixing sand and water, setting, drying, baking and finally storing the bricks ready to be used for building their own houses within the LAFTI’s housing programme. Only the workers with skill in mixing the right proportion of sand and water and setting the bricks are paid a daily wage of 200 rupees. This higher-than-usual wage has caused some resentment amongst the voluntary workers but Amma argues that this leads to increased productivity, and of course the work is very temporary. She is planning to pay in cows, goats, and hens as well as cash so that they will not immediately spend their money on non-essential items such as gold earrings.
Sunday 3rd April
At 5 a.m., Amma travelled to Gandhigram to meet the Finance Minister who was visiting the area on a pre-election campaign. Gina and I went to the coastal area to visit two villages (Akkarapettai and Kichankuppam) hit by the tsunami. and the pilgrims’ town of Velankanni. 4,500 people had reportedly perished in the tsunami. There was little damage to the concrete houses near the coast but all the boats had been smashed into each other and washed inland; one large boat was sitting on the roof of a house! The fishermen were repairing and painting the smaller boats, and the villagers were getting ready to return to the sea, after government permission was granted.
In the afternoon we visited the girls’ hostel at Valivallam. As usual, the girls welcomed us with their songs and dance. There was exchange of presents, and we had supper with them. On our return, we met Amma. She was very tired as she had gone to bed at 1 a.m. that day and got up at 3 a.m. to travel back to Kuthur. She had had a successful meeting with the Minister, letting him know about LAFTI’s efforts in obtaining land for the Dalits to cultivate and build their own houses. She told him that “by land purchasing alone, you can break the centuries of bonded labor that held the people in bondage to their landlords”. The Minister had undertaken to direct the Central Bank to pay the loans. The order from the Central Government was needed for the bank’s continued cooperation.