Saturday, August 05, 2006

Amazing Success! (almost....)

Today, I am about to play an important role in the continuing unfolding of the LAFTI story. Important in a way I have given up trying to figure out. Bhoomikumar (Amma and Appa’s son) describes it as being of the nature of an itinerant priest – I simply bless things, or bear witness to them, lend a further sense of legitimacy to proceedings, and maybe a little light entertainment to the mix when critical conversations or negotiations are at hand. Although I don’t fully understand my place in the drama, I have come to accept my own contribution with a sense of humility, and bit of humor to the mix.

Today we are to attempt to hand in the documents pertaining to the LAFTI land purchase scheme for 1,010 formerly landless laborers. Krishnammal booked me on a night train – I leave from Madurai, and meet her at the station near Gandhigram (where she had returned with the hostel children, and also to feel better about leaving Jagannathan behind.) Didn’t sleep well – sometimes there are only so many levels of sweat possible before it rises to a level of serious discomfort, and I think I have hit it.

When we arrive in Chennai, we have to await the arrival of Veerachami and the documents from Kuthur, so we are whisked off to the home of Krishnammal’s youngest sister. I have taken to calling them the “doctor’s clan” – the mother, two daughters and son are all doctors, and it has been made absolutely clear to all the grandchildren that they will be as well. One of the daughters is currently here with her family from North Carolina.

It being another auspicious day, there are special foods for breakfast of a kind I have never tasted before – a steamed rice cake stuffed with cashew and ginger paste. But the best part is a shower! One takes them when one can find them (there are none at Gandhigram, but I don’t miss them except when I am traveling.)

Word has come – Veerachami has arrived! We pile into the doctor’s Chevy Van (the driver is from Kuthur – LAFTI’s headquarters), drive through the giant pileup that is Chennai traffic (the town, except for a few places, is now mostly unrecognizable to me), and there is Veerachami by the side of the road! He sports a very handsome figure in his white khadi dhoti, seemingly no worse for wear having arrived on an unreserved second class train. He gives me an off-kilter salute, and we give each other a big hug.

So now to the first office – the Tamil State Development Cooperation (which is in charge of the financing of the whole scheme). We are ushered into the Secretary’s office, very posh by Indian standards, and chilly from the airconditioning. Behind the Secretary’s desk is a wall-papered waterfall, and there is a low hum of a recording of vedic chants that will accompany all our dealings with him during the day. My role first – I am introduced as Krishnammal’s son from abroad and her biographer and friend. I thank him for all the work he is doing for the landless, and that there are many of us abroad who are interested in this work, and that the work of LAFTI is a shining light in a world full of darkness. I sign a copy of “The Color of Freedom” (specially brought for this purpose), and he seems very pleased.

In come the cups of overly sweet coffee – this will be a three-cup day. And now it’s down to business. The documents will arrive soon. But Krishnammal wants two things besides the acceptance of the documents and the release of the funds to purchase the lands. First, one local official is insisting on a “stamp registration fee”, roughly 300 rupees ($7 U.S.) for each parcel to be registered. Krishnammal points out that when the industrialists come and purchase 100 acres for a polluting industrial plant, the fee is always waived, and besides, she has a document showing the LAFTI is exempt from such fees. (The issue, actually a little more subtle, is that it is not LAFTI but the landless laborers who are purchasing the land.) The first response, from an assistant secretary who has entered the room, is that adding 300 rupees to the existing loan isn’t so much. Krishnammal grows passionate (and she looks at me and I shake my head appropriately) that it is the principle of the thing, and that the government must extend to the landless Dalits the same rights and privileges that are being extended to the high-caste industrialists. She bangs on the table once, that if all the other government officials unite, this one official can be overcome. This conversation, by the way, is occurring half in Tamil and half in English, though not for my benefit, but I think to indicate what a fierce foe Krishnammal could be. Veerachami hands the Secretary a newspaper clipping proclaiming her the guardian of the landless poor.

That issue put aside (she says she return again and again til this obstacle is overcome, though I doubt it will be a sticking point), the conversation now turns to the development of the land itself. The land to be purchased needs to be plowed (four times, she says) before planting, manure and seed must be procured, there is a need for agricultural implements, amounting to 4,000 rupees ($90 U.S.) per parcel. Krishnammal clearly has a strategy here: she asks for a grant of the entire amount. The Secretary counters with an offer of half, and the other half as a low-income loan. She readily accepts. The meeting concludes with the Secretary suggesting that when this land transfer is completed she ask for land for 5,000 people. (More on that later.) We are to return at 2:00 p.m. with the documents.

Back in the van, Krishnammal says she has no intention of saddling the people with more debt, and that LAFTI will have to pay for it. It amounts to $40,000 or so – and I happen to know that LAFTI has nothing near that kind of money, as currently they are barely able to pay the staff. But I am not particularly surprised – that’s just the way she operates, and knows that somehow things have a way of working themselves out.

She gives me the lecture on land ownership I have heard repeatedly over the past 25 years, but it never gets old. God made the air, water, fire, sun, and earth as the shared legacy of human kind. The land is not made to be bought or sold any more than the other four (Amma is very well aware of the privatization of water resources, and the fact that there is currently an uproar in India over Coca-Cola and the finding that, besides destroying local water tables, there are very high levels of pesticide in it.) The land should be held by the tiller.

I congratulate Veerachami for, in addition to completing the paperwork, one of the three criminal charges against him, based on a sit-in he undertook against a prawn farm a decade ago, has finally been discharged.

Now we are in the offices of the state government, and the Secretary in charge of land distribution. Here we know we will receive a warm welcome, and we are. I am introduced, I thank him for carrying out the Chief Minister’s commitment to provide land to the landless, sign another copy of “The Color of Freedom”. Krishnammal launches into her impassioned plea against the stamp registration fee; she knows in advance that this man is on her side (even as his staff is aware of the legal subtlety being glossed over.) More coffee arrives.

“You must ask for land for 5,000,” says the Secretary, and one can tell he is serious. “The Chief Minister is coming to Nagapattinam on September 11th, and you can ask him then.” From what I can make out, he has in mind a rally to thank the Chief Minister, or a ceremony to mark the land handover, with a “request from the people”.

Krishnammal laughs and informs me that, on the previous day, a member of the Banking Department addressed a group of bankers and informed them that there is a Tamil woman saint working for the people, and they should take heed. Again, she says, if they help us get land, she doesn’t care what others call her.

And now I understand this dance a little better. The Chief Minister needs Amma as much or even more than she needs him. He promised two acres of land to the landless, but there is no way the government would ever be able to cope with the paperwork, “For me,” Krishnammal says, “the officials say the work will take two days; for others, two months, but if the work is too great, they say they will take ‘medical leave’.” She laughs.

We go the bus stand: two LAFTI workers have come on an all-night bus ride with the box of documents. We take pictures on the hot asphalt, everyone grinning, load the box into the van, and it is back to the Development Corporation Secretary. No one plans to eat until this is done.

Back to the office with the waterfall. There is a summary document, prepared exactly as directed in a printed pamphlet of the office. And then, in glassine envelopes, are the loan documents. Each of the 1,010 has a picture of the woman affixed on top, with her thumb print and attesting signature on each page. There are certificates of caste, residence, annual income, occupation, all bound together by pins. It looks monumental to see 1,010 of these all together in one place. Coffee arrives.

Now the Assistant Secretary decides that while the summary documents are prepared precisely as specified by the department, he wants two more columns, listing the recipients’ income and the amount of the loan. The Secretary suggests that LAFTI can add those in and e-mail them, but Krishnammal notes that the e-mail capacity in Kuthur is at best intermittent. “We will do it now, if it is needed,” she insists. The Secretary calls in two very, very unhappy government workers, and explains what they are to do.

A room, unbelievably hot and stuffy is provided for this purpose. There is a large desk, in front of which the two government workers plant themselves. They take a desultory look at the paper mountain – the look on their faces indicate they believe themselves to be the unhappiest people in the world. Veerachami sits next to them. Finally, Amma goes to the other side of the desk, sits down, and says, in English, “I am the school mistress; now it is time to work.”

She gives directions: two rulers are obtained, and two columns drawn on all the documents. All the government workers have to do is take dictation of the amount for each of the 2,020 spaces. The work begins – I can see we are to be here for a very long time, and I take one of the workers who has diabetes and his son down the stairs for lunch. (They won’t let me pay either.)

At 6 p.m., after four hours of this, we call it quits. It seems that there are certain documents for a few women that local officials didn’t sign, and there is an occasional missing one. This is not at all surprising, given the document mountain. But it is not acceptable: LAFTI can’t afford to have a single one turned down.

So, it is explained to the Secretary – he is still happy. The documents will return to LAFTI’s office and will be returned on Monday (today is Friday). Back go Veerachami and the two other workers with the great box on an unreserved train.

Somehow, an arrangement is made to get us on a 9:30 train back to Gandhigram. We arrive at Gandhigram at 5:00 a.m. At 5:05 a.m., Krishnammal is on the phone to LAFTI’s Kuthur office. Work has begun. She will be on a train there tomorrow morning, and expects all the documents checked and rechecked for her signature by the time she arrives. I am so bleary-eyed I can barely see, but for Amma it was simply all in a day’s (and night’s) work.

I get up from a nap. Krishnammal says, with a gleam in her eye, maybe 5,000 acres can be distributed in Dindigul District (this will require an entirely new LAFTI.)

“Nothing is impossible,” she says.


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